After a short hike, my father found the hole, where the Queets River washed out of one of its box canyons into a wide, deep plateau of calm. I played on the side of the river, making log houses out of twigs and moss, while Dad cast his line into that far pool where he’d always had luck before.
My mother made a small fire, pulled out old editions of Fishing & Hunting News from her simple backpack to feed her little tepee of deadwood so that the blaze caught quick as flash powder. I read the headlines on the stack laid out by the campfire—they poked and prodded around some decision made by some judge about some issue involving some Indians and some salmon.
My father had already found his limit of steelhead this day, two shiny carcasses on a greenstick stringer, blue and rod offal from each captured fish strewn in the leafy edge of the river where he presumed raccoons might dine later. I made a ring of rocks at the river’s shallow fade where there wasn’t any current and let the stringer of fish float in the cool water, the stringer weighed down with a big flat stone.
My father was into the whole Indian thing. He owned and had read the entire 23-volume hardbound Time-Life series about the history of Native America. He consumed every movie, every book, every television show that had ever been produced about the stories of Wounded Knee, the Trail of Tears, Chief Joseph and Sitting Bull. He always chose the Quileute charters in La Push over the ones operated by White men.
But the world began to change around the time I turned age ten. It’s a surreal time: the innocent fog of childhood lifts and the world grows less magical, but more interesting nonetheless. I was young enough to start noticing the rawness of reality. But I was too young yet to know how to piece together the complex puzzle of race relations in the Pacific Northwest in 1974, which were also evolving.
On Sunday mornings, he would smoke cigarettes and drink black percolated coffee while reading the news—The Oregonian, The Columbian and the Fishing & Hunting News—from his gold tweed La-Z-Boy recliner. It used to be one of the best times to catch him if you needed to ask for something. The grumpiness he’d bring home from work on Friday would be nearly gone by Sunday morning.
But by the mid 1970s, the news stopped being a peaceful retreat for him and we mostly avoided that corner of the living room after that.
Most notably, he began to curse the same people I thought he had admired. He responded with outright hostility to decisions about honoring old treaties that protected tribal fishing rights. This might have even been the beginning of his mid-life move toward a darker, more conservative politics. He began to talk a lot about freedom—his personal recreational freedom, the freedom of commercial salmon charter captains—and how these new limits imposed on all nontribal fishermen were unjust to the point of being downright unAmerican.
It didn’t make sense to me. We had a freezer full of trout, salmon, steelhead, crappie. It wasn’t like we were going without. I didn’t even like fish that much. I’d seen how people on reservations lived; they certainly had more need for food to eat than we did.
When he offered the entire American Indians series in a garage sale that summer, I hoped nobody would buy the collection; I wanted to go back inside its linen-bound covers and try to piece together the puzzle.
I know now their pages would not have yielded me any meaningful answers, even if I had tried.
Another strike on the line bent his rod top in that perfect arc, the filament lit in the August sun through drops of river water, charting the hidden struggle of the fish in tense, nonsensical zags. I never could accept how such a thin instrument could command such a muscular creature in its perpetual motion.
For me, that was actually the greatest value in fishing, the ensuing challenge. Not the trophy in the freezer. I did not learn there was such a thing as “catch and release” until much later.
After he landed the steelhead, he dragged it to the pebbled beach, its body arching in tandem with the tip of the fishing rod. My father disappeared, then returned, a parcel in his hands—crude filets of apricot flesh laid bare inside one of the tabloid sections meant for the fire. After careful folds, he dipped the package into the river’s alpine water, cold and silvered as steel, then slipped it inside a grocery store produce bag he pulled from his creel. Then he laid it gently inside my mother’s pack.
Nobody said a word.
Clouds gathered in the sky threatening rain, so we started back to the campground, my mother stamping out the fire as quickly as she had started it. I left my miniature log houses to the vagaries of nature.
An agent from Fish & Wildlife passed us on the trail. He checked my father’s stringer of fish, examined his license, wrote some things down on a little notepad, his badge glistening. The whole time, my father looked at me with that tense bulge in his eyes, though I knew better than to say anything about the violation hidden in my Mom’s pack.
I wasn’t hungry at dinnertime, so I gave my piece of fish to him. I figured it was only fair he pick out the bones himself.
Tamara Kaye Sellman is a widely published writer living in Bainbridge Island, WA. Her most recent work appeared in Something On Our Minds (3 poems, November 2017) and The Nervous Breakdown (flash nonfiction, Spring 2018). Her work has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. She works as a sleep health educator, healthcare writer and MS advocate/columnist when she’s not crafting creative prose.
© 2015, Tamara Kaye Sellman