Fish On | By: Joaeph Quinn | | Category: Short Story - Military Bookmark and Share

Fish On


By J. R. Quinn

“Fish on!” Rex Carter yelled as the drag on the reel whined. The pole arced against the weight and pull of the hooked salmon. The other fishermen on the bank reeled in and set their rods aside. None would risk crossing a line holding a hooked fish. Jimmie Vang snatched the long handled net and danced over the rocks covering the shore, ready to pull up a fish too heavy to land by line alone.

“Don’t horse him. Let him run. Rexie boy.” Cautioned Hugo Black in his thick eastern European accent.

Rex Carter stifled his irritation. If there’s one thing he knew, it was how to land a fish. Fishing was his life now. Work at the bait shack then slip down after work or on days off to Discovery Park to fish the salmon or striper run with the same old group of guys on that designated section of riverbank.

“This is a big one.” He thought as he raised the pole and reeled down to the waterline. The fish seemed to tire quickly.

“Not as much fight this time in the run. Maybe they just give up now, knowing they’re only swimming up stream to die.” He thought. “Maybe this is just all they’ve got left or maybe it‘s just a snag, an old boot or something.” But then the fish broke water flashing silver and surged back deep into the current.

“It wants to run, Rexie It’s not ready to feed you yet. Salmon and lochs. Salmon and lochs, Rexie boy.” Hugo sang.

Rex Carter raised the pole and reeled down for the last time. He sensed this was the fish’s last desperate gasp.

“No more fight left. Now if the hook doesn’t tear out I got him.” He thought.

Ready with the net, Jimmie! He’s coming in.”

Jimmie scampered across the rocks to the expected landing spot. Even though he’d retired a few years ago he was just as quick and agile as when he ‘d left Vietnam thirty some years ago as Saigon was falling.

Rex Carter backed cautiously up the bank over treacherous rocks tensing the line. Jimmie scooped the exhausted salmon into the net and lugged it on shore.

“Maybe twenty five maybe even twenty seven, Rexie. What you think, Jimmie? “

“ Oh, maybe, maybe.” Jimmie replied.

Rex removed the treble hooks of the spoon like lure anchored deeply into the corner of the mouth then slid his red nylon strap out of his tackle box threading it through the gill flap and out the gasping orifice.

“Yipes!” He yelled as he shook a now bloody finger. “The sucker caught me. Got in one last nip.”

He hoisted the great sleek and silver missile up out of the net and dropped it into the water. He tied a stick to the strap then weighed it down with some of the myriad rocks strewn across the bank.

“Yea, at least 25.” He said. “Good fish, clean, starting to show some red. They turn like leaves as it gets later in the run.

With the salmon landed, everyone went back to fishing. Jimmie Vang whipped his long cast well out into the current. The reel whined and the bright yellow lure slapped onto the water. Carter lumbered up the bank to sit on a drift wood log and light at least the tenth cigarette of the young day.

He admired Jimmie Vang’s cast. “ Spent two years trying to kill em in Vietnam now I’m fishing with em on the Sacramento River.” He mumbled to no one in particular.

The day was warm for early November. He surveyed the water spotting the seal that had slipped up river from San Francisco Bay. Sleekly, it would slice the surface, dive and emerge with a struggling salmon. “Life is easy for some.” He thought. “If the white sharks don’t get you.”

Behind and above the aged cottonwoods holding this worn section of riverbank roared the I-5 interstate, crammed with never-ending vehicles alternating between jams and sprints as it gravitated towards the gleaming office towers of the nearby capital center. The occupants raced by, oblivious to the river and the ancient migration of Chinook salmon , crowding upstream to spawn then die.

Carter glanced out at the expensive boats all tricked out with the latest gear, cruising up from the exclusive marinas of Old Town. They convoyed to hover at the demarcation of the clear snowmelt of the glacially cold American river with the murky agricultural run off of the Sacramento.

“ It’d be nice to fish off the back of one of those beauties with a beer in hand.” He thought. “That’s a lot of money tied up just to catch your two salmon a day limit.”

Who am I kidding?” He thought again “ I’ll always be fishing the bank with the peasants, the illegals and the refugees.”

Fishing with Hugo Black, who with his family fled Hitler, and Jimmie Vang, who fought on the losing side in Vietnam. Surrounding the regular ensemble of survivors on the margin was a shifting cast. Strangers of varied background arrived periodically with new gear, flushed with expectancy. They would cast until their arm grew sore then surrender in frustration. But Rex Carter remained and usually caught fish, Fish he could no longer stand to eat. Fish, he gave away to homeless shelters and neighbors. Fishing was his refuge, his escape and, most important, he was good at it.

Carter perused today's assembly. He observed as they shot lines out into the mid river current, drop the lure to the bottom then slowly draw it to shore. When the lure came within a few feet of the bank they raised the pole and reeled faster to avoid snagging rock. One fisherman, on average, of the eight or ten usually fishing caught the rocks every three or four casts. Rex Carter seldom snagged. If he did, he knew all the tricks to free the hook and save an expensive lure. It was a point of honor. Sometimes, he’d imagine all the multicolored lures trapped by the rocks for years on end. Thousands of dollars of lures and line eventually swept to the sea. Enough to buy one of the luxury cruisers gliding past, up and down the Sacramento.

