Fly Fishing Girl and the Sculpin God

wadin' boot

Donny, you're out of your element...
WFF Supporter
Like all good bets, at the heart of it was something it mattered: Christine Ross. See Mark Thompson, my best friend, fishing partner, camping companion, virtual bother and otherwise long-time rival and I both asked Christine to prom. Christine, smarter than the two of us put together, and obviously way better looking, was flattered and told Mark, who had asked her first, she would think about it. When I asked her she blushed and said Mark beat me too it (and to this day I read that blush meant that Mark was her second choice, a point that Mark refutes.) But to her credit she came up with a way that wouldn’t make it seem like she had a preference, which meant that one of us, preferably that bastard Mark, would end up saving face.

“You guys need to show me how good you are at something, and whoever’s better at it, that’s the guy I’ll choose.”

“What will the loser do?” said Mark.
“The loser… takes my sister.”

Mark and I looked at one another. None of us had met Christine’s twin sister Jenna although we’d heard of her of course. After all, Jenna (or Jena) was scrawled on bathroom walls and if you couldn’t read then you’d heard the crazy stories, Jenna the shoplifter, the firestarter, the juvie breakout. They were all stories that made you want to groan.

(Stories that Christine would begin her head tilted low and a glint in her eye:
“Boot, you have got to hear this one about Jenna, you’re not going to believe it…”
The last one I had heard she was grew dreads and had become enamored with a Vancouver Rastafarian named Ezekial who ran a cult of skaters, dispossessed and other random souls looking for guidance. Christine, her Mom and Dad intervened, extracting her kicking and screaming from a tarpaper shack on the edge of the Gaslight district, big whirls of smoke and incense chasing her, her old man carrying the wildcat in a fireman’s hold with her clawing at his face with her free hand. Ezekial, Christine said, through all of this, held his hands wide and wished Jenna “the peace of Zion, the blessings of I and I and the sold-jaah spirit of the lion of Juuudaaah.”

Christine’s dad, an otherwise mild mannered actuary, told Ezekial to “Go fuck yourself.” Christine did a hell of an impression of her old man, and Ezekial in this situation that to this day makes me laugh.) Between the four of them they came to a resolution that was agreeable to all, Jenna would go to a special boarding school “----- River Academy”)(1)

“But what’s the bet then?” said Mark.
“The bet is this. You need to out-fish my sister. Whoever wins takes me. Whoever loses takes her.”
“What kind of bet is that, I mean it should just be me and Mark fishing against one another.”
“What if she out fishes us?” I asked
Mark snorted.
“Yeah, that’s the good part, if she out-fishes you, then she gets to choose one of you. And here’s the cool part, she’s really excited about it.”
“You sure that’s not the Ritalin talking?” I said.
“Shut up Boot, she’s good now, when she takes her meds she’s different, I don’t know, real and focused and beautiful. And you know what, she looks like a cross between Sophia Loren and Angelina Jolie.”
“That would make her about 50 years old right?”
“You’re a wise ass.”
“Who’s Sophia Loren?” Christine and I looked at Mark.
“I believe that when I see it.” He tried to cover up, but doofus really didn’t know who Sophia Loren was.

The morning came a little sooner than expected, we pushed the day up as a big storm was coming, and none of us wanted to fish in the wind or rain. We made our way to a pool, and for the purposes of this story alone, it looked a little like this:
though not nearly as deep or as large. (2)

“I wonder when they’ll show up.” Mark was stringing up his guides, his rod down on the picnic table, while I pulled on my waders.
“Have you ever seen her?” he asked me.
“No, you?”
“What if she’s really ugly, you still want to go through with this?”
“I’m a man of my word.” The popping of car tires on gravel came through over the water noises. And then a rusted hinge of a car door opening, thunks and muffled voices, and occasional giggles.
“I think I hear them.”

Through the trees you could see their beat-up station wagon pulled off just before the bridge. Christine got out, shook her brunette hair in the sun, and then a taller girl stepped in the field of view. Also with long hair but this time a sort of strawberry blonde.

“Hey Mark, Sophia Loren is or is not a blonde?”
“Yeah she’s a blond alright…”

There was some laughing as they trundled through the small path down to the edge of the hole. And that’s when we first got a clear look at her. I tried not to stare, I swear I did, but Jenna made Christine look like a girl who barely won a bout with smallpox.

