He got the idea from a Zane Grey novel he had read a year prior. It was just a passing phrase in which Grey, who spent a good chunk of his time in a cabin on the Rogue River in Oregon, mentioned something about killing a steelhead for Thanksgiving dinner. The old man didn’t think much about it at first, but then the thought of a steelhead instead of a turkey began to intrigue him.
Through the winter and the following spring and summer, the idea festered in his head until it became an obsession. Every so often, he gathered the courage to tell his wife that he wanted to catch a Thanksgiving steelhead, and each time she gently reminded him that he was too old to go down to the river anymore. The current was too strong, the water too cold, the rocks too slick and his old bones too brittle. He knew she was right, but fishing had been such a big part of his life in years past and he felt like he needed to return to the river one more time.
As October progressed, he started feeling an urgency deep in his core, calling him to the river. It was not unlike the mysterious force that guided the salmon and steelhead back home to his river every year. When it hit, he often disappeared into the garage to polish his 1955 Hardy fly reel for the hundredth time or to yet again rearrange the flies in his tattered wooden box with the rusted hinges. Sometimes, he even pulled a dusty leather picture book out of the bottom drawer of his desk and gazed silently at the yellowing photographs of his younger self holding many prizes from the river.
One day in mid-November, his wife looked out the big bay window that faced the back yard, and noticed the old man pulling on his ragged set of canvas waders. She laughed out loud as he looked over his shoulder to make sure she was nowhere about and then waded, fishing rod in hand, right into her garden pond. As she watched him knee-deep in the bath tub-sized pool, casting great loops of fly line out onto the lawn, she couldn’t help but think what a silly old fool she had married so many years ago.
She never let him know that she’d seen him out casting in the back, never mentioned a word of it. The day before Thanksgiving, she went to the market to buy everything for the big dinner. She bought a 13-pound turkey, but slipped it into the garage freezer before she went into the house with the other groceries. When the old man greeted her in the kitchen, she said that she had some bad news. Something about how the owner of the market had written down the wrong order and didn’t get in as many turkeys as he had wanted and, while he could offer them a couple of fat chickens, he was completely out of turkey. When she was done with the story, she asked the old boy if he thought he could save Thanksgiving by going go down to the river and catching a steelhead for dinner.
Though gray and wrinkled on the outside, the old man felt as youthful as a high school freshman that evening. He bounced with an energy his wife had not seen in ages as he helped her put the groceries away. In fact, she realized he had never helped put the groceries away before. When he was done, he dashed out to the garage and polished his reel again and used a damp cloth to wipe off any dust that may have fallen on his split-cane bamboo fly rod since he had last cleaned it a day before. He neatly folded the waders, rechecked his fly box and tied up enough leaders for a week of fishing.
While he prepared, she pulled the turkey out of the freezer and put it into the garage fridge to defrost. She figured that it was good to have a back-up plan just in case the old man wasn’t the fisher he had once been.
After an extremely long night spent tossing and turning, he finally got up an hour before his alarm was set to go off. He sipped some coffee in the kitchen, but was too excited to eat anything. With an hour still until sunrise, he carefully loaded his gear into the truck and set off for the river.
He drove down the old dirt road towards the water and parked on a rise just above the river. In the darkness, he tilted his seat back a little and gazed out the windshield, as if waiting for a drive-in movie to start. Finally, the dark eastern horizon sprung a leak, and light began to pour in from over the hills. As the red glow of dawn increased, his breath was taken away by the scene. There before him, was the river that had given him so many wonderful moments in his youth, looking as beautiful and inviting as ever. He was content to simply look upon the river for a while, but then a silver fish jumped against the far bank.
The old man scrambled down the trail to the water, not as nimbly as before, but he still made good time. As he waded into the river for the first time in years, he knew what a prisoner must feel when he is finally released. Though the current was swift, his legs felt strong and he let a cast go that would have even impressed him 30 years earlier. He fished for several hours, covering his favorite runs and pools like days, rather than decades, had past since his most recent call upon the place. It was like visiting with an old friend and he relished every moment.
So caught up in the magic of the morning, he didn’t even notice that he had yet to get a bite, not even a touch. The morning was shifting towards afternoon and the old man realized that his chances for a Thanksgiving steelhead were dwindling. He continued to cast, but now with more purpose. He envisioned the bottom of the river and how his fly drifted just above it. In his mind, he could see steelhead lying behind rocks and under logs and he casted to them, always surprised when he didn’t get a strike.
When finally the take came, instinct kicked in and he reared back on his rod with a fluid reflex that showed no signs of slowing with age. The steelhead took to the air in spectacular fashion when it felt the sting in its jaw and knew it had been deceived. The great fish crashed to earth with a mighty splash that sent back-lit water droplets shooting for the heavens like sparks from a Roman Candle on the Fourth of July. The old man bowed to the steelhead as it made a tremendous run downstream and he prayed that the leader wouldn’t pop and the hook would hold. He curbed its run with light pressure on the rapidly-revolving spool and coaxed the fish slowly back upriver.
The battle lasted a good ten minutes, each contestant gaining and then losing ground many times. The old man’s arm began to quake from the strain of the heavy fish, but he held firm. The fish, too, was tiring, and he was finally able to glide it towards the shallows. Backing up onto the shore with rod held high, he slid the big steelhead onto the beach. Overjoyed, the old man ran down to the water’s edge to get a closer look at his prize. The huge fish lay calmly on the wet sand like it had accepted its fate, only its gills and mouth working in vain to secure some dissolved oxygen. It was large enough to feed the whole family, plus there might even be a little left over for the next day.
But then the old man realized that the fish was not unlike himself. They had both gone through much in their respective lives to reach this crossroads and it seemed a shame to kill the fish before it had a chance to fully complete its life cycle. So, he carefully removed the fly from its jaw and lifted it back into the water. A couple strokes of its broad tail carried the steelhead away from the old man’s grasp and back into the green depths of the pool from which it had come.
On the way home, the old man called his wife to let her know he hadn’t caught anything. She said that it would be just fine because the man from the market had found one last turkey in the back of his freezer and was on his way to deliver it.
That night, the old man ate turkey for dinner and it had never tasted better.