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One Last Drop / JD Clapp



Mike prepared to release a nice lake trout. Papa Sacquet, his indigenous guide, lit a Canadian Red. After a week of fishing together, Papa knew Mike didn’t need a net for a 6-pound fish.


“Wanna eat soon?” Papa asked.


“One more drop,” Mike answered.


Papa took the fish from Mike; and popped the gills out with his thumb, then ran a piece of rope through the bleeding gill and out through the mouth. He tied it off through the oarlock slot. Papa put the fish in the water to cool and bleed out.


On the hill above the little cove, musk oxen stood like ugly and indifferent sentinels. Two bald eagles glided above on ethereal thermals, cutting ice blue air in a graceful ballet One dropped into a concentric corkscrew, swooping in for a small grayling along the burnt orange rocky shore. Papa watched the musk oxen. Hunting season started in a week. He would hunt this year.


It was early September, and fishing season was ending. Sun above, a crisp 52 degrees, and only a ripple on the surface made for sublime conditions. On Mike’s first day, the wind blew 30 knots from the north, churning up chaotic 6-foot waves outside the cove, their tops cleaved off into misty white caps. The rest of the week, a rare subartic Indian Summer set in.

Mike pushed the lever, thumbed the spool, and coaxed the 10-ounce white cod jig to the bottom. Two lifts of the rod tip, then a tap. He swung hard. The rod loaded. He pumped and wound. It was a fine fish.


Papa netted the twenty-pounder. The fight up the water column had inflated her swim bladder. They revived her, then sent her back to the depths. Papa lit a smoke and motored to shore.


On shore, Papa scrounged driftwood to make the fire. Mike grabbed his four-weight fly rod and walked down the waterline.


Fire going, Papa grabbed the black plastic tote from the bow. He arranged the cast iron skillet, lard, cornmeal, a bag of cubed potatoes, a can of baked beans, and a bottle of Frank’s on a box lid. He lit another smoke, then went to work fileting the trout.


Mike stood on the smooth rock shore carved by an ice age glacier. He casted to the seam where aquamarine water turned purple. A twenty-inch grayling rose from dark water and slurped his offering, a Royal Coachman. As he fought the fish in, its sail fin cut the calm surface, reminding Mike of the day in La Paz he and his son threw big blue and white streamers to tailing sailfish. That was a good day. Mike released the fish. He was content with one.


Mike set his rod and pack down. He walked around the point to explore. He found the remains of a caribou camp, rocks charred from countless fires still in a circle, a partial log frame from a lean-to rotted on the ground. Green and orange lichen covered the bones littering the area. The caribou had been gone from these lands for over thirty years.

 

Mike picked up an old baking soda tin, stamped 1919. He found several stone skinning tools, their edges worn dull or chipped, mixed in with the bones and rocks. Leaning on stunted pine that improbably grew from a spoonful of soil between two lichen-covered rocks, Mike found a mostly intact hand carved paddle. He brought it to Papa.

Papa examined the paddle, a gleam in his eye.


“Can I have it?” Papa asked.


“Of course, it belongs to your people.”


Papa nodded with appreciation, then handed Mike a plate stacked with fried potatoes, fried lake trout, and beans cooked in their can on the coals. The food was wonderful and smokey.

Papa was a man of few words, and he and Mike had fallen into a rhythm of comfortable silence, born of old age and mutual respect. They ate in silence.


After lunch they made a long run back toward the native village. The colder afternoon air gave Mike a chill. He reached down and pulled out his red wool watchman cap and puffy coat from his drybag. Papa slowed the boat to idle and re-filled the coffee in their travel cups. They ran again.


As they made the 20-minute run across an open expanse of glassy water, Mike reflected. He had invited his son, Jackson, on the trip, but his son predictably canceled at the last minute. Jackson’s life had little room for Mike. The cancellation stung, but Mike said nothing. He appreciated the few trips they had managed over the years; it was more than most fathers got. Still, Mike wanted one last trip with his son. He wanted to tell him face-to-face. Now, Mike thought he would not bother. Jackson would know soon enough. Everyone would.