As he watched, one middle aged Vietnamese hooked a rock then struggled to free the lure. Most of the bank fishermen were Asian, Koreans, Thai, Chinese, some Japanese and Vietnamese with some Hispanics and the occasional Russian mixed in. Carter recognized the differences among the Asians. He especially distinguished the Vietnamese and this one he had not seen fishing before. Not seen fishing but had seen before. The man wore a broad brimmed straw hat, a blue faded to gray tunic like shirt, worn jeans and sandals. His skin drew taut across high cheekbones and hollow cheeks with a white blazing scar slashed from the corner of the right eye to the edge of his mouth. He could easily be standing on the bank of the Mekong. He clattered up current, dislodging loose boulders trying to free the hook. He twitched the tip of the pole repeatedly, gingerly at first then with more force and irritation. Finally he pulled directly down the line stretching it slowly until it went suddenly limp in the water, losing the lure. He cussed, peering up the bank catching Carter’s stare. His eyes dropped quickly. He scrambled back to his place at the river‘s edge. Carter’s eyes pursued like a hunter on alert. Carter studied the lightening shaped scar as he threaded line through the tiny eye of a shining new lure. The man peeked furtively from beneath his wide brimmed hat. He recognized Carter from long ago.

“Rexie, how come you are not fishing? Today the salmon they run.” Hugo Black announced as he maneuvered into a seat on the rocks beside Carter.

“Rexie, I see the crew has taken out the yacht today without your permission.” He teased as they watched a great white luxury cruiser slide by up river. Carter was silent.

“ Rexie, you’re not yourself today. You feel sick?”

“Hugo, you seen that guy before?” Carter asked nodding toward the Asian in the wide brimmed straw hat.

“Maybe, Rexie, unless you know their name one Asian brethren looks like another. You know how that is.”

“No, Hugo, not if you’ve seen enough of them. They’re as different as you and me.”

“How you become such an expert on our Asian brethren, Rexie?”

“ Two tours in Vietnam shooting from a open helicopter door sharpens your eye. Especially when they’re shooting back.”

“You fought in Vietnam, Rexie? I didn’t know that. War, war, Rexie, my family escaped Hitler and Germany. My father could see what was coming for us Jews. God save us from the warriors among us, Rexie. But I thought you were a college man. How did you end up in Vietnam?”

Ready to fish again, the Vietnamese in the straw hat assumed an available spot on the bank. Carter squinted out over his head to the western sun then up the flowing current of the river. His practiced eye discerned the shadows of salmon pressing themselves upstream. Occasionally, a dark back or bright tail would shatter the surface.

He began. “I started college intending to be an engineer but I ended up majoring in beer and billiards. I woke up one morning on top of a pool table not remembering how I got there. That wasn’t all I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember enough answers on exams either. That was the late sixties before Bobby Kennedy got shot. After I left college I volunteered. I saw a recruiting poster. Uncle Sam wanted me and since he was the only one who did, I joined the army. I was going to be an artillery engineer. They sent me to school. You learned to calculate trajectories, angles and velocities. A lot of math and geometry goes into blowing people to smithereens. Now it’s done by computer.

After they spent all that time and money on artillery training, they sent me to Korea. For six months in the winter I picked up cigarette butts in the snow. I decided there was no future in that so I went to my colonel and asked if there was anything else available.

Vietnam was heating up. Johnson was sending more troops and they needed helicopter gunners. I was young and by definition stupid and said ‘Why not?’

So I sat two tours in the open door of a chopper, usually drunk often under the influence of some mind altering substance shooting at unseen strangers concealed in the jungle while they shot back at me.”

“So you saw much action there in Vietnam, Rexie?”

“Some, but most of the time we ferried Vietnam brass around the countryside. The bastards had to have a special seat upholstered in red satin with ornate arms covered in gold leaf, a damn throne bolted to the floor of a Huey. I loved to see the expression on their arrogant little gook faces when I pointed out the bullet hole in the panel right next to the head rest.”

“Was someone shot there, Rexie?”

“Someone but not one of those little sobs. It wasn’t red satin for nothing. “ Carter said as he glared from the rocks at the Vietnamese in the straw hat//

“One flight, I remember, we helicoptered a 400 pound hog to a barbecue. He must of known where he was going. He sure raised hell. Almost did what the Cong couldn’t and brought the ship down. You name it and we moved it around the jungle, generals, green troops out, wounded and dead back,, pigs, ammunition. You name it. We delivered.”

He glared more intently as he spoke. Periodically the man darted a look back.

“ Do you know this guy, Rexie, the Asian brethren in the straw hat?” Hugo probed. “You fly him to a battle or something?”

“I know him from a battle alright, Hugo, a firefight late in the war. Just before it all went to hell. That was a long time ago but he looks the same. A gun sight is as good as a camera for recording a face.”

