By Owen Yager
I fell in love with Slade when I was fifteen, in the summer that we spent fishing on Little Pickford’s Creek. He was sandy back then, in hair and body, and a year older than me, and his bare shoulders would ripple from side to side when he stood up to pedal when we were riding over the ridge to the creek.
We started fishing together at the end of the previous summer after he followed a fly downstream into my favorite bend.
“Hello,” I said, and he said it back.
He went down to the lower end of the hole and cast into the water with a nice little flick. There wasn’t much to talk about—we knew each other’s names from school, but we didn’t know who each other were. He got a couple of small brownies, and I caught a big one, maybe thirteen inches, that pulsed in my hand in the cool water for a minute before I let it go. We didn’t fish together at all for the rest of the summer. At school, we’d nod at each other with a little more recognition.
On one of the first nights of May, when the weather was warm and school was almost over, I went out on the creek, carrying my rod in a section of cut-off PVC sticking out of the drawstring bag that had my flies and reel. There was already a bike in the grasses where I normally dumped mine, near my hole, and when I walked down to the water to put up my rod, I found Slade.
“I want that fish you caught last year,” he said, and looked at me with his big front teeth.
“Like hell,” I said.
Neither of us caught that fish, but we each got a seven or eight-inch brookie, and we walked downstream together after a bit, casting away.
When it got dark, we rode home together, past the cattle fields and the crop circles and where the creek turned away from the road. After we’d gotten back into town, he stopped at his road and said to me, “I’ll be back at that same hole tomorrow, prolly, if you want to fish again.”
So that’s how it started. We’d bike from town together, to a hole that his dad had shown him when he was learning to fish or a hole that my dad had shown me when I was learning to fish. Some of the best water was on private land, and we’d dump our bikes in ditches on the side of the road and inch our way through barbed wire fence, laughing when the other one got cut.
Every so often his brother, Wyatt, who worked in construction and was twenty-two, would drive us over to the creek in his truck. I didn’t protest because Wyatt would give us each a Coors tall boy or two, and he told good jokes. He didn’t have Slade’s grin, all teeth and sly and fun, but he was funny enough, anyway.
Mostly, though, we spent time on the water together, wading barefoot in just our trunks and trying not to kick up too much silt while we dropped our flies into the creek’s clear water. When we got tired, we’d lie down on the creek bank, in a grassy patch beneath a willow without any thistle, and talk about life, about our families, about his old dog and how he didn’t want his old dog to die, about the Packers.
September wound around eventually, as it does every year, and we went back to school and stopped spending as much time on the creek. We’d still fish a little, but not every day, and we barely fished at all once he started dating Caroline.
It took a few years for me to put words to the sadness that Caroline brought around in me. To call it love. I still think back on that time fondly, though, when Slade’s smile crowned Little Pickford’s Creek like the thistle flowers, fragrant and beautiful and just a little prickly.