I REMEMBER the first time I heard brown trout eat. It was on the Bighorn River, well downstream of the 13-mile takeout, during an unexpected burst of pale morning duns on a sultry Montana afternoon.
I’m not talking about the sound of splashing, slurping or even sipping. I’m talking about jaws opening and snapping shut. Something between clicking and popping, like dozens of tiny wooden jewelry boxes opening and closing. I’d say it sounded like Spanish castanets if the tempo weren’t so slow and deliberate.
It’s funny how certain sounds can engrave lasting memories in the mind, sometimes more vividly, even, than sights do. Sure, you might hear the syrupy rock ballad on the Classic Rewind station of your XM radio, and that might plant your mind (rather than feet) squarely back on the dance floor at your junior prom. But I think the subtle, unexpected tones that strike lasting chords are most interesting.
When I was in high school I took the train with my family into Manhattan. I bought a Sony Walkman tape player and a cassette of John Coltrane’s “Soultrane” recording with the money I had saved up for our trip to the city. Perhaps not so ironically, as we rode the New Jersey Transit train back out of the New York that evening I listened to both sides, as the rail car rocked and swayed. To this day, whenever I ride the commuter cars into New York, I hum Coltrane in my head.
You’ll also remember the first time you hear a tarpon gulp. I think the thing that makes that sound so interesting—the low, muffled implosion—is that it is most dramatic when it shocks a setting that is otherwise completely calm. Those are the best tarpon days in the backcountry… the days you hear. When utter silence is broken by primal gulps.
And if you’re lucky (and good), that jump and gill rattle will never, ever leave you.
The older I get, the more the end passages of A River Runs Through It (all the stuff about the words and the rocks, and being haunted by water) make sense. It’s the things you hear, from other people, and from the fish themselves, that make the deepest memories… the ones that haunt you.
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