It's an overcast, blustery Friday, the perfect October day. The river is beautiful now, and full of salmon, but you need the lake. You know the days of the lake are dwindling.
The campgrounds are full. The dusty gravel road is choked with traffic. You eat dust behind five other vehicles on the way in. Deer hunters. Rifle season opens in the morning. Some, like you, are taking in some trout fishing tonight. They are in high spirits, talking and laughing loudly as they troll around the lake. Others have apparently brought more ammo than the one bullet they will theoretically need to bring down their deer, and are shooting off their big rifles. The mountains reverberate with high caliber echoes. It seems unlikely that any deer will be left in the valley after all this ruckus.
You know you're a hunter, too, and you know where your prey is. You load up with a muddler and kick across the channel to a productive shoreline. You start your stalk.
And you get your buck. A girthy buck brown comes up off the rocks and ambushes the muddler.
If it was a deer your hunt would be over. But it's a trout; you're just getting started. You release the brown and kick on down the shoreline.
A golden rainbow slants up out of the dying weeds and takes the fly with deadly intent.
You release the rainbow and continue to hunt the shoreline. You are comforted by the ritual. You remember again that you hunt for the hunting as much as the prey. That what you're seeking in the hunt, and what you find if you're fortunate, is yourself.
You come to the end of the willows. The breeze is sharper now and you feel it in your toes. There's a swirl on the muddler.
It's a weighty rainbow, a scarred veteran of the war against his kind. His right pectoral is a shriveled nub. You wonder what hunter he eluded on that occasion. And how many through his lifetime. Eagle, osprey, loon, great blue heron, otter, even other trout. He's had to live--had to struggle to live--with them all. And now you.
But his luck has held. The hunter who holds him is one whose life does not depend on the taking of his life. You gladly release him, and wish him long life as he sinks into safety.
The shooting has stopped. The breeze has calmed and there are rises out in open water. You swing out and another good fish takes the muddler. Beautiful, unscarred, perhaps wiser now and more likely to survive to old age.
The light dies behind the mountain. You begin a slow kick back to the truck, letting the muddler drift behind you.
You lose two fish, and net the third. Your hunt is over.
But the hunt goes on. You can hear it all around you. You think about your prey, swimming out there in the dark lake. Every one of them was caught by taking what they took to be prey. Every one of them is still out there, hunting.
There's the truth of it. We're all hunters. And we're all prey.