Hank Wilson spun the wheels of the old black Buick and left a dust storm in his wake as he veered right at the stop sign near St-Anthony’s cemetery and parked his car on the side of First Concession road near the old covered bridge at Hinchenbrooke. It was one of the last covered bridges in the County and there had been some talk about closing it down to traffic or perhaps making it a historical site as it was the second oldest covered bridge in Canada, built a year or so after the Victoria bridge in nearby Montreal. It had once joined the municipalities of Hinchenbrooke and Elgin allowing for the movement by horse drawn carriage between these two small communities over the river but these days, other than the dozen or so cars that still used the back roads to cross the river, it was mostly a hangout for local teens to smoke dope and drink beer and its wooden walls were painted with colourful tags and graffitti. According to the local historians, Percy Bridge had been erected in 1861 and was the only known surviving sample in the world of the McCallum inflexible arched truss, invented and patented by Daniel McCallum, a renowned New York bridge builder.
There was an old and weatherbeaten «No Tresspassing» sign nailed ominously to a telegraph post that had transmitted its last message sometimes after the last Great War when much of the land became private. The once bold black lettering had faded so much from the natural elements that the only thing legible was N Tr ss ing and for those like Hank who believed that it was a man’s given right to have access to the the land, it served only as a constant reminder that more and more of the best hunting and fishing areas were being posted by private clubs and access was denied to the average sportsman.
Hank slowly lifted his aged body out of the cracked naugahyde seat and shuffled around to the trunk for his gear. He was excited, anxious to see his old friend, the river whose source originated somewhere deep in the pristine Adirondack mountains of upper New York State.He sat on the edge of the chrome bumper and struggled to fit his chest waders over a bent and arthritic frame shaped by a lifetime of hard work in the forest. Of all the gear needed for fishing he despised wearing the rubber waders that made him and everbody else that wore them trip and stumble when walking through the tall grass at the river’s edge.
It was still early in the morning an the sun was just rising above the tall pine trees on the eastern ridge of what was once called the ole Mule trail, so named because during the Prohibition years, U.S. smugglers used mules to transport great wooden distilling barrels full of Canadian Whisky along this route for distribution to the private speakeasys that formed the underbelly of New York. It had a certain notoriety, with its own history and shady characters, and it was even rumored that Joseph Kennedy, the paterfamilias of the iconic American political family, had himself once trod upon its muddy path towards the realization of his American dream. The property on the south side of the river was owned by The Boy Scout’s of Canada which ran a summer camp for disadvantaged children from the inner city. In the Autumn there was some pretty good deer hunting if you were a member of the Elgin Hunting & Fishing Club and had legal access to the land.
In Hinchenbrooke County however, what exactly constituted legal access to the river or fields seemed always open to wide interpretation. Over the years the County courts had made several contradictory rulings that had left the issue in perpetual stalemate, at times favoring the landowners and at other times favoring the general public. As an issue of paramount local importance, the jusiprusdence on the matter, dating back to the early eighteenth century, ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. One nefarious judge, long since retired from the bench, had once ruled that while the riverbanks were indeed private property, the riverbed itself was in the public domain and thus the only legal access by a non- landowner would be by means of lowering oneself down into the water by a rope to be hanging fortwith and at public expense, from the inflexible arched truss of Percy Bridge. This ruling caused an outcry in the community and the judges cavalier interpretation of the law was soon overturned in favor of a ruling based on an old British Treaty which had granted the Iroquois a covenant on the trail which led down to the river near the rapids.
Since Hank had friends with properties along the river it was rare that he used the old trail, as it was a mile long walk upstream through the tall grass and over slippery rocks to reach the better pools. His friend Arthur, a retired government dairy inspector whose father had homesteaded the area a century earlier, lived on the broken dam pool which was one of the better pools on the river and had once yielded a fourteen pound rainbow trout. He was an excellent fly fisherman as well, tied his own flies from observations he made on the river, and kept a meticulously detailed stream journal for every outing he had made for the last forty years. They had met on the river and had developed a close friendship that can only be borne of a common passion. Many a night, after fishing the evening hatch, they would retire to the stone farmhouse on the hill and sit by the fireplace with a stiff drink and talk fishing until the early morning hours. And so it was for many years until Arthur got the consumption, as it was called back then, and slipped away the following Spring during a particularly heavy mayfly hatch that lasted for weeks and brought the biggest trout to the surface.
But he decided to fish downstream and he rolled a cigarette before walking through the cattails and bulrushes that adorned the shoreline. After his first stroke his doctor had advised him to quit the habit but after surviving the horrors of Dieppe he felt that a cigarette would be the last thing to claim his life. Besides, his old age had become a curse as all those he had loved in his life had passed on, and other than the river and cheap beer and talk of glory days at the Legion with other veterans who had also outlived their purposes, he had no reason to continue living. The air was cool and crisp, redolent with the smell of recent rainfall and the resinous pine trees that loomed like solitary sentries on guard over the river. A cacaphonous flock of migratory geese flew overhead in a v-formation with a primal sense of urgency, intent on reaching the rich marshlands of the Kamouraska region where they would soon be mating and roosting in the talls grass. It had rained a few days earlier and the river was still high and murky, off-coloured and difficult to fish with a dry fly as there would be no hatches until the water levels dropped and the river cleared. As he trudged up the shoreline, his thick fingers rifled through the pocket of his vest and he breathed a heavy sigh of relief when they groped the familiar plastic fly box which held the nymphs Arthur had tied for him a few years earlier.
