F&S Classics: The Heartbeat of Desire

Getting in touch with one's primal yearning is the true measure of an angler

It is 11 A.M. and no one has caught a fish. Across the broad stain of the Columbia River, the cooling tower of a nuclear plant coughs pillows of chalky smoke into the sky. Just upstream from it are the boats, 20 maybe, half the number that started this morning, nosing around in the quarter mile of clear water below the mouth of the Kalama River. They troll the Columbia at low idle, buckets tied onto their stern cleats to slow them to a crawl. Plugged herring baits, revolving on their angled faces, send pewter glints flashing from the depths.

A sea lion nicknamed Herschel surfaces by a marker buoy at mid-channel and a few of the fishermen turn their boats for him, not so much in the hope that he has found the salmon as for something different to do. They are loggers mostly, retired, tough-faced men, hunched inside muddied rain slickers against a fine drizzle. Their voices float out over the river. Steam rises from thermoses of coffee. Rods, gripped in gnarled, expectant hands at dawn, bend like long antennae from holders along the gunwales.

Except for Ralph Sizemore’s rod. His right thumb on the reel spool, registering the thumping spin of his herring, moves over to the release button. The line freespools out, the sinker bumps bottom. He cranks up a turn, his thick hand engulfing the reel handle, making a 30-pound outfit look small. His brow furrows. He takes one more turn. His thumb goes back to its place on the spool. Fleshy folds of skin draw deep lines around his eyes as he searches the face of water.

Behind him, sitting on the middle seat of the pram, his older brother Happy leans forward from his thick waist. For 3 hours, unmolested drops of liquid have beaded, elongated, and fallen from the tip of his nose. Neither man has said a dozen words, and though I am accustomed to their ways, I cannot help but feel unsettled, sitting in the bow of a boat that beats with such a predatory pulse.

I am 35 now. I ought to be carving out a place of my own in these battles of endurance. But my own intensity while fishing, once nearly the equal of the Sizemore brothers, has begun to wane with the distractions of raising a family. I bring too much of that life with me to the river, and as a result I have begun to see fishing as a restorative sport, a matter of getting out of the house, of letting my mind unwind. There are exceptions—dancing a wet fly through a steelhead riffle in October, laying down a caddis for big brown trout back home on the Missouri in Montana—days when I startle myself with ruthless pursuit, when I wade out of the river to find that my shirt is wet because I’d gone in too deep and hadn’t felt the water. But trolling a herring in the Columbia for spring chinook, rocking back and forth in the wave troughs in what has become a pelting rain, it could drive a strong man to drink. 

the heartbeat of desire is a fishing story from Field & Stream magazine.
“The Heartbeat of Desire” was first published in June 1990. Field & Stream

Suddenly a war cry echoes across the river. Someone has hooked up and we see a rod doubled down, a tall man in a black and white buffalo-plaid shirt arching backward from his waist. We hear the rifle shot of the rod breaking from 100 yards away.

“Well, did you see that?” Happy says, swiveling to face me. “That’s a sorry fellow if I ever seen one.” We watch the boat swing out into the brown water. The line has held. The salmon is still on.

“That fish’ll take him right over into the sturgeon holes clear the other side of the river,” Ralph says. I can tell by the tone of his voice that he is disgusted. The man who has broken his rod on the salmon has been hoisting a wine bottle into the air every time he passes another boat and whooping it up all morning. Ralph can’t stand another man taking a fish before he does, especially one who is so careless in his effort.

I grin from the bow and resign myself to another hour of torture as the pressure builds in my abdomen. I’ve wanted to go to shore now for two hours but have been afraid to say anything, because I know how Ralph hates to leave the river. Now that a fish has taken, the bite may be starting, making even a quick excursion unthinkable.

I watch the two brothers bend the force of their wills back to the river. “What am I doing here?” I say to myself. It is a fair question, because I am a miserable man, saddlesore after three days riding the waves, bored with this featureless river and monotonous fishing. Each time I feel in to check the bait, the metronomic flash of herring acts like the watch on a hypnotist’s string. I can feel my eyes close, sense myself washing out toward the sea. I should have known better than to confront my own limitations by stepping into the boat, ought to have remembered better the two men that were Ralph Sizemore.

“Snitty” was the name that they can called him back in the hollows of West Virginia Appalachia where he had grown up. That’s where my father had found him, had gripped his rough hand and been sucked into the swirl of his world as surely as I had 30 years later, when I looked him up in Washington. I loved hearing Snitty’s big hillbilly voice tell tales, how he laughed and laughed at his own stories, “‘Specially the ones I haven’t heard before,” as he liked to say.

But that side of his personality disappeared when a river came into sight or when you started your climb with him up the mountain after elk. Then he became heavy-jowled serious, a burly man, small eyes darting from their folds. The force field of his energy, that very magnetism that had drawn me 800 miles from home to see him, changed its polarity in the field. You could feel him drawing his focus, necking down into that state of near-madness that must have characterized ancient hunting peoples, the instinct behind the canine teeth that our civilized society is so eager to ignore. Having hovered on the periphery of such fanaticism myself, I can see moderation for the loss that it is. Relaxing on the water may be good for the soul, but it is bad for the fishing.

