“Charlie! This damn beer has a bear on the can. You know I only drink the ones with the fish on it.” The weathered man waved the can in the air and added as an afterthought to no one in particular. “I’m a fisherman dammit.”
Charlie came down the length of the bar. “What am I supposed to so with this one, Ned?”
“Give it to some hunter. I’m a fisherman. Those ones with the fish on them, they just taste better.”
“You’re like David Lee Roth with the brown M&Ms, ‘Cept you’re no rock star.”
“Maybe not, but I’m the best damn fisherman that ever was, after my pa and his pa.” He spit when he talked and either didn’t notice or just didn’t care.
A slim dark man arose from a booth in the back and walked up next to Charlie at the bar. “Too damn bad all of the fish are gone.”
“You’re not whining about them steelhead are you?”
The dark man looked down and flicked spittle off of his charcoal jacket. “It’s just a shame, that’s all, I remember when you could walk across the river on them.”
“Don’t bullshit me. Even my father never saw that.”
“I’m a bit older than I look.”
“Ah, that Grecian formula shit,” Ned nodded wisely.
“Judeo-Christian, actually,” countered the dark man, holding up a finger for refill.
“What?” Ned’s eyes narrowed.
The dark man turned a dazzling smile on him, “Oh, sorry, same idea, supposed to be improved.”
“How come I’ve never seen you here before?” Ned’s face lightened as he felt the twinges of cleverness.
“I’m always here. Every night. Cheers to the fish,” and he hoisted his glass to Ned.
Ned’s eyes were glazing back over but he tilted his can. “I caught the last one in 2010. Tasted damn good too. Somebody had to do it.” He barked a laugh like a man who knows others don’t think he’s funny but doesn’t care.
The dark man smiled his smile. “Oh, I’m afraid not. No. I saw the last one caught in, must’ve been 2017.”
Ned did the dangerous eye thing again. “What you talking about? I caught that last fish. Everybody knows it.” He jerked his thumb at a picture behind the bar. “Me, Ned Raeder.”
The dark man stared off into the past. “I own a little piece land, river flows right through it. Most of the time I keep people off of it, but there was this one young man who used to sneak up and fish it. He never knew I was watching, but I appreciate a master, and he was a beauty to watch.” He looked at Ned and Charlie who was leaning on his meaty forearms across the bar. “Even after the fish were gone he used to come and cast once every year, like a ritual. It was beautiful to watch and I would wait for him. One day, he saw me and tipped his hat, right then this chrome hen hit his dry fly and bent that rod right in two. Took him to the backing, I bet he fought that fish half an hour. When he finally landed her she was beautiful, twenty-five pounds at least. He just reached down and let her go, then he looked at me and I saw his tears before he turned and walked away. That was the last I ever saw him.” He took a sip of his drink.
“Twenty-five pounds, bullshit. I used to take them twenty a day and never saw no fish that big. Course if I did,” he winked at Charlie, “I wouldn’t cry like no baby fly fisherman.”
The dark man continued, undeterred. “Maybe you should have. There was purity in that boy and magic in his tears, because there have been steelhead in that river ever since.”
Charlie snorted and turned away to wipe some glasses, chagrined at being taken in. Ned threw back his head and slapped the dark man across the shoulders. “That was a whopper! Man alive, I’ve been accused of telling some fish stories but that was a whopper. Jesus H. Christ and the fish, part two!”
“That’s too bad, because as I said, I’m a connoisseur, not of fishing per se, but of fishing masters. I would sure like to compare your technique to the lad’s.”
“What are you saying? You saying to come over and fish in your river? You some kind of fruit?”
The dark man held up his hands. “Not at all. I was just making an offer. I get to see the world’s supposed,” he stressed the word just the slightest, “‘greatest fisherman,’ and you get to catch the world’s last wild steelhead – again.”
Ned was looking more sober by the minute, his eyes glinting with the greed a grafter reserves for his mark. “What’s the catch?”
“None per se, just some conditions.”
Ned gave a “here-we-go” snort, but the dark man merely started ticking points off on his fingers. “One, you need a license.”
“I never paid for any damn license. Dad neither. Those were our fish. Nobody in my family ever had a license, but we always had fish on the table. We’ve been here since before there was roads.”
