Early on, in the first years of the unfolding 1980’s, when my world was simple and plain and lean, I recall walking up on this older guy at the edge of the creek using corn as bait. It was opening day of the trout season in Pennsylvania. Back then that was a big day. For me, for a lot of kids. And for a lot of adults too, mostly men. There were some women who fished it/ in their thigh high rubber hip boots and camo ball caps over a their puff of hair sticking out/ no makeup/ but mostly it was men. Fathers and sons. Lone wolves. Half drunk guys and straight arrows all crowded in next to each other on a muddy, slick bank trying to catch hatchery trout raised on pellet food by the state in concrete troughs as long as a football field.
Grizzled vets fished the same deep hole under still frog water every year. I don’t even know if they ever left. Maybe they just lived there at that warm water creek where trout could only survive for a month or so, or until someone fooled them with a ripped-in-half 7-11 nightcrawler chunk or a mini-marshmallow and they ended up dead. Which was the sole reason, according to man’s master plan, that these luckless fish had ever been born in the first place.
This guy I walked up on was smoking a cigarette and he had a little fire going because it was cold. The open fire was a novelty for me. No one had open fires where I lived in the Philly suburbs. You weren’t allowed. Generations of families had come and gone without ever standing together around a bunch of burning brush. The acrid power of last night’s campfire in your hair the next morning: that only existed for a select few of the people I grew up around; my people, if you will. My people went trout fishing on opening day and maybe deer hunting at a camp in the Poconos or up north in Potter County. There and only there then, could they bathe their pale white flab in the ancient fire smoke like the Native Americans and the pioneers had once done. But other than that, we never stared into the depths of any little fires for warmth or for anything really.
Except on the rarest exception of days. Like this one. Like this opening day of the 1979 trout season or whatever year it was.
He had a metal stringer tied to a stick that he had stuck in the half-frozen dirt, this fellow did. A stringer in the water was a beckoning call/ a lighthouse for curious kids like me who wandered the crowded banks shivering sweaty under all my layers, back deep in my Kmart insulated underwear. The stringer was a cheap metal chain and every few inches there was a small metal locking hook, usually 8 or 10 hooks in all. The hooks were for fish. For trout. Once caught, the hook was unlocked with a simple pinch of the fingers, the metal clasp run through the opening of one side of the gills of the fish, and then re-clamped so that the fish was unable to escape. Then, the stringer was placed in the water so the fish could survive/ stay fresh/ understand that the jig was finally up.
Some fishermen wore their stringers on their belts like cowboy pistols. Inching along the side of the stream, the best fisherman would jangle their stringers like bells as they walked bowlegged in their waders by other fishermen looking on with envy.
Fishing began at 8am sharp. If you cast your line even a second before that opening day time, other fishermen would cave your skull in with their glass jars of salmon eggs and cans of Pabst and rocks they found laying there in the brush beside a windblown empty bag of bbq chips that had been long lost until today.
A man with a stringer of 6 or 7 trout could walk along the stream in front of other men in the same exact light that he would walk in if he had unzipped his pants and was strolling, nonchalantly, down through these crowded woods with a wild horse’s giant pecker swinging to and fro.
Envy and jealousy would seethe off of so many. Others had murder in their eyes, a hatred born down in the hollow center of the Earth and driven to the surface by the timeless call of humanity yearning to outdo one another. There was much to be afraid of should you dare to move about with a clinky stringer that held only one or two small trout. That would be the exact equivalent of you showing the world that you had a micro peen. Like a child. Unless you were, in fact, a child, in which case other men were less judgmental, and sometimes even complimentary of your sad, wee haul.
I rarely had any trout. Trout, for some reason I have never been quite able to figure out, despise me. For all their legend and aura, for all of their highbrow upscale Orvis douchey reputation in this life, trout were out of my league. And still seem to be too, if I’m being straight with you. Wild trout are wary and mad at the world, they seem gifted with the ability to fuck with me even when I’m still at home in my bed simply dreaming about catching them. Even then: I don’t get any. I fish and I fish and I mimic the Outdoor Life articles and the Field & Stream photos but it never mattered. It never matters. I can look the part, which is quite important in trout fishing circles these days. If you at least look the part: outfitted in a lot of expensive gear from the best lifestyle-ish companies, then you might get invited for a microbrew and told some secrets about how to catch those slippery little SOB’s. But once the catchers realize that you are cursed, like me, and that your love of trout simply can’t ever add up to you setting the hook on one, then they cut you loose with the quickness, ke-mo sah-bee.
So this dude with his three rainbow trout on a stringer on this brisk opening day many moons ago, he attracted my attention. My respect. My curiosity. I loved to talk about fishing. I loved to flip around through my fishing gear and rearrange all my little lures and my hooks and my tiny split shot weights as if they were some kind of outstanding collection I had inherited from a grandfather who once dabbled in epic greatness.
To read the rest of this essay and more from Serge Bielanko, subscribe to his Substack feed HERE.
• • •
Serge Bielanko lives in small-town Pennsylvania with an amazing wife who’s out of his league and a passel of exceptional kids who still love him even when he’s a lot. Every week, he shares his thoughts on life, relationships, parenting, baseball, music, mental health, the Civil War and whatever else is rattlling around his noggin.