I guess I concentrated on what she wore first, a crappy old worn-through, once-black Pretender’s t-shirt, the sleeves now ripped off. She had on cutoffs and big set of clunky looking wading boots at the very end of some long legs, one of which was getting assaulted by a lucky mosquito. You couldn’t help but notice she was stacked, the “Pre” and the “der” were covering up what, in Mark’s estimation and my agreement, were definite C-cups, possibly even D’s. And then she flipped the mane of hair out from in front of her face and stared us down.

Her eyes were green or blue, changed depending on the light, and her brows emphasized their almond-shaped glory, she had an air of a Siamese about her, but not so precious. Her cheekbones prominent like Stillaguamish girl, and a solid smattering of freckles that made you almost wonder if they were what she would call a tan. Her lips were plump and through habit I guess, lopsided, one side up, one side a little down, giving the net effect of a look that looked skeptical, amused or both.. On her arms you’d see that she held a tan, well-bronzed, and wherever you looked, biceps, quads, calf, she was defined. Her deltoids, about the size of a small mangos, held tattoos, on the left the snarling head of a mountain lion, and on the right a steelhead or a king, I couldn’t quite tell, tail bent, jaw open, rising.

I heard Mark whisper under his breath “She’s hot.”
“Hi Jenna, my name’s Will O’Brien.” I tipped my cap, left my hand at my side given she was carrying gear and shaking it seemed more formal than we needed. She nodded back.
“Hey Will O’brien” She held my gaze long enough to make me uncomfortable.
Mark on the other hand stepped forward and tried to take her hand, which broke her gaze and necessitated an awkward second while she handed Christine her 4wt and a bottle full of water.

“Mark Thompson, I am enchanted to meet you.”
“Christine, this one’s enchanted, I thought you said these guys were straight?”
“Oh they are Jenna, just a little goofy that’s all… shut ins, with their fishing porn, Orvis catalogs and fly vices.”
“Hmmm.” She said, and looked us up and down like we were an annoyance and took his hand, all the while Mark was grinning with all the comfort and charm of a circus clown. He brought it to his lips like a kid from Spanaway might think someone from Europe would do.

“You make me sick Mark, lay off the girl, let’s get this fishing on the way.”
“It’s beautiful.” She said with some wonder, taking in the full scope of the mountains and the river’s path between them.
“You ever fished this hole?”
“Nope, it looks promising though.”
“Down over the far bank, where the logs meet the water, there’s where they hold, but you can find them anywhere.” I pointed down to the tailout, the riffles, the side streams coming in.
“Those boulders look good too.” She said. I had deliberately withheld that part of the introduction, it was exactly where I planned to hit the hardest, but she read my hand as easily as she did the river. I could see why Christine had set it up this way. Jenna was no fool, no fishing virgin. Christine had done this to see us squirm.

“How do you want to do this? Who goes first, should we all start together or what do you guys think?” Mark asked, now recovering from his flubbed start.
“How about you two boys go first, and let my sister clean up your mess?”
I looked at Mark and shrugged.
“Fine by us, there’s enough room here for all three of us to fish at the same time though” I said.

“Will, I want you to fall in love with her when you watch. She will blow you away.”
“Shut-up Christine, remember I’m only doing this favor for you…” Jenna said half pleading, half joking, and for the first time she smiled, looked up at me and looked like she was enjoying the company.

Mark moved upstream to where the two feeder streams met the main channel, I took the bulk of the hole. The two of us got into our rhythms, and speaking for myself only, I was soon oblivious, enjoying the time, the moment, the fishing. I heard Mark shout and looked over at his rod, bent like a question mark, and up out of the smooth water where the three flows met a large trout jumped, once, twice, maybe more. In a matter of seconds he had it in hand, and lifted it slightly out of the water.

As arranged, Christine snapped a photo with her dad’s bird lens, gave him the thumbs up and then the fish was gone.

“What’s the matter Will, can’t catch anything?” I could hear Jenna laughing at Christine’s taunting, and I flipped them the bird without turning. ‘Magnify that’ I thought, though the truth was I wasn’t too worried.

Sure enough though, I couldn’t catch anything. I had moved, matched whatever the hatch was, tied on my old favorites, fished dry, fished wet. I pulled every trick I knew, which isn’t many if you’ve ever fished with me. And to insult further I head Mark whooping it up on three or four different times, and the girls rubbing salt each time. He was kicking my ass.