The dark may was undeterred. “Two, you must let whatever you catch go.”
Ned rolled his eyes.
“Three, you must always go with me. There can be no poaching on my property.”
“That’s it, huh? That’s all I got to do? What if I don’t catch a fish?”
“If we don’t see a fish, I will pay for your license. If we do see them, as long as you follow the rules, you can fish for them all you want. And if you can catch them, you will always be the last person to catch a wild steelhead.”
With a hoot, Ned extended his hand. “Of course,” the dark man said looking at the hand but not reaching for it, “I will need a little assurance from you that you will obey the rules.”
“Here it comes,” Ned’s elbow slid a little along the bar as he steadied himself. “What do you want?”
“How about your first born son if you fail to follow the rules?” The dark man smiled.
“You are one funny man! I thought you were serious! If you got twenty-five pound fish, you can have my first and last born son, but I get to still fish as much as I like.”
“Oh, I promise you more fishing than you can stand,” and they shook.
The next day, Ned waited by the train trestle, just as he and the dark man had arranged. It was later than Ned liked to start a day of good fishing, but he had to get that damn license. He just wanted to be back in town before the story got around so that he could counter it with a fish.
The dark man showed up looking a little like a vintage catalog fisherman with leather-fronted bush knickers, canvas rucksack, plaid wool shirt and deerstalker cap. He gave the license the briefest glance and they set off. That set Ned’s teeth on edge, but he’d lived here his whole life, so his plan was just to find this “secret spot” and come back at his leisure. He’d be more than a little surprised if there was actually a piece of water he hadn’t been on, so he still expected some ruse.
There was fog lying along the bank as they stepped off the trail into the bushes. In only moments the sound of the river disappeared as they traveled through some old growth. That gave Ned a little start right there: he would’ve bet no old growth stood within a day’s drive. Eventually the sun came out and it started getting hot, but the dark man never slowed or looked back for Ned and he was winded keeping up.
Only his inability to determine where he was kept Ned from calling the dark man’s bluff. The sun was well up and the fog was gone when the gentle fold they were following began to narrow and deepen as the trees intertwined over them. Soon it was a scramble and Ned could hear the river again. The path entered a canyon, walls coming up on either side and so twisted that they blocked the sky. Ned was busy looking up and trying to get his bearings when suddenly, the canyon opened up. He scrambled up to a chest-high ledge and in front of him was a beach with perfect holding water and the longest seam he’d ever seen.
“Where are we? I’ve been up and down this river one thousand times, and I’ve never been here.”
The dark man skipped a stone upstream of them. “This is my little secret, Ned. Part of the Skykomish runs underground for a while and comes up here, on my land. Then like magic, it goes back under again.” He flashed his dark smile. “That’s why you’re only the second person to ever fish it.”
Ned barely heard the last part, because a big chrome steelie had rolled just behind the dark man. Instantly he began rigging his gear and threading on a sand shrimp with shaking fingers. His first cast produced a huge buck. The dark man was there instantly as he brought it in, tailing it for him and making sure he let it go. Ned gave him a sour look, but put on new bait and cast again. Almost every cast was like that and he was soon out of bait.
He and the dark man sat on the bank. “I’ll be damned.” Ned extended his hand. “Not only do you have steelhead, this is epic. There was never steelhead fishing like this I my life time.”
“And you, sir are a true master of the art. Of course,” the dark man continued, “it’s pretty hard to compare you to that young man, as he was fishing flies.”
Ned snorted, “Fly-fishing is simply a self handicapped way of putting meat on the table. It’s a purposefully inefficient way of fishing. Only rich men and fools have time for that.”
“Well, now that meat is not the issue, why not put a little challenge in it? From his knapsack the dark man pulled out a six piece seven weight and a box of flies.
Ned’s eyes lit up when he saw them, and the dark man creased his brow . “I’ll tell you what, I haven’t used one of these in a long time, and it’s getting late, why don’t you give me a day or two to practice and then we’ll come back out here and I’ll give you another real show?
“Sounds good.” The dark man stood up and started off without another word. This time Ned purposely let him get a little farther ahead. Once they were out of the canyon, he used the flies to carefully mark the trail. As always, the trip out seemed shorter than the trip in. Soon they were back at the trestle. The dark man turned to Ned.
