Editor's note: This is the conclusion of a story that began in last week's "The Trail Less Traveled" column.
The old man let the boat drift in the slight current. He was in no hurry to start fishing this morning. The mist rose from the water as daylight seeped into the air around him. It would be clear and cold today.
How would he spend it? Was today the day?
He eased back into the plastic seat bolted on the old boat's rough plank and watched the morning happen. His old friend the kingfisher dove off an overhanging limb in front of him and chattered his strange, noisy cry.
"Where they at today, bird?" he always said to him.
The kingfisher never answered, but he liked to think the bird was leading him to where a great fish would lie. The old man imagined the bird would show him the location as a courtesy between brother fishermen.
The old man shook his head a little, saying to himself, "You are one crazy old man." He would never tell the kid such things — better the boy did not know what a silly old man he looked up to.
He leaned over a little and watched the rocky bottom of the river slide past him as he drifted along. He was in about 3 feet of water, and every detail of the bottom could be seen. Huge boulders, mussel shells, water weeds, logs and the occasional car tire or soda can.
Several schools of fry swept by him like a cloud, then a big crayfish, a little bass and three small suckers. They were there and then they were gone; you had to be quick to watch this show.
He had loved to do this since he was a boy growing up on the river, and now as he watched the panorama of life go by, it dawned on him that his own life seemed to have gone by just as fast. Where had the years gone?
The old man drifted through the first hole of water without picking up a rod. He marveled at himself this morning, seemingly content to sit and let the river take him where it wished.
But hadn't the river always done this with him? Much of his life had been spent going where the river led him, looking for great fish. He gazed out over the water. Many claimed to love this river; some cursed it.
The old man well knew the awesome power of this water, even at this level. Many times he had pulled bodies from this river. It was always a sad affair, and he would sit and think how this beautiful river, so full of life, was also a cold arbitrator of death.
When the boat slid into the spot known as the Bucket Hole, the old man picked up a rod and began his dutiful casting. He worked as a precise craftsman, his casts almost always dead on target as he deftly placed the huge plug into every inch of the pool where he thought a muskie would lay.
A few small bass followed the plug into the boat, but he "raised" no muskies here today. Often the great fish would show themselves and follow the lure but not take it. Many are raised, he thought, few are taken.
The old man fished into the afternoon with hardly a break, stopping only once to drink some coffee from the thermos the kid had insisted he take. He thought about the boy for a few seconds and figured it was one of the many things in life he would never understand.
The old man noticed another brother fisherman, a great blue heron, standing guard near the bottom of this pool. Reeling in an old plug from a long cast, he was standing in the boat watching the heron when the water exploded next to the boat and all hell broke loose.
The fish struck with such ferocity and so much water splashed over him that he was disoriented for a few seconds. He was able to sit down instead of falling backward, but now as the fish lunged to his left, the old man was pulled forward and hit his forehead on the side of the boat. He hit so hard he thought he might have been knocked out for a moment.
The screaming of the drag on the reel seemed to bring him around, though, and he could feel the blood dribble down the side of his face.
The old man had seen some wild boat side strikes in his time, but in more than 60 years of fishing for muskies on this river, nothing like this. He gripped the rod-and-reel as if his very life depended on it, and in essence it did. Shaking his head to clear it, he tried to think of what he must do.
The old man held the rod tip high as the fish towed the boat slowly upstream.
An hour later as darkness approached, he thought about his predicament.
"I'm seven miles downstream," he thought, "and this fish don't seem to be giving up."
Once the fish had turned and came by him almost under the boat. The light was fading, but peering down into the water the old man whispered, "Can't be, she can't be that big."
For the 10th time, the fish started to pass the fallen tree halfway down the pool.
The fish made for the tangle of limbs with a sudden lunge, just what the old man had been dreading. He put as much pressure as he dared on the line to try to turn her but knew it was hopeless. Soon he felt the throbbing weight that told him the fish was still hooked but well tangled in the tree.
"Now," he said to the fish, "there is no hope for either of us."
As if in meditation he held the line tight for a few minutes, feeling the rhythmic throbbing of the fish as one would a heartbeat. The old man knew he could break the line, and in one minute this fish would be out of his life forever.
He did the only other thing he could think of. Being only a few feet from shore, he awkwardly backed the boat in and carefully climbed out on the rocky bank. He would sit and wait.
In the middle of the night, the old man sat gazing into the driftwood fire he had built. The rod was wedged in the rocks next to him, and he kept one finger on the line, every few minutes feeling the pulse of the fish.
"Why do you keep fighting?" he mumbled into the fire. But he knew why and then out loud he yelled into the night, "I wish that dang kid was here!"
When the old man could feel the dawn approach, it was all he could do to stand up. Stiff and half-frozen, he knew it was now or never for him and this fish.
"Jesus help us," he said over the water, and he cranked the line down tight and pulled for all he was worth.
The old man felt something give and knew it was over, but when he took up the slack in the line, it tightened and he felt the weight of the fish once more.
The old man thought he might be in a dream as he reeled the weight to shore. The fish had been pulling against the bouncing limb all night; now it was spent. In the first feeble light of day he grabbed the muskie under the gills and slid her up on shore. The biggest muskie he would ever see in his life was on the cold rocks giving a few meager flips of its tail and gasping for breath.
This fish had asked for no quarter and given none. The huge mouth opened convulsively, exposing rows of predatory teeth. The old man guessed this fish was a good foot longer than the state record, maybe the world. All he had to do was dump this fish in the boat and head for home.
"Oh, hell!" he cried as he jumped up and grabbed one of the oars from the boat.
The old man laid the oar next to the fish, determined its length, whipped out his knife and carved a notch in the oar at the end of the muskie's nose. Now he took up the great fish and gently placed it in the water. Grabbing the huge tail, he pushed the fish forward, then pulled backward to circulate water around its gills.
Slowly, the fish started giving a few weak tugs, trying to pull away. The old man opened his hand to release the monster, and the weight was lifted from him.
"See you later, fish," he said with a smile. "Go get some breakfast."
The old man turned around, sat down by the fire and lit a Parodi cigar. He would start home soon — but not just yet.
"It's just a fish," he told the heron across the river.
The kid was in the first boat coming down the river, looking for him.
"I'm glad you ain't dead," he said as the boat pulled into shore.
"Me too," the old man said.
"No more nights like this," said the kid. "I'm going to fish with you now."
"Is that so?" the old man said. "What about that bunch in town?"
"Hell with them," the kid said.
"So you're big enough to cuss now?" said the old man, and they stood and grinned at each other as the other boats pulled in.
The boy saw the fresh notch on the oar but said nothing.
The heron glided past, going down the river. He had to go get breakfast, too.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va., has been a devoted outdoorsman all of his life and is a contributing columnist for The Times Free Press. You can write to him at email@example.com.