Merwin: The Fish that Haunt You

"Every man has a fish in his life that haunts him."

So wrote Negley Farson in his 1946 classic book, "Going Fishing," and so it is with most fishermen. I think that if you've fished long enough, there are probably several fish that haunt you. Inevitably, ones you might have come close to catching but for whatever reasons never quite got to the net.

I know I'm haunted by several fish, the stuff of recurrent daydreams years after the fact. One such was a lovely brown trout of 5 or 6 pounds that I encountered on Pennsylvania's Falling Spring Run a long time ago.

I was working this little spring creek on a warm, sunny afternoon, catching enough fish to be satisfied, but not so many that I also wasn't moving around from place to place, looking for more. Eventually at a small bridge crossing, I found the one fish of dreams.

The brown trout hovered easily in a slow current next to the bridge abutment. I snuck on hands and knees through the tall grass for a closer look. Just upstream, a barbed-wire fence crossed the water. Downstream and below the bridge, a willow had fallen in the creek, creating an impassable tangle. Were I to hook this fish, landing it would clearly be impossible. So I settled in just to watch.

I was close enough to see the trout's right eye moving as it constantly looked around, sometimes to the side, sometimes forward. There was no hatch going on, but still the trout rose occasionally, taking some small fluff-like things from the surface.

The rises themselves were almost imperceptible, just the smallest of dimples at the surface. It was amazing to me--and a good lesson--that so large a fish could make such a small rise form. Eventually the trout, perhaps sensing my presence, sank slowly into the black water under the bridge, its massive shape becoming less and less distinct and then disappearing all together.

I can't begin to tell you how many times over the intervening years I've puzzled over catching--or not catching--that fish. I am indeed haunted by it. Just as you might be by another fish from a different time and place. So let's hear it....