The Big One

The Big One

by James Van Pelt

Illustration by Dell Harris

Mostly I fish to get away from the world. Retirement’s like a bad cold: once you’ve got one, no one without one wants to be near you. You go off by yourself and deal with it the best you can. Since I quit work, my life’s a fulltime vacation. I fish. I listen to the news. Lots of stuff now about the aliens. Lots of worry and fuss about how can we deal with them. Do we have enough points in common to have diplomatic relations? What are their intentions?

It doesn’t help that they aren’t talking much. They show up in Washington, Paris, Brussels, and Canberra, spend some time with the governments, then spread out. Do you regular news hounds read those tacky tabloids? They’re full of alien sightings. Here’s an alien at a supermarket, they say; here’s an alien at the horse track; here’s an alien at a graveyard. Can’t tell them apart. Don’t even know how many of them there are.

I got some thoughts on the matter myself. Everyone does. But no one’s been interested in asking an old fart like me my opinion, so I pack up my gear and head for the mountains every chance I get. Let you folks deal with it. The trout are waiting and that’s all that matters to me now.

I fish Blue Bottle Creek. You ever been there? It splashes down the mountain, rushing and rumbling the whole way, hissing into calm spots behind rocks, then blasting into spray at the next. And the tiny pools where the fish hang out are near impossible to drop a lure into. It takes a keen eye and a steady wrist to flick an eighth of an ounce of Daredevil into one without overshooting or falling short into the white water around it. On top of that, the bottom is full of waterlogged branches and jumbled up rocks that want to snag that lure and hold it forever, and willow and tamarask overhang the banks waiting to catch a cast that’s too high.

That’s why I fish the Blue Bottle, and have for nearly sixty years. You feel like you’ve really accomplished something just getting the hook into a place where a hungry fish can see it and clomp on down.

Of course, if you can do it—standing in the iron-cold water—if you can hold your breath just so, draw back the rod barely enough to avoid the underbrush behind you, snap the lure forward and release the line at the instant you should, that lure will drop pretty as you please into one of those puny pools, and more often than not (the fish gods willing and your mind in a good place) a Rainbow or Brookie will latch on. Oh, those are the moments. Even now, sixty-seven years old and more fish through my creel than most fishermen can imagine, there’s still that electric zap of the fish taking the line and the reverent tip of the rod bowing to the water to take away everything in the world that isn’t fish and stream and pulsing rod vibrating with the life at the end of the line.

Seeing as the Blue Bottle isn’t your regular creek, though; not an easy one with broad, flat banks and slow spots the size of parking lots that a blind man couldn’t miss even if you spun him around a few times, I was surprised to see another fisherman fishing one of my favorite holes. I’ve gone whole days without seeing a soul on this stretch of water, but there he was. And I was so taken aback—I mean, when you fish a tiny creek, and your day’s been nothing but wading and casting and the loneliness full of lively little lights dancing off the ripples—that it took me a moment to notice he was an alien.

I’m not a rube, exactly, so I know what one looks like. Like I said, they’re on the news all the time anyway. Fact is, they’re practically human, and he wore regular fishing stuff, so you can understand how I mistook him at first. But he had those extra-skinny arms and weird fingers that look like they’d go just as easy forwards as backwards, and his face, underneath a brand new, floppy khaki job that I’m pretty sure I’d seen for sale at Jack’s Bait and Tackle, was all those inhuman angles without ears or mouth. Just a couple of depressions and a slit.

It didn’t strike me at the time how unusual his being there was. Later, when you news folk caught wind of the story, I figured otherwise. Right then, though, he was just another guy on the stream.

And sure as I’m sitting here now, he was fishing. Not having a very good time of it either. I kind of faded into the brush to watch. First, he pointed his rod at a likely looking spot—the water was roiling pretty good in the Blue Bottle, so an accurate cast was even more important—and I heard a little pop. Something flew off the end of the rod and splashed into the pool, and an instant later the lure, or whatever it was, ripped out of the water and flew back to the end of the rod. It couldn’t have been in the pool for three seconds, and I figured that wherever he used to do his fishing, the fish were a considerable sight faster than ours.

