When the thermometer shows triple digits I head to the Blue Mountains. Cool headwaters of several streams call my name and trout will be rising to the fly. Just the other day, a text message from my older brother pointed me to the South Fork of the Walla Walla River. “It’ll be just like the old days,” he said. “Seeing who can catch the most and the biggest trout.”
At six years older, Dusty is a picture of what I will be: grizzled beard, weak knees, fading eyesight. Wading has become a challenge for him, as is tying on a new fly pattern when a favorite gets stuck on a tree branch. In contrast, I like to imagine I’m still a skinny little kid with a handful of second-hand flies and something to prove. The face in the mirror does look older though.
The first few miles up the shaded South Fork trail pass at an easy pace. We sidestep clusters of butterflies that swarm on every seep in the trail. Ox-eyed daisies and yellow monkey flower are in full bloom. The acrid scent of ponderosa pine wafts in a warm breeze. The sound of the river pulls us along.
Clad in wading sandals, shorts and t-shirts, we don’t look like serious fly casters. Blame it on nostalgia, but we both had heirloom willow creels strapped to our sides. In our family, keeping an occasional trout is not considered a crime. And with only a two-fish limit, who would know the difference?
Dusty and I split up at the three-mile mark after he tells me, “I don’t want you crowding in on my spot.”
Fair enough, I think. Older brother’s prerogative. I grab a straight piece of dead alder to use as a wading stick and ford thigh-high current to reach the opposite shore. I recall seeing Grandpa Harry, when he was the same age as I am now, walking towards me on the South Fork trail with blood streaming down his face. “I just lost a big trout,” he said. “Chased him downstream, slipped and hit my head on a rock.”
With luck, I will stay upright today, find a good stretch of water to fish and still keep Dusty in sight. My goal is not to spend half the day looking for him when I could be fishing.
Trout are looking up. I catch and release several fish on a Parachute Adams, including a fat, sassy, dark-speckled 14-incher, before I nestle two keeper-sized trout in the bottom of Grandpa Harry’s ancient creel between a layer of bracken fern. But where is my brother? It’s easy to forget about a fishing partner when trout are biting. My bare legs are scratched bloody from doing battle with waist-high snowberry and blackberry bushes as I search the brushy shoreline for a sign of Dusty.
I finally spot him moving slowly along the opposite bank. In the old days, his relentless pace kept me busy chasing until he filled his creel. Thank goodness for a change in regulations that reduced harvest! We might get back in time for dinner today. Steadying himself with the aid of a wading staff, Dusty casts into a deep hole downstream of where the current crests over a moss-covered boulder. A small trout flashes next to his fly. He sets the hook and slides it to shore, but it’s too small to keep. He carefully unhooks the fish and drops it into the water next to his feet.
After fording the river, I join him and we sit with our feet in the water to show off our catch. “Mine is the largest,” Dusty says, “but I need another one to end the day.”
I rest in the shade and critique his technique while he fishes his favorite hole. Unfortunately, there is no reward for his patience. “I’ll give you one of my fish,” I say as Dusty strings up his rod. Idle thought quickly replaces idle talk on the hike back to the trailhead. Shadows lengthen as we walk side-by-side. Two brothers rekindle poignant memories on a hot summer day up the South Fork.