“We had just brought in some government troops. Dropped them off on the banks of a rice paddy. We’d leave em there. They’d hunker down for the afternoon. Nobody wanted to get shot or bitten by the snakes. Later we come back and pick em up. This time as we loaded and pulled up all hell broke loose. The Cong had dug little dirt caves into the sides and waited. They opened up AK’s, machine guns. They ripped into us like a buzz saw. Rounds pierced the sides like exploding needles. They zinged past me sitting in the open door like the target ducks at carnivals. One of the Vietnamese troops, boys really, that we were pulling out sat in the generals throne when a bullet ripped through the metal and tore his head to bits. Blood, bone and hair splattered everywhere.”

“I let loose. Firing at anything I could see. We were hovering only about 30-40 feet off the ground. Hovering like a pinata at a birthday party. They’d hit a fuel line and we were losing power.

“One of the Cong popped out of his hole and fired right at me. The area was full of copters from our squad and others but he had eyes only for me. I saw him clearly, saw him take dead aim and fire. He pelted the door just above my head. Scattering fragments all over the inside. It sounded like rocks shaking in a barrel. Just then our copter went down fluttering like a wounded duck, down into the bamboo.”

The Vietnamese in the straw hat hooked a salmon. It was big, arcing his pole like a whip. Line whined out into the current. The others on the rocks reeled in and set their poles aside. No one picked up a net.

“You sure it’s him, Rexie?” Hugo asked.

“It’s him.” Carter replied. “He’s eyeing that fish the way he drew a bead on me.”

The drag on the line ceased. The man reeled the elevated pole down to the water’s surface. Then slowly drew it up until the drag began to moan. When the bleat of the drag ceased he raised the pole again.. The fish tired and moved inexorably towards the shore. The man smiled anticipating his triumph. This was more than sport to him. Many fished here to feed their families.

“How did you get out of the jungle, Rexie?”

“They had hit the fuel line but the bird was still intact. We taped it up and got our ass airborne and out of there. Those hunks of junk would fly no matter what.”

“You didn’t get hit then?” Hugo inquired.

“Not from anything that sob did. He sure tried. But I still have a piece of metal in my ass from America’s little disagreement. Valuable little scrap, government’s been paying me for it ever since”

The great salmon slapped his tail against the flow splashing the shore.

“ Maybe a record fish!” Carter said. “Biggest I’ve seen in a while.”

“Huge! Feed the family for a week.” Hugo agreed. “ Can’t land it without a net though. The line will snap if he tries to haul it out. The fish is too big.

“Yea, the bank’s too high and current’s too fast to step into the water.” Carter observed.

“River’s deeper there than it looks.” Hugo added.

“Sure is. Who knows, might drown if he goes in after it.” Carter said with a grin. “Got himself a real problem, that boy. Maybe one of his ‘associates’ here will net it for him.” Carter scanned the little enclave standing in silence taking in the struggle. Jimmie Vang made no move to help. The others shifted about indifferently, impatient to cast their lines again.

“It looks like he’ll have to cut line and let that sucker go.” Carter said.

A shame!” Hugo added. “A shame to see a big fish like that drift away down the river with a five dollar lure hooked into its mouth.”

“A shame, real shame.” Carter said as the man in the straw hat scanned the riverbank. Their eyes met again. The same intense eyes Carter saw firing from the rice paddy. The man’s attention returned to the great fish lolling in the water just below him. It was exhausted now, no fight left. It rolled within the sinews of the flow, flashing reds and silver mixed with gray green. The man tugged up on the pole stretching the line to the drag point. It was futile. He knew he could not land the fish. He slid his hand into his pocket removing a large clasped knife. He clutched the bent pole in his left hand. Deftly with one hand, he opened the knife . The wide blade flashed as it caught the glint of the sun. Carter admired the one handed action.

“That boy has done that before.” He thought.

The man in the straw hat gazed down at the great fish rolling in the current undercutting the bank . He raised the knife and severed the line. The river grasped the fish pulling it down stream. It did not swim. It did not know it was free. Immobile it surged away in the current only to be caught in the black tangled chords of an all encompassing net.

Rex Carter heaved the great salmon up onto a slab of flat granite. It flopped about a bit then lay still, gulping at air. The Vietnamese stood over Carter, the shining knife raised high in hand. Carter maneuvered out the lure embedded in the fish’s mouth and looked up. Once again the two stared at one another across a weapon. Carter offered the lure.

“You might need this?” He said, eyeing the knife. The man looked to the knife, surprised to see the blade still in hand. Adroitly, he flicked it closed. He took the lure and nodded.

Carter lugged the spent fish from the net and laid it like a sacrifice across the flat slab of stone. It spread out 30 inches of silver, red and dark green mass punctuated by orange spots. Together they stood admiring the catch.

“A monster, must be 30 pounds! Feed the family for a week.” Carter said as he studied the scar slashed down the man’s right cheek.

“Yes, yes very big!” The man replied. “Thank you.”

Rex Carter pulled the stub of his cigarette from the corner of his mouth and crushed it against a rock. He looked up at Hugo Black.

“Only in America.” He said.

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