Nikea and I will be married at the pond in June. It’s really an old reservoir. A dam of cut stone laid across a small brook-trout stream that flows east off the Allegheny Front. The dam is old, circa 1923. The stones are older.
During the past two decades, brown trout have moved upstream from the big river in the valley. Above the pond, natives are the only trout that rise to our flies, but below the dam, German and Scottish browns often beat the brookies to our floats. Dad and I keep the browns we can, frying them in butter and dill. Trying to buy the brookies more time.
Browns made it into the pond seven or eight years ago. In the clear water and open space, the fish are skittish.
Dad and I have seen the big brown for six years, hovering by the dam, chasing brookies in the shallows, rolling in the silt after one of our yearly baptismal plunges. But two long winters left us thinking he’d sunk to the bottom like everything in the pond eventually will.
On Memorial Day weekend, the fishing was slow, and I wanted to go home. Nikea had traveled back East from Montana for the weekend, and I didn’t want her to be bored on one of the few days we were together.
After Dad, Nikea and I made it to the pond, we decided to turn around. I asked Nikea to walk to the other side, onto the dam where we’d stand next year to exchange vows. Dad stayed on the north shore peering into the water.
I guessed the brown was more than 25 inches when we spooked him from the shadow of the dam. He moved like a musky, shovel head parting the water.
I yelled to Dad to get ready, but after three fly changes and no takes, he called for me to come and try.
But I was busy holding Nikea.
There was no hope on a day that bright, the old fish looking for food in two feet of water. He was too smart. Even if we did get him to take what we threw, he’d snap our 6-foot, 6-inch 3 weights.
I reluctantly left Nikea sitting on the dam and walked the moss-covered spillway to Dad.
The brown moved in the shallows, out into the middle of the pond, along the dam and back again.
I kneeled by honeysuckle and cast a pheasant-tail on his first pass. He didn’t change course.
His sides were broad, and I imagined the brookies, browns, salamanders, mice and ducklings he’d swallowed to make a body of such heft, of such muscle.
Another two cycles with no response left me dejected on the soft ground. Nikea lay down on the dam and pulled her cap over her eyes.
When the brown swam back to my corner, he took a fly off the top. The white triangle of the mouth, looming out of the water, sent my hands shaking as I tied a hopper to my tippet.
On the next round, I landed the hopper three feet to the right and 10 feet in front of his motion. He swam on.
As he crossed in front of me, I dropped it to his left, five feet ahead. He swam on.
Dad hollered that the brown was heading back to the middle. I looked across to Nikea on the dam.
The hopper splashed at 20 yards, a foot to the right of his head.
I twitched it twice.
He swallowed slowly.
My 3-weight bent to the handle and I imagined the strain of every knot in my leader. Two long runs had me thinking about the backing I hadn’t seen since I tied it on two years before. When he rolled, I could feel the line catching his pectoral fins.
Without a net, Dad was knee-deep in the shallows, waiting for the fish to come close enough to toss onto the bank. He spoke softly to me, like one would talk to a horse or a mule working a field.
The fish’s eyes were large and looked at Dad and me as I skated him on his side toward Dad’s hands.
The sound of the body hitting the shore was different from any deer, bird or fish I’d killed.
After pictures, I cut the spine and we bled him in the pond.
Nikea held the fish and said she was sorry he wouldn’t see our wedding in June.
I said more brookies would be there to witness.
He measured 30 inches and nine pounds. A wild Pennsylvania brown trout. An old fish likely on his way out.
I carried him the mile to the road by his gill plate. His teeth cut my hands.
It took a week for the skin to close.