Pretty high-tech rod. No line as far as I could tell. That lure rushed back to the end of the pole like a bolt might to a strong magnet. Still, its action looked like any you’ve ever seen. When the current dragged, its tip pulled down, and when the lure sprung clear, the rod snapped back. Fishing’s fishing, I say, and that alien was fishing, poor as it was.

For ten minutes he struggled at it. He worked the high end of the pool, then the low end. It was obvious he was no stranger to the angler’s art. He tried upstream and downstream casts. He fiddled with a lumpy thing where his reel should have been, which must have changed the depth of the lure, because for a while the thing skipped back across the surface, and then later he snagged the bottom, doubling that rod up. Lost the lure. Had to dig another one out of a pocket. Lost that one a minute later, and I could see he was getting frustrated.

Well, I had a choice here. After all, a fisherman goes to a stream like the Blue Bottle because he wants to be alone, and I figured he must have been no different. I don’t care where you come from or who you are, there’s something sacred in that. Like someone once told me, “The hours you spend fishing don’t count against all the hours you get in life.” So, even if he’s not catching anything, he at least deserves the privacy of the experience. But a part of me watched this guy (hell, I don’t even know if he was a guy—no one’s too sure about that part of them) and I thought, if I were fishing a strange stream, and I didn’t know what the fish were biting on, I wouldn’t mind someone giving me a suggestion or two. You know, just a push in the right direction.

So I stepped out of the bushes and waded downstream, making plenty of noise so I wouldn’t surprise him.

“How’re they biting?” I said, to be polite.

He shrugged his shoulders and pointed to his chest where nothing was there, and I nodded to show him I understood.

I said, “No translator thing, huh?”

He shook his head. You news guys kind of dwell on the little you do know about the aliens, like the fact they understand our speech fine, but their voices don’t get themselves around our words too good, so they have these boxes that speak for them. No reason for him to be wearing his if he thought he’d be doing a spot of fishing on a creek no one ever came to.

“What’cha fishing with?” I said.

He reached up to the end of his rod and plucked the lure off, holding it out to me on the palm of his weird hand. His fingers were too long and there weren’t any knuckles, and in a lot of ways they looked more plastic than animal, but I didn’t pause—I thought it’d be rude to act like he was any different from anyone else—I took the lure.

At first I wanted to laugh. I mean, if I’d stuck a hook through a dirt clod, it might look like his. No self-respecting creek fish would bite on as unlikely looking a thing as that, but then I thought my lure probably would look just as silly to him, so I snapped the Daredevil off the swivel and handed it over. It’s just a red and white striped spoon with a hook. Doesn’t look like a bug. Doesn’t look like anything natural, but trout go for it sometimes.

He turned it over in his hand and bounced it, feeling its weight. He nodded as if he approved.

“Here,” I said, “Fish in these parts are kinda particular. Maybe I can show you a thing or two.”

He gave me back the lure, and I readied my line.

“We’ve spooked them here, so we got to move to another pool where they haven’t seen us yet.” We walked right up the middle of the stream because the banks are overgrown, past the spots I’d already fished. He placed his feet carefully, like he was old, then I decided that he was just getting a feel for the stream. Who knows what the rivers are like in his world? Heck, just going from the Blue Bottle to Jumbo Creek a valley over is a switch. Here the bottom’s moss-covered stones all round and slick, and there it’s all busted-up slate and pea-sized gravel, so I don’t blame the alien for treading lightly. Heck, I’m not as fast as I used to be myself.

I peeked over a boulder that marks a bend in the creek. On the other side were a pair of those tiny holes I was telling you about. Ideally, I’d fish ’em from the side, dropping the lure in the foam at the far side of the pool, then working across the current, but there’s no way to get to the side without the fish seeing you, so I’d have to try the cast from here.

The alien moved out of the way of my backswing, his pale eyes glittering with interest, so I felt kind of pressured to do it right. Wouldn’t look good if I hung the hook up in a tree or something. I’ve been doing this a long ...

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