Writer’s note: In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, I found myself wandering between two worlds: one as a beginning sports editor in the small town of Red Bluff, California, and the other as a draft resister awaiting federal indictment. The steelhead trout run was just getting under way in the Sacramento River. The following piece is the conclusion of a six-part tale of what happened.
The loud knock on the front door awakened me. A Western Union courier handed me a telegram. The message said to call my sister in Berkeley. I walked to a nearby phone booth. I looked into the darkness where the river was flowing, feeling caught between two worlds.
“The indictment came,” my sister said. “You have to report to federal court in Brooklyn in two weeks.”
I didn’t tell her that I was supposed to be out at Perry Riffle in the dawn’s early light. She wouldn’t understand steelhead fishing any more than my co-workers could comprehend a draft resister in their midst, or I could comprehend their indifference to the war, hippies, Black Panthers, LSD and tie-died T-shirts.
A few restless hours later, I was riding my motorcycle through the rolling ranchland east of Red Bluff. Cattle were grazing on the hillsides. I found the gravel road Spencer had marked on his map. A large “No-Trespassing” sign was affixed to the metal cattle guard. The lock on the chain was open. I made sure to close the gate. I headed up a rutted red-dirt path cutting through high, pale grass. Volcanic rocks large and small, thrown down by Mount Lassen eons ago, lay on the hilly land.
A hefty, round-shouldered white cow blocked my path. I beeped my horn. It didn’t move. I tried the horn again with the same result. I had never been so close to a cow before. I didn’t feel afraid because, as a city kid, I knew cows were gentle creatures, like Elsie the cow on the ice cream wrappers back in New York. Finally, I got off my motorcycle and pushed it through the high grass to get around the cow, which eyed me over its shoulder all the while.
I saw a half-dozen fishermen in waders standing ankle-deep at Perry Riffle. The river flowed wide and fast over a rocky, shallow area upstream from them and then flowed into a gradually slowing channel.
“Good god, it’s about time you got here,” Lyle Robertson shouted from the end of the line.
“I got delayed by an ornery white cow that wouldn’t let me through,” I said. “I thought cows were supposed to run from people.”
“You nut – that was a Charolais bull.”
“It didn’t have horns,” I said.
Laughs and snickers rolled down the line of fishermen.
“That’s not where you look to know what’s what,” Robertson said.
I set up my line as Earl had instructed and tied my one and only Duffy at the end. Robertson motioned for me to stand upstream from him.
“Cast a little upstream and let the current carry your line downstream,” Robertson said. “Reel in the slack right away. If it stops, set the hook hard.”
A few casts later, I did just that and snapped off the Duffy. I tied on a pink Glo-bug and went back to work. An hour passed. No one had caught anything. Suddenly, there was a yank on my line and a silver fish flew out of the water about 80 feet downstream. It barreled through the water and came up twice more.
“That’s a goddam half-pounder,” Robertson said.
The fish looked huge to me. I played it in, backed out of the water, and slid the fish up on the rocks. It was about 18 inches long and carried the pale red stripe of a rainbow trout.
“No self-respecting fisherman would call that a steelhead,” Robertson yelled. “That’s a starter fish.”
Whatever it was, I felt it was symbolic. All these hot shot fishermen had gotten skunked. The gods had singled me out, a city kid with a federal indictment and court appearance awaiting me 3,000 miles away. I’d have to leave my job and Red Bluff in a few days. I felt I was heading down a river of no return. Summer camp had ended. The war machine had caught up with me.