I thought about how the bet would play out. Mark, if he won, would choose Christine. He’s at heart, a xenophobe, a change avoider. Which meant I got a date with Jenna, which seemed like a fantastic last-place. On the other hand, if I nabbed one of size in the final minutes allowed, and if the Judges saw the merits of one big fish trumping Mark’s four, who would I choose? If I chose Christine it would be comfortable and perfect, but Jenna, now that I had seen her, was intriguing and well, Christine and I were already good friends and would likely stay that way. And then the third angle, what if Jenna was good, what if she won, was Mark’s reputation and introduction enough to sink him, or had she seen some merit to him? To be fair, Mark was a great guy, my best friend, but the thought of him getting the nod over me seemed irritating and wrong.

And then the whistle blew and time was up. I couldn’t believe it, skunked at my favorite hole, despite fish rising all over the place. I shook my head, what else to do but laugh.

We all met at the picnic table, where Mark, Jenna and Christine were looking over the shots on her digital.

“You want to see these fish, loser?” Said Mark, punching me in the shoulder.
“Sure, I have to make sure it’s not the same fish you didn’t reel in every ten minutes.”
“Like I’d need to do that…how’s that arm of yours, sore from all the casting, or is it sore form all the catching?”
“Yeah right buddy, ok ok, you got me.”
“What, you didn’t catch anything?” He had a grin that could only be described a shit-eating.
“Nope, I didn’t.”
“It’s a different fish.” said Jenna. “Two cutts and a rainbow and one smolt. The smolt doesn’t count I hope you know.”

I took out a sandwich, took a big bite: “Jenna, I’d like to see you fish.” was all I said as I handed her a half-eaten PBandJ.

“Thanks.” She took it and walked to the waters edge, no waders, just her boots and her cutoffs, four flies, hooked into where her sleeve would have started, the fifth already on her leader, and a small pocket knife she clipped on a ring through one of her t-shirt holes.

She stripped line, stuffed the rest of the sandwich into her mouth and with an elegent roll cast let a loop flow out towards some crummy water, an inch or so deep. She had on what looked like a dust-bunny, and she let it sink into the tiny stones. With one hand she pulled it up, and with a very slight twitch turned and smiled: “get the camera Chris” mumbled through a mouth of sandwich

And in less than thirty seconds she held a tiny sculpin up, it’s great flared head pumping in and out like a set of bellows. The photo taken, she struck her boot hard into the beach shallows, and in another half minute had built a kind of crater filled with water into which she released the sculpin.

“I guess that puts me ahead of Will.” She winked at me.

She then bit her fly off, hooked it back on her shirt and tied-on a deceiver. Though tied-on isn’t the right word, she did it one-handed, like a surgeon. This time she waded out, right into four-foot water, raising her rod and arms up just to prove to us that she was in fact human and did feel cold like the rest of us, and to nail the point home squealed when the water went over her thighs and up to her hips.

She hauled and put the deceiver behind a submerged boulder I had insulted with thirty or forty casts half an hour prior. She lit it sink some and stripped back and then with a sudden sideways sweep was hooked again, this time into a fish of some size. In due time she held a cutthroat, 14 inches or so, and let it slip when Chris gave her the thumbs-up.

Again she bit her fly off, and took the third fly, the type of which I could no longer tell, even though I followed her through the bird lens. Again, a one-handed surgeon’s knot and then she was wading deeper, water to her armpits, and then she sank under.

“What the fuck?” Mark looked astonished “where’d she go”
And then she popped up on the very same boulder she’d just cast to, pulled herself up and shook her head, put her rod between her knees and let her hair fall to one side and leaned to the side while squeezing the water out of her hair. Although the t-shirt was black and kids read these pages I couldn’t help but notice the effect of the cold water on her. And Mark, not one to miss an opportunity wanted the camera, I suspect, to look at what I was looking at.

“Give that camera to me boys, I know what it is you’re doing, getting a perve at my sister.”
“Can you blame us, she’s beautiful”
“I know she is.”
“You made it seem like all she was was whacko…” I said to Chris s I handed her the camera. “You never made it seem like she was actually good at something. Great even, I mean look at her, I’ve fished this hole for five years now and I have never hooked a 14 inch cutt, let alone on my first cast.”
Chris looked a little taken aback, sensing a shift in my tone.

“She is whacko, and I’ve never seen her fish. This was her idea.”
I could have been mistaken but it seemed like Chris was suddenly a little jealous. And for me the words “She is whacko” echoed a little, not in a way that made me want to believe Christine, but instead that made me doubt her. Made me think that there was a mean streak to Christine that I never saw before. And firmed up any doubts I had as to who I wanted to win or how I wanted things to turn out.