Finally arriving at the dam, he stopped to rest on a broken slab of concrete and with great care began rigging his rod, tying on a brown and gold beaded mylar nymph and adding a few small split shot to ensure that it bounced along the bottom where the trout would be waiting. He imagined how the nymph would drift naturally in the current, spiralling in and out of the dark eddies and riffles, exploring the mysterious topography of the riverbed, as it sought to find purpose in the corner of a trout’s mouth. Water splashed about his legs as he slowly shuffled into the security of its gunmetal flow, which in certain places, was fast and furious, as if impatient to arrive at its original source. Hank worked his line out towards the opposite shoreline, in a seam between fast and slack water, slowly mending his line until it had circled out and straightened in the tail section of the pool. At the end of the drift he felt a familiar tapping and he responded instinctively by raising the rod tip and setting the hook.
The Granger suddenly bent into a deep arc animated by the invisible life at the other end of the line. The surprised fish took a quick run downstream and then settled into the deep current where it sulked as it contemplated its fate. It soon tired and Hank slowly gathered his line back onto the reel until a brown trout, golden hued with bright red and lavender flecks, as brilliant as a sunset, lay exhausted at his feet. He killed it quickly and slipped its lifeless body through the rectangular slot built into the top of his wicker creel. He knew that there were more fish in the pool that could be caught but he waded further downstream, searching for the one fish that he knew inhabited the water that he had come to know so well over the course of a lifetime.
There was a certain section of the river, near the Hitchenbrooke fish hatchery, where they had always caught the biggest trout until one year, after a hard winter and heavy runoff had eroded a steep tree lined embankment which caved in and filled out the deep hole, forever displacing the big trout. The felled pine trees laid stretched out across the pebbly riverbed like fallen soldiers and the big fish disappeared as though they had never been there in the first place. Every now and again he would catch a small fish hiding amidst the brambles of the washed out roots but it was seldom and rarely worth the trouble as every few casts he would get hung up on branches and have to sacrifice a good fly.
But it was a day for second chances and Hank decided to give it another shot for old times sake. When he reached the pool, he noticed a hatchery worker in the yard with a small child that tossed feed pellets to fish in small ponds that dotted the yard like large rain puddles. The pond boiled over with fish and Hank could hear the trout splashing about each time a handful pellets hit the water. Nets had been laid across the ponds like great spiderwebs to protect the fish from the raptors that always circled on patrol in the sky above the hatchery.
Hank positioned himself above the first tree and began to work his nymph out into the current. The run was shallow, riffles over a rocky bed, and he could feel the nymph ticking its way across the bottom. His thoughts wandered randomly, as they often did when he was on the water alone, until the strike of a large trout was quick to focus his attention. His pulse quickened as he felt the heavy weight struggling at the end of his line. There was a slight pause after the initial hit and for a second he thought he might be snagged until it slowly began to swim upstream. His eyes followed the sharp angle of the line where it intersected the water and he caught a brief glimpse of a golden underbelly in the current. Sensing the pressure of the rod, the big fish rose obligingly to the surface to meet his adversary, exposing his full splendour before he turned with a great splash of his wide tail and headed downstream towards the impending disaster of deadfalls that cluttered the riverbed.
Hank pulled back on the rod and managed to turn the fish just in time to avert certain catastrophe. It swam back upstream on its own volition, wallowing and splashing in the rocky shallows on the far side of the river before regaining composure and swimming back into the security of the deep water in the middle channel. The hook had been firmly set and the fish gradually showed signs of fatigue, evidenced by it’s shorter and less frequent runs and it was just around dusk when the fish lay spent at his feet. He cradled it gently in the palm of his hand and felt its massive life strength running through his entire body, rejuvenating him like a magic tonic that made all his aches and pains disappear, if only for a few moments. It was so big that the colorful and bright red flecks of youth had faded into large tan spots that were the size of a coin. A large abrased kype, the sign of a male trouts virility, protruded grotesquely as it gasped for air. They had much in common, these two warriors of the river that had beaten the odds and survived, both nearing the end of their long and hard lives.
For several minutes he remained kneeling on the grassy shoreline, listening to the sounds of the darkening forest that gathered around him and to the familiar refrain of the river, searching his deepest thoughts before he finally bent forward and gave the fish back to the river. Feeling satisfied he stood up in the tall grass with his hands resting upon his waist and raised his tired steel blue eyes across the river. On a faraway ridge, the silhouette of a white-tailed deer stood in lonely relief against the horizon before it gracefully turned and bounded off into the unknown darkness of the forest. It had been a good day, one of the finest, and he whistled an old tune that he had once heard as he took the trail that led towards the covered bridge