“Ralph, the next time we make a pass through the mouth I’d like to stop a second and go to the bathroom.”

He grunts and swings the broom-handle extension on the outboard to starboard. The cut herring baits slosh in their bucket of bloody water.

“Use to be I could eat a jar of them herring,” Ralph says, “but since I started this spring chinook fishing I can’t eat but about a half.” This brings a big burst of laughter from Ralph and a red-faced, oh-me-oh-my chuckling out of Happy, who came by his name from the state of breathlessness he hiccuped himself into at the slightest provocation. I manage a weak smile. I’m beginning to suspect that the cramps in my stomach aren’t going to go away with a trip to shore. I don’t know what it is, for the river was rougher yesterday and I’m not prone to seasickness. But it’s here now, that dreadful, building nausea, and 10 minutes later I am bending over a log on a sandbar, smelling dead herring with each intake of breath and praying that it be over.

By the time I come back the Sizemores are pacing the shoreline like great cats.

“Why, you better stay here and get your feet under you,” Ralph says.

I tell him I’ll be all right, to go on out there and get one before the bite is over. I lie down on the sand in the ropes of seaweed washed up by the tide. The rough-shaven men loom enormously above me as they rig fresh baits with their ham hands. “This chinook fishing is hard on a feller,” I can hear Ralph say, but he sounds far away and I am drifting off, my eyes drawing closed with each rhythmic breath.

We are all of us dreamers. We sit in our offices amid the rubble of brick that forms the boundary of our lives and let our minds drift out the windows to ribbons of green current and horizons of hills with tall pines. Looking forward to the week or two that is all the time our cities will spare us in the land of our thoughts, we comfort ourselves with tokens of the sport. We surround ourselves with outdoor magazines and books, we leaf through catalogs for the perfect waders, the right fly, the flashlight that doesn’t break. When we have money (and even when we don’t) we buy new shotguns, we order rods of the next generation carbon filaments, and then we find other people just as misplaced in this century as we are to show them to. We talk endlessly, and somehow through this talk, amid these tokens, the sport itself, the actual hunting or fishing, becomes an abstraction, as distant from us as the childhood it helped to shape. In fact it becomes the books, the tokens, the shotgun, the rod.

Then our long-awaited appointment comes due. And a strange thing happens. We discover that hunting for elk in Idaho is not a matter of caliber and binocular but one of heart and stamina. And we find that hooking a steelhead in British Columbia does not depend on the fly pattern or the action of the rod as much as it does on how many casts we make, on how many hours we can stand in a river with a mercury reading of 45 degrees.

In the end, success is determined by how easily we can abandon the creature comforts of our civilized existence. It hinges on just how far back we can reach toward an ancient pulse and, once there, by how long we can stay under its thumb. Worlds have to be bridged, and sometimes it just takes time.

I wake up to the rumble of a train. The river lies like glass under the soft wash of evening light. Fewer than a dozen boats remain, and for a moment I can’t find Ralph’s. Then it crawls from behind the buoy where Herschel porpoises out of the water in a liquid roll. Ralph is standing in the stern and because he is standing I know he hasn’t caught a fish. Earlier I had asked him why he built a backrest on the seat of his boat when he never leaned back to take advantage of it. “I like to stay right on top of them,” he’d said. Now he literally was right on top of the fish, his intensity cranked up a notch after three solid days on the river.

I wave my raincoat and see the boat turn. It’s odd, but as weak as I am, now that the sickness has passed, I can feel a thin line of anxiety in my breathing. It is the trigger that starts the madness, the shaking of my hands when I bend to the tracks of elk or tie on my fly in the predawn, hurrying to be the first on the water. This is why I’m here, I suddenly realize. Ralph draws this out of me. He keeps me honest. In my business it is easy to be carried away by the secrets on the page, to believe that technique is everything. Yet all that really matters is desire.

“You want one so much you’re standing up!” I holler at Ralph as the boat approaches the shore.

“‘Bout ready to dive in after one,” he says. A grin splits his broad cheeks. He bares his granite-block teeth.

I step into the bow and we swing away, the herring thumping under our thumbs on the reel spools. Once again the polarity has switched and I am drawn back into their world, to that state of primitive yearning to which they were born and have never left, into which I make my small pilgrimages. For the Sizemore brothers, what swims beneath the surface of the water has never mattered. There are fishermen who pick and choose, one comes to understand, and there are fishermen, pure and simple.

“Now ain’t that a pretty sight,” Happy says. I turn and look upriver, where the nightlights have come on a grain elevator that for the last two days has been feeding a docked Japanese freighter. With its string of lights the elevator looks like a wild ride at the carnival, its long neck dipping to the freighter the swoop of a runaway roller coaster.

“You know this fishin’,” Happy says seriously, “it’s just A-1 with me. At my age, you know, it’s what’ll keep a fella going.” He looks at me until I have to look back. He is trying to tell me something about being old and alone, about which I don’t yet want to know. He nods his head. “Now that’s a fact,” he says, and for the minute the two of us might be somewhere else.

Ralph snorts from the stern. “Hmppff! Got him now. Get the net.” He splays his legs for balance. His broad back bends to the water that is humping for the second time in a silver boil.

We turn from the lights, hearts com braced for the battle.