Back in the day, making a kill was what made the man. I was fifteen years old and jacked up on newly found testosterone, looking for glory, a whoop and holler, a blood-stained shirt, and a load of dead meat latched to my belt.
Just upstream from the fish hatchery, the Crystal River releases its banks into small meandering tributaries, which, while only a few feet wide, are two-fold deep and carry an occasional lunker brown. It was these rogues I sought when I pried apart the barbwire and found my way into the rancher’s property. I didn’t carry a rod but only the guidance of two toe-headed boys who swore they were part Ute. They confided in me an ancient fishing technique: 1) walking down stream, you could herd trout to undercut banks; 2) once sheltered, it was easy to reach down and slide your hands under their soft underbelly; 3) with one swift movement, you could send a thumb through their gills and scoop them into the air; 4) the trick was to move your hands “back and forth,” simulating currents until the fish were complacent before the strike.
As I stalked the stream, I saw three shadowy submarines and waved my hands causing them to scurry beneath the banks. My heart pounded as I realized this plan might actually work. All three fish were over 18-inches. I crawled on my belly and cautiously approached the bank. As I got close to the shore, the grasses that were partially submerged moved back and forth violently. I froze. This didn’t seem to be the movement of a smaller fish, and I wondered if I’d grossly underestimated the size of this monster brown.
I slowly reached under the bank and felt something slippery on my finger tips, then the rush of current as the beast moved deeper into the undercut. I couldn’t reach far enough to massage the fish into my grasp, so I decided to lunge aggressively and pin him against the bank, worrying about a grip on the gills later. The smooth flesh of this meaty tube was replaced by the fur, claws, and belly of what felt like a newborn puppy. Out of sheer coincidence, my harpoon hand found its way to the backside of the muskrat. Fortunately, I retracted my hand out of sheer terror and avoided a bite from his wood-chomping, overgrown incisors.
Thinking back, I realize I learned a valuable lesson: If you want to be man, you better take it slow and soft. You also better know where you are putting your hands and how to use them. Worst case, you get bit.