The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

The Tragic Demise of an Innocent Trout

I still remember the way my little brother looked at me with sad, melancholy eyes the first time we went fishing. The stoic, shocked stare at what I had done haunts me like malevolent demon of shame.

 It was a fine, hot summer weekend, the sort that you can’t really get away from in Southern California, unless you flee to the beach or the mountains. We were a camping family, so we headed for the mountains. We weren’t rich folk, my dad was still a medical student, but we still took the time to get out, and were well prepared with tent, sleeping bags, and a mother who could conjure a good meal out of almost anything. On this fateful trip, we had left the house with dreams of going a big adventure further into the mountains. Upon arriving at our favorite site, though, we found it full. The adventure was spoilt! Being intrepid adventurers, my parents decided we would simply find another campground. We worked our way back down the mountainside full campground by full campground until we found ourselves at a small fishing campground, with a large puddle filled with hapless farm-raised fish, circling the puddle, awaiting their foregone fate. Normally we were above this kind of pandering commercialism, but we had left the house to camp, and by golly we were gonna spend the weekend out camping if it killed us.

There is much I don’t remember about this place. The memories of it are vague and fragmented, but one single event stands out as clear to me as if it were yesterday’s news. We had scarcely gotten camp set up before my brother and I realized that the proposition of fishing meant we had the opportunity to kill things with our bare hands, and possibly even eat them. All it took was walking over to the camp office, renting a pole and tackle, and waging war with the Murky Deep of the Puddle. With my dad facilitating, it wasn’t long before we were outfitted as steely-eyed killers. I, being of the ripe age of 8, needed no assistance, and in no time had managed to throw two hooks into the pond. Sadly, the line had not followed. But eventually, I managed to get set up. I found myself a sprig of grass, imagined myself a straw hat, and lay back with the pole dangling into the water for oh, at least 23 seconds. I then realized that clearly, no fish were to be had here, and moved on. For reasons that escaped me, the fish didn’t flock to me as I hopped around the lake, throwing worms into the water and frothing the waters.

My little brother – 4 years younger – was infinitely more patient than I, and sat quietly with the rod set up for him, and while my dad went back to finish with camp. within a few minutes he had caught a fish. This was especially good news to me, as it relieved me of my requirement to actually sit still and fish, and instead went to my little brother’s rescue. My attention span being as short as they come, I had never caught a fish in my life, only read about it. My boyish hunter instincts told me that I was supposed to whack the fish on the head to stun it. I have no clue where I had gotten this idea, but action was required NOW, before this slimy wriggling package got away. Since my brother didn’t seem to know what to do with the monster of a fingerling he had reeled in, I took charge. I whacked that thing on the forehead with God’s Own Official Hammer – the pliers.

It kept wriggling.

I was nothing if not proud of my sense of determination, so I whacked it again. The fish clearly lacked the sense to die properly – it still moved. I popped that poor piscine forehead about 15 times with all the muscle my 8-year old big brother arms could muster. My dad saw the flailing from across the street and came jogging over to see what Sea Demon had attacked us.

What he found was my brother, standing in speechless horror as the first landed fish of his life was slowly being reduced to fertilizer before his young, innocent eyes. I explained, in frustrated tones, that the fish was still wiggling. He had approached the scene thinking that I was assaulting my brother’s fish in some sort of jealous fraternal rage. The realization that my violence was actually an act of brotherly love left him momentarily without a solution to the commotion. The fish hung limply from my determined grip, channeling the mother of all migraines with a dented forehead and still weakly wiggling with reflective determination. 

I stood before my father, and furtively tapped the fish’s forehead one last time trying to make it stop before having to explain to my dad why I could not seem to kill the thing. My brother stood, quietly grappling with the horror of an older brother who meant well. My father stood, trying his best to abide the parenting principle of never laughing at your child openly. In the end, we all failed miserably at our respective tasks.

I’ve had to grapple myself with this question of wanting to be helpful to others, and yet not smack their fish into metaphorical fertilizer. Over the last several years, my wife and I have volunteered to foster children with disabilities. Our own youngest son is disabled, and after years of struggling through the process of figuring him out, connecting with resources, navigating medical and education needs, we had the idea that the experience qualified us to help others. As it turns out, there is nothing that qualifies you ahead of time for those kinds of challenges. What keeps one child safe from himself has kept another child away from independence and freedom. Each child, each set of circumstances, is different from all the others. The only qualifications that have gotten us through the misunderstanding, and the pain of being misunderstood, is an open mind – a willingness to understand the next set of challenges differently than the last, and compassion.

My wife has supplied more compassion to the world than anyone else I have ever personally known. She taught me to care again after the circumstances of military service had left me unable to reach beyond my own self-interest. About the same time, the tragic demise of my brother’s trout – along with the years of endless retelling of the story at family gatherings and the inevitable mirth – finally began to sink in. My brother has forgiven me decades ago, but he still won’t let me touch his stuff. Between my wife’s example, and my brother’s forgiveness, I’ve learned to be cautious of assuming too much when the urge to help someone strikes.

After all, stunning is momentary, but pulverizing lasts forever.


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7 Responses to “The Tragic Demise of an Innocent Trout”

  1. Jan says:

    Loved the captivating story! It also brought back memories that still refuse to leave me. One of my early memories of fishing was with my grandma’s brother when I was about the age you were in the story, 6-8 or so. We were having teh time of our lives at their summer house by a lake, and fishing was a daily activity. – We ate what we caught. One time, as he was teaching me how to clean and de-scale a fish, he started cutting it with a knife, and as he did, a loud squeaky sound erupted from the fish. I froze and my eyes got wide, and I whispered:”Did… did the fish cry?” And for reasons unknown to me, he said “Yes, I suppose it did”. I freaked out and ran into the house crying. It took me years before I would fish again, but my next memory of myself fishing is on a small country road bridge, where I was fishing with my new wooden clogs on my feet instead of my usual sneakers (Bad choice). And me p[ulverizing a poor little fish to much with one of the said clogs. I caught a bunch, and brought them home in a bucket…. not much different from a chum bucket you’d see on some deep sea fishing expeditions. Did not eat any that time. I too was told to stun them by whacking them upside the head.

  2. dallena says:

    Oh dear, I have to admit I was the one who sat by the side, and watched my fish beheaded, and gutted, and never got over it =(….poor little fishy! I’m sure he was perfectly happy being pulled from a Minnesota lake, and placed in my little bucket of captivity! Sigh….

  3. Vince says:

    This was a beautifully written story Glenn, I loved your word use and the descriptions you employed – particularly in the beginning. You know how to get people interested right off the get-go.

    The story was amusing and funny, and then serious and heart-warming. I’m surprised how, with so little words, the many impressions this tale left on me, and how simple it truly is.

    Love it, man.

  4. Ron Wallace says:

    Poor little trout.

    In Alaska we fished halibut with a pistol. Usually a .357 revolver. The big ones could flail about for hours afterward and have been known to break legs. A bullet to the brain is the only thing that works.

  5. Jodie says:

    Nice, once again

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