The golden guide to becoming a river fisherman

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The pocket book was not the kind you fill with money, but we hoped somewhere on its pages to find a map to a jackpot making the book worth more than the buck and a quarter we had paid for it at the drugstore.

That’s how this whole, river fishing thing started.

The book, a Golden Guide, called “A Guide to Fresh and Saltwater Fishing” barely squeezed into a shirt pocket without busting a seam. It contained more than 650 illustrations, “in full color,” so the best place for it was in the palm of your hand.

On its pages were drawn pictures of curvy rivers and streams with stones placed here and there, tributaries and feeders, different kinds of debris, and amidst this blend of structure and current, it showed where to find the fish that looked like Ichthys bumper stickers in a prayer meeting parking lot.

The book made clear that if, we followed its advice to a “t,” we would certainly hook something. And we imagined kneeling on the river bank holding a glistening bass or trout in our wet hands that spring day, when Kooch’s mother drove us in the family station wagon to a river bridge a few miles out of town and promised to pick us up in a couple hours.

We didn’t know then that she would forget about us. We were certain after the green station wagon disappeared toward town, however, that none of us carried a watch, so it didn’t much matter.

We were 11 years old, the four of us, packing rods and reels, plugs, spoons and spinners, and the clouds in the sky were thin streamers when we rallied along the road bank to peer into the book.

We each memorized a scenario:

If the river made a U-turn, fish would sit in the deep current near the far bank probably holding close to the bottom waiting for food, bugs and stuff to drift by, according to an illustration in the Golden Guide.

Nuthead committed the scene to memory.

Check.

Kooch memorized the picture of a feeder stream entering the river that showed a passel of fish holding just down current.

Kopper and I kept a few diagrams too tucked in gray matter before tumbling down the embankment to the river grinning like squirrels ready to catch bucket loads of bass and sauger, a brook trout or maybe a spotted pike.

We didn’t catch anything that day. Unless you count the rocks and sticks. We walked several boy miles — which means who knows how far. We climbed wet or dry rocks for a better presentation. Snagged or broke off in murky side channels, on brush growing from the opposite stream bank, or under mid-current boulders. We waded after spoons or spinners hooked on rocks or submerged limbs and rallied like a recon team in the shade of leaning pines or river birch to peer into the pages of the Golden Book expecting a secret.

The secret it didn’t tell us was how the state fisheries department had electroshocked that stream and planned to restock it with indigenous species. What was there now, chubs and shiners mostly and a spring run of suckers, didn’t chase Daredevils, plugs or whiptail spinners.

It didn’t tell us that this whole river fishing deal would become a thing. It would squirm around in our minds for many years and despite its lack of fruitfulness that spring day, it would embed itself in our brainpans like the smell of fried chicken.

We had become river anglers.

Kooch, who would play football for Montana State and sell sporting goods, and Kopper, who would become a building contractor, and Nuthead, a road construction concrete cutter, would each turn to rivers for contentment in the years to come.

That spring day, wading knee deep in sneakers, had done it.

And the Golden Book, a buck and a quarter, no batteries, but a recharge on each page and in each of its 650 illustrations was instrumental as well.

We walked on the shoulder of pavement back to town afterward, damp, wearing wet shoes and singing choruses of “A hundred bottles of beer on the wall,” until we saw the green station wagon explode through sunset and distance like a meteor.

Kooch’s mom was flustered, embarrassed and likely relieved. She had forgotten us, she opined, and apologized several times, but she didn’t need to.

It was us, who owed her a debt of gratitude.

And we still do.

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