“If you ever want to go fishing, just put a chalk mark here on the trestle the night before, and I’ll meet you here in the morning.”
“Will do, thanks again. I’ll make a mark after I’ve practiced up.” Lofting the rod and beaming, Ned turned away.
Daniel’s mother sent him to collect his father at the bar, as she often did. He wasn’t allowed in the bar proper, so he usually just stood in the door until he could get Chuck’s attention .
“I’m telling you, there are still steelhead, I’ve been catching them all day.”
“Yeah, I’ll believe that when I see it.” The burly man talking to Ned elbowed the man next to him. “Better be, after you bought a license and all. How come you didn’t bring any for dinner?” They both guffawed while Ned gritted his teeth.
“Be here tomorrow, bring your napkin, because while I’m having metalhead, you’ll be eating crow.” He got up and snatched his coat.
His companion wiped his mouth, “Well, I’m sure there will be crow on the menu, one way or the other.”
Daniel slipped outside as his dad stormed out, the two men laughing anew.
The next day Ned snuck out early, but Daniel was close behind. His father looked around carefully before he left the trail under the bridge, but in the near-dark, it was easy for Daniel to hide. Ned used a flashlight to follow his trail, making it easy for Daniel to keep up. Not knowing his father had the trail marked, he pulled out his knife and marked his own trail on the tree trunks.
This time it seemed faster still to get there, and Daniel watched from the canyon’s shadows as his father pulled in massive steelhead after steelhead. He started working up the seam and was soon out of sight. The sun was up and Daniel decided to head back.
Ned caught fish after fish. Steelhead don’t exactly fit in a creel, and he knew he couldn’t carry them all back, so for the first time in his life he willingly let a few go. He wanted to bring home one of those twenty-five pounders and have it served whole to him at the bar. He’d see who was going to eat crow. Despite the difficult access to the river, the walking along the river was easy and he was soon well downstream of the entrance. The day wore on, and he the fish were averaging eighteen pounds, but he just couldn’t get that huge fish he wanted. It was one of those overcast days where the light never seemed to change. Ned checked his watch at 3. He finally decided to keep a twenty pounder and call it a day. He walked back up the river, fishing as he went – you never know. He was sure he couldn’t have missed the entrance but nothing looked familiar. Finally he stowed the rod and walked on for a bit. When he was sure he missed it, he headed back down stream. He was wishing he paid more attention to the surroundings, but hell, how do you miss a canyon?
By 7, he was getting a little tired. He’d taken to building little cairns at either end of his traverses to check his progress. At nine, he was an hour past his most upstream marker when he came upon his downstream one. This was crazy! He sat down to think about it and was wishing he’d brought some food. It would be getting dark soon, so he’d better prepare for the night. With no matches, he had to eat the fish raw. Strange, he thought, it was still light even though his watch said 10, when he finally rolled over to sleep.
Ned didn’t come home that night, and Daniel didn’t find him when his mom sent him to the bar. It wasn’t typical, but it was the first time either. Still it gave him an excuse to go to the river looking for him. Daniel got up early, packed a lunch of leftover meatloaf sandwiches, left a note for his mom and took off. He left the trail and ducked into the woods just at dawn. His hash marks were still fresh so they were pretty easy to see, even in the pearlescent morning light. Pretty soon, he was even spotting the flies his dad used to mark the way. He laughed to himself when he saw that: no way his father got lost if he marked the trail this well, he was probably sleeping off a good drunk somewhere, meaning Daniel would have the river to himself.
When he got to the ledge, he put his rod on top and grabbed it with both hands to pull himself up. He gave a start when the dark man reached down and grabbed his wrists, pulling him up effortlessly.
“Daniel?” The youth looked up at him, wide-eyed. He could just swallow in answer. “Good, good,” the dark man put his arm around Daniel’s shoulders in a friendly way. “You can call me Warden. I believe your father is expecting you.”
Author’s afterward: Traditionally, stories about the devil are about the devil leading good people into temptation and their narrow escapes, usually based on outwitting the devil in some way. But what if we turn that around: What if the devil isn’t inherently evil, but rather a kind of bounty hunter who tracks errant souls and gives them one last chance at repentance? What if his goal is just to take those who are really beyond redemption? That’s what I was thinking the last night on the Cedar River before the season closed where I put this story together.