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The Angler and the Sharpshooter

Squinting into the early morning sun, the angler cast a practiced eye at the creek winding through the meadow before him. After fishing it for 25 years, he knew the water by heart and had a memory to go with every riffle, every pool, every bend. The weeks following Labor Day, with summer fast yielding to autumn, were often the best of the season. Sensing the approach of winter, the fish began to feed with abandon. A large attractor fly cast just short of the deeply undercut grassy banks could yield a sudden and violent strike on the surface of the water, followed by a scrappy fight with an energetic trout.

Taking cover behind a clump of sagebrush to keep a low profile from the fish, the angler planned his cast. He was standing at a bend in the creek, which cut a deep channel against the opposite side. With a good cast to the current at the head of the bend, and a quick upstream mend of his line after the fly had drifted ten feet, he could get a clean drift over twenty feet of water that, by all reckoning, should be holding some good fish. The cast had to be precise, however. Too long, and he could find himself tangled in the grass or brush on the opposite shore; too short and the fly would sit still on the dead water in the middle.

He was holding the fly, a size 12 Royal Wulff, in his hand. Later in the day he would switch to a grasshopper pattern, but it was too early now. With his left hand, the angler tossed the fly out over the water then stripped several feet of his line from the reel and began to cast. He made several false casts, admiring the tightness of the loop his line was making, then let the line shoot forward and fall lightly on the water. The fly landed just where he wanted, and he held his breath as it drifted downstream with the current. He executed the upstream mend and got the perfect 20-foot drift. His audience, the fish, let it pass.

A hundred yards behind him, entirely obscured by trees and brush, the sharpshooter lifted a deer rifle and sighted the angler in its crosshairs. With no obstructions and a still target, it would have been an easy shot, but the angler was in a direct line with the sun, which threw a blinding glare into the rifle’s telescopic lens. The sharpshooter cursed silently. This was not something that anyone would want to linger over, but there was nothing for it but to wait until the angler moved up or down stream enough to get out of the line of the sun. Gripped with feelings of irritation, impatience and anxiety, the sharpshooter lowered the rifle.
Meanwhile, the angler had made another perfect cast without a fish. Setting his rod down, he knelt on the grass and stuck a hand into the creek. The water was cold, probably in the low fifties — maybe just a little too cold for the fish to be looking for food on the surface. He turned and looked behind him at the few patches of frost remaining in the meadow. Although he did not know it, he was looking right in the direction of the sharpshooter.

Shaking the water off his hand, he considered his options. He could fish beneath the surface with a nymph and probably catch a few fish now, but the prospect held little interest for him. It was so much more exciting to take a fish on the dry fly, where you could see it strike, sometimes even see it coming out of nowhere to do so. It brought an element of the personal to angling that he felt was missing in the anonymous strikes you got on a nymph. He decided to leave the dry fly on and wait for the water to warm up.

He also decided to move downstream, where the sun had already been on the meadow longer. As he walked he looked closely at the dew on the grass, listened to the shivering of the pine trees as a short gust of wind came up and sighed through them, and took a deep breath of the clean mountain air — so familiar, yet so different from what he was used to in San Francisco. He found himself overcome by a feeling of profound sadness as these familiar things brought home how much this place meant to him. About 150 feet from the bend where he had been casting, he stopped and looked out over the creek. The sun was now almost directly to his right, and he cast a long shadow along the edge of the bank.

Perfect, thought the sharpshooter, raising the deer rifle again. The glare was gone and it was easy to get a clean sighting. Looking through the telescopic lens, the sharpshooter aimed the crosshairs directly at the middle of the back of the angler’s head and held them there for half a minute before thinking, “He’s still now, but he could move his head any time, and I don’t want to shoot twice.” Lowering the crosshairs, the sharpshooter traced a line down the angler’s neck and spine, stopping a third of the way down and moving a little to the left, where the heart should be. It was an easy shot. The sharpshooter took a deep breath and stayed in place with the finger precisely on the trigger. A gentle squeeze and it’s over. A minute later there had been no squeeze, and the rifle was lowered.

He had been seven years old, the angler remembered, when his father first took him out here with a bag of worms and a cheap spinning rod. As is often the case with small boys, he had been lucky. A worm, drifted to a deep hole, had been grabbed by a 14-inch rainbow trout, and he recalled with pride how he had fought the fish himself while his father stood by beaming, then finally netted it. They cooked the fish for dinner that night and he shared it with his sister.

A lot had changed since then. He now fished with a fly rod and released the fish he caught, but that was the least of it. It had been a long time since he enjoyed his father’s approval and now, with the old man dead, there was no chance he ever would. Why had they done it to him, his father and sister? Granted, he was different, at least by their standards. He had known that very early on in life, even though it took a while to realize why. And they assured him it didn’t make any difference, but he didn’t believe them. After all, what else could it be?

The sharpshooter lifted the rifle again and took aim. As still as the angler was standing, it was almost like shooting at a target. That’s it, thought the sharpshooter. Think of it as shooting at a target, or a deer. His death would mean less to the world than the passing of a deer and might even do some good. God knows he’s caused enough pain already.

It took an almost physical effort for the angler to stop brooding and will himself into fishing again. Where he was standing, the creek ran for about 75 feet in a straight channel between grassy, overhanging banks. The bottom rose to a slight crest a foot from the surface in the middle, but a slightly faster current ran over two feet of water by the undercut bank on the opposite side. The angler had caught fish here before. He stripped out some line, made a couple of false casts, then dropped the fly on the water six inches from the opposite shore. Yes! he thought as he watched it drift downstream. That’s it. Come on. Come on. Come on. Now. Now.

Ka-chow.

Rocketing out from underneath the bank, a 12-inch brown trout took the fly with a splashy grab. In the three quarters of a second between then and the firing of the deer rifle, the angler raised his arm and pulled the rod back to set the hook. That accounted for the rod being dropped on the creek bank while the angler tumbled forward into the water, which began to carry his body slowly downstream. The fish thrashed around for half a minute, but with no one holding the rod and putting pressure on the line, it was finally able to throw the hook and swim back to freedom.

The gunshot had rung out like a thunderclap, reverberating through the small mountain valley. The coroner’s report said that the angler had probably barely registered the sound before he was dead from a high-caliber bullet that entered his body under the left shoulder from behind and slightly above, tore out 40 percent of his heart, shattered two ribs, and ricocheted to the right, coming to rest just under the sternum. What the report didn’t say was that the angler died with a fish on.

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