“He learned, became older, wiser and, yes, bigger. He became a better fish and to catch him I would have to become a better man.”
Omar was a tough guy. Mean, if you got right down to it. A loner. Seldom seen, and when he was, there’d be a fight. Still, there were a great many things about Omar that you couldn’t help but find beautiful. The most remarkable being his smile. A mischievous maw, impish and wicked. A jaw like a big chrome bumper, gleaming with perfect white teeth. A rip saw for a mouth.
His physicality was striking. Taut as a bow string, his muscles refined and specialized like an Olympic athlete. He seemed misplaced in time. An evolutionary leap forward, or maybe back. His body like a blade carried by some ancient Samurai. Hardened, honed, perfect in every detail, unsheathed and set free of its master, to do as it will.
Like Ali in his youth, cocky and brash. The kind of confidence that you just knew would get him into trouble. Like Hemingway in old age, dark and brooding but still dangerous. The old man that might still issue you an ass beating if he didn’t like your looks. Omar asked for nothing. He took what he pleased and he demanded respect. He reminded me of my father, and maybe that’s why I loved him.
Omar was twenty-two when I first met him. It was in the fall and the trees were red and gold. The days were getting cold and the sun huddled close to the horizon. There had been a heavy rain and Fightingtown Creek was high with just a bit of olive color. The fishing had been slow and I was cold and tired.
The sun never really finds its way into that creek for long. Peering up through a gap in the rhododendron, bright slashes of amber in the tree tops told me the day was winding down. I cast a small streamer into a bend upstream and waited as the current swept it under a Buick size boulder at the head of a deep run. I stripped and my line came tight.
The name Fightingtown is a bit of a mystery. I’ve been told that there was an Native American village on the headwaters in a place now called the Big Frog Wilderness. The old people say that the Indians kept bull frogs and made them fight for sport. The white men called the village “Big Frog Fighting Town.”
I don’t know if any of that is true but it could be. The place is near the sight of Fort Gilmer where, in 1838, General Winfield Scott and his men, under the terms of the New Echota treaty, rounded up the last of the Cherokee Indians in Georgia and began the westward march we know as the Trail of Tears. It’s easy to believe that some of that native blood was spilled into the water of Fightingtown. At any rate, the name suits it.
Everything about Fightingtown creek is inhospitable. It’s a thicket, a briar patch, the home of Brer Rabbit. In the days, when I met Omar, it ran high and hard over slick rocks with sharp edges. I seldom left there without water in my waders, and often I was bleeding. My face scratched from pushing through mountain laurel, spider webs clinging to my ears.
It winds like a labyrinth through hills as craggy and scarred as the faces that glare over shotgun barrels in its headwaters, places like Hells Holler and Devils Den. It flows past forgotten cemeteries and auto graveyards, past crumbling abandoned home places and hemlocks as old as the sky. It turns back on itself so often you start to think it runs up hill. It is the lost soul of Appalachia. It is my home water.
“Those Fightingtown fish are bullies,” my buddy Dan always said. I’d struggle and suffer down there, bent double at the waist with a branch poking in my ear, trying to cast. Plenty of days I’d go home dirty and sore without a tug on the line to show for it. When I hooked a fish landing it in that thicket was like boxing a bear in a closet. They are a riddle, those fish. They break every rule and in learning to catch them you become as unconventional as the place itself. When you do learn how they think and your are willing to fight them like they must be fought, even if it means a broken rod or a bleeding shin, then you will discover Fightingtown’s secret: Leviathan.
Landing Omar the first time was mostly luck. The high water had his confidence up and I was fishing heavy tippet. He put quite a bend in my little four weight bamboo rod. At twenty two inches he was far from the biggest trout I’d ever caught but he was special. The finest brown trout I’d ever seen. A perfect example of his species.
He was in spawning colors. His belly was fire orange, his fins olive and blue. His spots were big and chunky, beautifully spaced like mosaic tile, they cut a distinctive zig-zag line along his belly. An electric blue halo hovered on his temple, so bright it didn’t seem real. His tail was wide and powerful and there was that mouth. The killing maw with a huge hooked jaw. Like something Melville had devised. Teeth as sharp as broken glass. I was lucky I had him in the corner of the mouth. No tippet could stand those teeth.
He was awful, in the old sense of the word, filling me with awe. The way folks used to describe Talulah Falls, Georgia’s greatest natural wonder, second only to Niagara before they were buried under Lake Terora in 1914 in the name of electric power. That’s how Omar struck me, a wonder of nature soon to slip out of sight for all time in a fortress of water. I wanted, no, needed to take a photo. A document to prove to myself that he was real.
Omar was not cooperative. I tried to photograph him in the net but he was still fighting, still convinced this was a battle he could win. I managed only an eerie image of dark water, a vicious mouth and a glaring eye, full of rage. Desperate, I did something I am still ashamed of. I beached the great fish, risking his very life for a photo. I wet the bank, in an effort to leave his protective slime in tact and laid him in a place he should have never been. I should not have done it but, selfishly, I cherished the photo.
I gently set Omar back in the water. He lay there suspended for a moment and was gone. Back under his rock.
I put the photo on the refrigerator. I found myself making excuses to go to the kitchen and stare obsessively at Omar. That’s when he got his name. I was watching the first season of the HBO series “The Wire.” A drama about gangs and drug dealers in Baltimore. My favorite character was a thug named Omar.
