Monday, November 21, 2005

Hooked in the Heart

I am unreeling a memory of a week in May, several years ago...

From my travel journal, which netted fragments of days spent in rain gear and canoes to my lodging in a shabby hotel in the back of an industrial park, a memory is cast back to me. A boyfriend, a dour fellow named Wilson, convinced me to spend a week salmon fishing on the Matapedia River in Quebec, Canada. The memory hooks me in the heart.

I started out at the Restigouche Outfitters, a rather fancy moniker for a grubby hotel smelling of stale smoke, old men, and mold. The d├ęcor of the rooms was late garage sale/early Halloween period, but the bathroom was gleamingly clean and charming. It was a bright porcelain surprise in the dreary, dumpy accommodations. The old-fashioned, chubby X-shaped faucets were labeled “Chaud” and “Froid,” which amused me to no end. Chaud, I discovered, was truly scalding. I meant merely to wash my hands, but instead parboiled them. Froid was chilly, but not quite enough to soothe the damage wreaked by chaud. The water itself, whether hot or cold, was heavily mineral-laden and smelled of dark, secret places. Literally caught red-handed, I went to spend the first of my days on the Matapedia River.

Canoes were the transport of choice on the Matapedia. My curmudgeonly guide, named Laurence, had a handcrafted wooden canoe, painted forest green on the outside and varnished a beautiful, honey color inside. Canoeing gave me a chance to be close to the water in a way that, even growing up in a river town, I had never before experienced.

There was no pollution; the air on the river was vodka clear. Inhaling was like throwing back a shotglass of alcohol, the cold biting and burning down the throat, eye-watering and astonishing. Numerous birch trees, like white hairs, poked up the sides of the river valley, making the mountainsides look as if they had taken a fright. There was the bright green-yellow of new growth dabbed amongst the stern grey palette of winter’s end; a brushstroke of spring, stalled by a sudden cold snap, whose arrival to the Matapedia coincided with mine.

The riverbanks were a plump grandmother’s lap – wide, gentle, and soft. The rivershore was a stony, rock-pocked cuticle. The endless variety of river stones fascinated me. I found a stone with a perfect oval hole worn through it, another which looked like a baby’s fist, and one striated in black and white, like a bit of ossified zebra. I went about with pockets packed full of granite and quartz – woe to me should I fall out of the canoe. Despite this, the heft and thud of the stony enclave secreted in my garments was oddly reassuring.

Most of all, I was amazed by the Matapedia River itself. The river was wide and deep, with intermittent pockets of black water, black as an eye’s pupil. Looking at that unreadable, shifting surface, I felt a vague unease, as if being carefully watched by something powerful and hidden. In places, the river grew shallow and my inverted vista went right to the bottom, where fusilform shadows flitted by, mostly solitary, but some in loose floating formation, like bombs falling through a green, watery sky. These shadows were the salmon coming upriver.

When fly-fishing for salmon, an angler usually uses a two-handed rod. Said rod is not the dainty whip-like implement one normally associates with fly-fishing. My rod, albeit scaled down to accommodate my smaller build, was fourteen feet long, making me look more like a pole-vaulter than an angler.

When you hook a salmon, there is no yank on the line. The rod just sort of bends down, like tree branches after an ice storm. I caught one salmon my entire weeklong trip. It was a beautiful female fish, colored a winking, wedding band silver, fourteen pounds of pure, sexslippery muscle and lovely in the way that only wild things are. And I killed it.

I did not know I had a fish. I thought I had snagged the river bottom, so I said nothing. Wilson suddenly noticed and exclaimed, “You have a fish!”

“It was an accident!” I wailed. I had been fervently hoping I would not catch any fish during the trip. Not out of fear, but out of a growing belief that it was cruel, despite my practice of catch and release and use of barbless hooks.

I had a fish. Laurence angled the canoe to shore, to allow him to land “my” fish, by scooping it up in a big net. The salmon was a slickly beating heart in a strung ribcage of net. There was a halo around her as she lay in the shallow water. Silt? Scales? My heart stopped. It was blood misting out from the crescent moon gills.

The hook was buried deeply inside the salmon. Gently holding the fish, Wilson pried the hook out with a horrid, squelching sound. The she-salmon tried bolting downstream. Too tired and injured to swim, she suddenly stopped, rolled onto her side and floated nervelessly, the river current sweeping her away.

Laurence, in his odd Quebecois accent, stated “Oh, she’s gonna die.” – the most he ever said during the entire trip. Wilson managed to grab the fish and gently pulled it through the water. After about fifteen minutes, the poor, abused thing weakly swam off.
I knew the fish would not live. I was done fishing. I could not have fished even if I had wanted to do so; something had been yanked from me, leaving me shaken, weak, unable to stand.

Back at the hotel, I retreated to the bathroom. I turned “Chaud” and “Froid” on full-blast, propped myself up against the white tiled walls of the quaint bathroom, pulled a towel off the rack and buried my face in the threadbare terrycloth. I cried until my eyes were as dry as a salmon’s hell. I broke up with Wilson shortly thereafter and have not fished since.

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