Then she was fishing again, double hauled for seven or eight strokes and shot out sixty feet of line to the head of the pool, where she mended and stripped and yes, you guessed it, she was hooked again, this time into something that made her rod bend and creak and her reel ran hard, water droplets pinwheeling out of it in the sunlight. I heard Christine click and made a mental note that I wanted that picture. I was a goner, this was, as far as I was concerned, love.

We watched the hen leap and dance and rod arm held high, Jenna bent low and brought it to her toes and let her go without holding her up.

“You’re supposed to show us, that one doesn’t count.” Mark Shouted. She flipped him off.
“This ref says that fish counts”
Mark shook his head, smiling, but like a lawyer who knows his case rests on gimpy technicality.
“Eat your sandwich, fish boy.” I said.

And then Jenna hooked her line up, dove off the rock and sidestrokod back to the shallow water. Again I found myself jaw open as she walked up the beach, Chris threw her a towel and she dried herself, leaning over to the mountain lion side and turning her attention to her long hair first, and jogging up and down on one end to let some water out of her ear.

“Are we done?” Said Mark nervously.
“Nope, I have one final cast and about five minutes if I’m not mistaken.” she said sorta breathlessly. She collected herself, stripped a bunch of line and left it on the beach.

She then took off her pocket knife, and with her blade scraped up and down the spine of a big fat matuka fly. The pretty feathers came undone and fell to the beach, and soon she held just a bare hook, tiny silver streaks where the patina was cut.

She tied that bare hook on, kneeled down to the Sculpin’s cauldera and fished it out. Tiny and wriggling, she threaded the hook through the base of its tail. Waded out again to the three foot waters, without her rod, and threw the sculpin in an underhand toss towards the main channel. She let the current take her line down towards the tailout, and waited a few, humming a tune to herself, mystery achievement.

Then the line shot out straight and made a D-string twang and Jenna’s other arm tried to stem the flow of line slipping through. Fat loops were dancing on the sandy beach, unfolding, flowing out into the water. Whatever it was, it was big.

Mark went down and grabbed her rod, pointed it towards the water and pretty soon backing was coming out in small shrieks and bursts.

“That’s all you got.” Mark shouted
Jenna nodded.

But steady as day follows night the line kept coming, straight into the void until it was just the very core of the reel. Jenna set herself like a she was in a tug-of-war, left arm up front, right arm behind and tucked her right elbow under the line, and lifted it sharply, the line sang about an octave higher, and then another and then snapped.

Jenna threw the limp line into the water and walked back shaking her head.
“I don’t know what that was.” She was smiling.

“Sculpin god. Don’t ever mess with him. He’s an angry god and curses those who harm his kin with bad luck…” I said it as a joke, but years later, Christine reminded me of that day, of that moment, of those words and I wondered...

After Jenna had changed and come back down from the car she said she had given the matter much thought, and she wanted me to take her to the Prom. And I think all of us felt relief that things had worked out this way.

I could tell you about how the prom led to far more, how I fell in love with her, how I tried to learn her secrets. But that would be a book, a one-sided book, where I would project what I thought of how we related. The truth was in our two-years together it was a roller coaster, and that Christine was right. She was a wildcat, a hellion, a confused girl. She went through drugs, my savings, other guys. On her medication she was terrific, focused, able to do so much, not just when fishing, but it kept returning to how she didn’t want that, that it squashed her creativity, that she didn’t want to live like Christine, or Mark, or her parents. But the most crushing part of it was when she didn’t want to live like me. Or with me. She called it all off, and I was left wondering.

Through all of it I still had this vision of her on the water. And if the truth were told, that’s the only time we really were at peace, me watching her, she turning to smile at me, mouthing “I love you”. I look at that photo now and then, of her in the middle of the pool, her half crouched and beautiful on that boulder in the middle of the nine-foot water, hooked on that hen, the reel kicking up its rooster-tail of spray. And I think about that day, when the line streaked out into the unknown, that heavy weight unseen and unrecognized, and how Jenna was that unknown, making her way to some delta, some ocean, away from me. And I wonder if I should call Christine and ask after her, but I never do. Nope I've dated my whacko, and now it's time to move on.

(1) Acknowledgement to ItchyDog, you know what I'm talking about
(2) Link is used without permission to worldanglr’s phenomenal pool photo from "Patagonia 2004 expedition"

Itchy Dog

Some call me Kirk Werner
I got hung up at the description of the (Pre)ten(ders) t-shirt and never made it to the rest of the story, which I am sure is as well-written as your others. Great stuff, Boot.

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