He was a thief who only stole from drug dealers, taking both their money and their drugs. He would walk boldly down the side walk, a shotgun in his hand, showing neither fear nor mercy for his victims. Children would run ahead of him in the street yelling, “Omar coming, Omar coming!” Families and thugs disappeared from stoops, doors and windows slammed shut in the summer heat. Omar left a ghost town in his wake. A second story window opened and a trembling hand dropped a bag of money and drugs to the sidewalk below.
That was my fish, Omar.
Maybe it’s foolish for a grown man to be so smitten with a fish but I’ve been a fool for less. In the coming years I stalked Omar like a spurned lover. I returned to that bend in the creek with the big rock, sometimes twice a week. Omar was usually nowhere to be seen but I was certain he was there, under that rock. If there was a better place for a brown trout, I’d never seen it.
I swung flies under that rock like it was penance. There’s no counting the flies I left on the furniture in Omar’s living room. It was no good. He’d seen that trick. Once in a while I’d feel sure I saw his shadowy form glide out of the current and under the rock as I approached the pool, but aside from that my love remained unrequited.
I had to strengthen my resolve. Redouble my commitment. I had to work, spend time with my family, return emails and a thousand other tasks that life demands, not to mention the two hour drive to Omar’s pool. All that Omar had to do, all day, every day was eat and watch for me. If I was going to best him again I’d have to work harder and smarter.
This obsession was a kind of lunacy. If a man climbs Everest, he doesn’t have to climb it again. It stays climbed. Why did I need to catch this fish again? Because he was there? Because he didn’t want to be caught? Because I had to prove it wasn’t luck?
A fish is not a mountain and an angler not a climber. My goal was not conquest. If it had been I’d have had Omar mounted and stuck him on my wall. Everest stays climbed and it stays Everest. Omar did not stay caught, nor did he stay the same fish. He learned, became older, wiser and, yes, bigger. He became a better fish and to catch him I would have to become a better man. Omar and I were lashed together and together we would climb.
I adopted another approach. Rather than charge headlong into battle I would study my opponent. Rather than fish for Omar I would get to know him. I started catching small baitfish. I would carry them out onto the rock, stun them and throw them in. I learned a lot. A shiner might get eaten or it might not. A chub was of no interest. I couldn’t bring myself to feed Omar smaller trout, but I felt sure the offering would be accepted.
In the spring, by luck, I made a great discovery. I caught a big juicy crawfish with my net and tossed him off the rock. I’d never seen Omar so excited. He hit the crawfish so hard he cut it in half. He swallowed the tail, then spun round and caught the head before it had dropped three inches in the water column. I made a mental note. “If he slashes my fly and I don’t get him, let it drift.”
I repeated the experiment with consistent results. Omar loved crawfish. I got to work at the tying vice. I tied elaborate realistic crawfish patterns, simple impressionistic patterns, heavy patterns, light patterns. Gallop’s Craw, Flynn’s mallard back, endless variations. Omar was unimpressed.
I focused on stealth. I would inch my way into Omar’s pool, entering well down stream, taking a quiet step and waiting several minutes before taking another. I found a mountain laurel I could hide behind so only my casting arm was visible. One day I found Omar taking Blue Winged Olives off the surface. Something I’d never seen. He must have been feeling very bold. I made what I thought was a perfect presentation. Omar calmly retreated to his rock. No matter. With six X tippet I would have been only a minor annoyance.
Three, maybe four, years after I first met Omar I happened to be fishing Fightingtown one morning after a heavy rain. It was spring. The flame azalea by Omar’s rock was in a blazing orange bloom and the air smelled sweet. The birds were busy building their nests and the stone rollers were spawning. The water was cold and stained and high and the sun had found a little hole through which it could shine on that beautiful pool.
Omar’s belly was butter yellow and his back a deep olive. His big mosaic spots cutting their zig-zag line along his side. His teeth perfect, gleaming white and sharp. His fins full and his tail the size of my hand. An old fish but perfect in every way. Omar was twenty-six inches when he ate the little yellow sucker spawn fly. It wasn’t what either of us expected.
My buddy Kent was with me and we got better photos this time. I seldom take photos of myself with fish but I asked Kent to take a few. They are great and I look at them from time to time but not that often. Silly of me, to think I would need a photograph to remember that moment.
Kent caught Omar a year after that, bringing to three the number of times I was in his company. He was still beautiful in spite of starting to show his age. That was years ago and I haven’t seen him in quite some time. I like to think he’s under that rock but I know the facts of life.
Omar was a very old fish when last we met and the years since have been hard on Fightingtown. Drought and heat have taken a toll on the little stream. It no longer runs high and hard over those slick rocks. I doubt the good people of Big Frog Fighting Town would recognize it today.
Omar was a great fish. As good a fish as he could possibly be. As good a fish as I have ever known. He is certainly gone from under that rock. Moved on perhaps to some higher plane or maybe not, but alive nonetheless in me. He might have failed in evading my net but in making me a better man, was a resounding success.
I don’t get to fish that little creek much anymore. Maybe twice a year, but I still think of it as home. I fished Omar’s pool the other day. I tossed a small streamer into the current and let it drift under the rock. I stripped and my line came tight. A twenty-two inch male brown with a familiar looking jaw slid into my net. Those beautiful white teeth.
“I’ll let myself believe I know you little friend,” I thought as I took the hook from the corner of his mouth. I stroked his back and fins and slid him out of the net without a photo. I stood quietly with a lump in my throat as he glided back under the rock, and I wondered what he had come to teach me.
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