I met my new fishing buddy, Ken , during a 3 month stay in Rexburg, Idaho. We were thrown together by some mutual friends that knew we both enjoyed fishing for trout. The story I want to tell you is why Ken was undoubtedly the ultimate fishing buddy.
Ken is not an early riser and that suits me just fine. A nine o’clock start on a fishing journey is a civilized time to start especially when the streams are only an hour away and you are both on the plus side of sixty. We usually would meet at my truck and after tossing most of his gear into the bed Ken would jump onto the bench seat of my truck and wrestle with his landing net that is always attached to his left belt loop. As you can imagine, the 2’ long net would get trapped between the seat and his buttocks. He would pull and tug until he dislodged it and finally just sit up and let out a big sign of relief. He would never discuss why he didn’t leave the net in the back of the truck. He would just sit back , mildly enraged by the incident, With Ken a tiff is easily forgotten as quickly as it flares.
The trip to the river is usually uneventful. Just a calm mention of where he will be taking me to fish. Not much other conversation, just jointly staring out through the windshield. A rational conversation is something that Ken doesn’t bother with.
Once on the stream, we split up. Ken always offers me the upstream approach and he heads down the path or road for the usual upstream approach back to the car. Before he leaves he always says” see you in about a half hour unless the fishing is good”. Once I followed Ken just to see how he fished so fast. He jumps into the stream and quickly works the backwaters, the nervous waters, the soft seams and sometimes the riffles. If he doesn’t hook up in just a dozen or so casts he will claim the water “fishless” returning to the truck to move on to another destination. Fast fishing is Ken’s specialty. His short attention span requires it.
My partner, unlike many of the fisher people on the stream today, does not look like he appeared out of an Orvis catalog. As a matter of fact, his equipment and attire are rather basic. He’s clad in a generic baseball cap, standard non- polarized spectacles; a blue cotton shirt riddled with holes from errant attacks by size 10 Mustad hooks, worn Levis and studded felt sole boots. His fishing arsenal is an artic creel splattered with fish blood, an 8’ fiberglass fly rod with a floating line and 6 feet of 10 lb test material to which he attaches his beloved red bellied humpy. The rod and line are matched with a classic bright green automatic fly reel, buzzing and sputtering water as he retrieves line. All of his equipment is out of an Orvis catalog, circa 1950. Now you might think as I did that Kens attire and tools are a bit old fashioned, but when he returned one day with a bulging creel topped off with a 17” cutthroat, I was impressed with his ability to catch fish with such “antique” equipment. Although I personally don’t kill my catch , Ken is of the old school that believes he is a game fisherman and the game is to fill the frying pan. He won’t change. He has no time to learn a new way.
One afternoon Ken was not hooking up with his dry fly system and I was pounding them on a rubberlegs nymph. He would not acknowledge the fact that I was catching fish. He saw me catch fish but I know he never saw me release them. I finally walked up stream to him carrying a net full of rainbow and said “Would you like to take a fish home for dinner?” He ignored me, but as soon as I lowered the net into the water and released the healthy trout he looked at me for the first time that day and said with disappointment in his voice ” If I knew you were going to throw it back I’d have brought it home to Vivian”. My action just didn’t make any sense to him. But Ken is quickly releaved of any anxiousnes and competitiveness. He is just plain happy to be on the stream.
On each fishing day, Ken’s wife, Vivian, packs him a change of clothes, water and a sandwich that Ken completely ignores. He doesn’t know why she pampers him so and becomes agitated when she demands that he carry all this “unnecessary stuff” He usually ignores it all and leaves in the bed of the truck to get squashed, mangled and hot. His biggest concern about his wife’s pampering is that she will not let him drive any longer. “She says I can’t drive any more. Well, I can drive just fine”. I personally know that’s not true because every road construction flagperson that brings us to a stop must endure the rath of Ken. “Why can’t we just go around? No ones coming. Go ahead. Just go around these cars. We don’t have to wait.” Ken’s impatience sometimes shows but wanes quickly and is forgotten even sooner.
As the day wears on, Ken will eventually get hungry and thirsty. He will usually not eat or drink anything until about 1:30 in the afternoon. Dehydration or hunger do not seem to affect him very much . He prefers his nourishment to come from the small bars and burger joints he has become accustomed to visiting over the years. All the employees know him by sight and are kind to him even when he bosses them around , complains about the prices on the menu and constantly asks them where the best fishing holes exist. They don’t even get upset when he clatters in with his studded boots that are always trailing some sort of mud, moss or slime. He’s accepted as a regular and they accept him for who he is.
If the fishing is hot we will pass up the usual lunch stops. Of course, we get a little peckish on our ride home about 4 o’clock so Ken will say “ If you see a drug store, pull over” When I ask him why, he’ll say “ because I would like a chocolate milkshake”. We will invariably find a small dot in the road that will mix up vanilla ice cream and Hersey syrup into a delicious cold swill. Again after complaining about the small portion and the high cost ,Ken with a childish grin will put a straw into the container and suck until the noisy slurp at the bottom signals me that he is done. Certain things pass Ken unnoticed but the childish pleasure of a chocolate shake can easily be experienced.
The favorite part of my relationship with Ken is rather selfish on my part. He knows secret fishing places. These locations are surprisingly embossed in his deep memory. We’ll be barreling down a country road and he will quietly say” go left through this gate “or “follow this potato field to the red windmill and then we’ll get out and walk awhile.” He has taken me to wondrous places that I will never be able to find again. I’m glad of that because I was able to share them only with my fishing friend. These magical places will occupy my dreams for years to come.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, my friend Ken suffers from a disorder. He has Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Some days are better than others. Mild forgetfulness sometimes escalates to bad decision making and even mild aggression although he has never shown aggression toward me. I think our bond as fishermen makes us more like brothers and this fact relaxes my friend.
I have a feeling that this year may be Ken’s last year of fishing .As a matter of fact, because of the shortage of housing in our small town of Rexburg, Ken has been telling everyone that he will never be returning to Idaho. Maybe somehow he knows the real reason.
We all have an idea in our heads of what a great fishing buddy is. Some do the camp cooking and chores while you fish till dark. Others will tie flies for you when they know you have been losing more than your share. And others again will go so far as to offer you the front of the drift boat while they row you into position to cast to a giant trout sipping emergers. Ken has all these guys beaten hands down because he has taught me something that no guide or fishing expert could ever teach me. For fear of sounding too philosophical, I must tell you he has taught me a lesson of life.
Most of us realize that we are only on this planet temporarily and at times this can be distracting. Dogs and cats carry on their lives not worrying about such things but we humans have the ability to understand that one day our bodies will fail us. A question in my mind has always been how do I leave this world with so much unfinished business to do. Ken has taught me that if even when your body begins to show signs of fraility , your inner self will push you to continue experiencing that which you cherish. We are unstoppable machines finishing our business. A prime example of this are the words Ken would say to me each day before we went fishing . He would say” Are you John, the guy I go fishing with?” I would reply “Yes” and he would get a giddy crooked toothed grin on his face and say” Let’s go catch some trout”.