When they arrived, several boats milled in one spot in front of the village. Mike asked Papa about it.

        

“Is that a fishing tournament or something?”


“They are going on a liquor run. The boats will go in shifts to town so the tribal police can’t follow them all. Very few people fish or hunt anymore.”


“The village is dry?”

           

“Supposed to be.”

           

Mike hadn’t thought much about it, but he realized the lodge had kept the anglers away from the village. On opposite sides of the mouth of a cove, a half-mile reach, two very different worlds existed. On the village side, trash fires burned; on the lodge side, campfires.

           

“Is alcohol still a big problem?”

 

“Yep. Mostly for the older folks. The kids all leave for town and end up homeless and on meth. My village will die with my generation.”

           

“I’m sorry,” Mike said, knowing it was an inadequate response.

  

“Yep. Let’s go.”


Papa motored back the way they came, then cut north toward a channel between two islands. The islands were big, covered in thick pine forest giving way to dark, steep banks and rocky shores. The reach was 300 yards.


The water was 150 feet deep. Mike tied on a heavier jig. They drifted through the channel in the fading afternoon light. Mike picked up one or two decent lakers each drift. The day was fading.


“I’m getting cold and tired. Let me make one last drop,” Mike said.

Papa nodded.


Mike released the spool and thumbed the jig to the bottom, alternating fast and slower drop speeds. Around 75 -feet deep, the jig stopped. This was a different type of take. His rod loaded violently, the drag screamed, line flew from the spool. Mike pushed the lever to full-strike and lifted hard. He had buttoned on a big, heavy fish.


The fight was give and take. Mike’s old muscles strained, but fifty years on the water had well prepared him. He kept the rod spine aimed at 2:00, the rod apex on the gunwale, the rod tip submerged to the second guide. He made small pumps up and wound hard on the downside. When the fish wanted line, Mike let him take it.


Mike got color ten minutes in. At first color, the distorted shape was very big. For the first time all week, Papa crushed his cigarette out, grabbed the net, and stood silently ready. At the boat side, on the surface, they saw the fish completely; they both let out an audible gasp.


The fish spilled over the sides of the oversized net. The lake trout looked Jurassic. It was massive, with a bucket mouth, forest green skin with white spots, and fins lichen orange. It mirrored the stark beauty of the landscape. It belonged here.


“Sixty pounder, I’d say,” Papa estimated.


The men held the fish in the net but kept the net in the water.


“Photo and measure her?” Papa asked.


“Do you need a photo for any reason?” Mike asked.


“Nah.”


Mike reached down and backed the jig head from the fish’s massive jaw.


“Let’s revive her and let her go.’


After the fish swam back to the depths, Mike shook Papa’s hand.


“Let’s head in,” Mike said.


“Ok then,” Papa said.


As they motored to the lodge, Mike decided he would leave his gear as part of Papa’s tip. It was three years old, but better quality than the tackle the lodge loaned Papa. At the dock, Mike shook Papa’s hand.


“Thank you. It’s been an honor,” Mike said.


“You’re welcome. I like how you fish,” Papa said.


That night Mike sat by the fire late. He saw the aurora one more time. Even though he promised his wife and doctor he wouldn’t drink or smoke, a promise already broken, he sipped a whiskey and smoked a cigar by the fire.


Long after the others had gone to bed, Mike watched the embers glow orange while the aurora danced above. He felt the cold air on his face when the breeze blew. He listened to the small waves lap the shore.


He thought, That was a perfect fish to end on.


(Note: This story was a finalist for the 2023 Hemingway Shorts Competition. It appears in vol 8 of Hemingway Shorts).



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JD CLAPP writes in San Diego, CA. His work has appeared in The Milk House, Rural Fiction Magazine, Wrong Turn Literary, Revolution John, The Whisky Blot, among several others. He has forthcoming work in A Common Well Journal, Fleas on the Dog, and Literally Stories. His story, One Last Drop, was a finalist in the 2023 Hemingway Shorts Literary Journal, Short Story Competition.

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