I loved my sister Sandy, even though she lived most of her adult life in error. You see, she thought that Ron came into her life to marry her so they could live and love and raise a family together. All of which happened. I realized very early on, however, that all of that was God’s clever way of bringing me exactly the kind of big brother I needed most.
In many ways Ron was closer to me than my four blood brothers. My three oldest brothers, through no fault of their own, just grew up way ahead of me – the youngest. They were all in the military by the time that I was 6 or 7 years old. Jim joined the Navy out of high school, Gary joined the Marines. Since this was when the Viet Nam war was raging, Tom said that if Uncle Sam wanted him, well he was just going to have to come get him. And he did; Tom was drafted into the Army. When they finished their service stints they were all understandably in a hurry to get on with their civilian lives. It didn’t take long before they were all married and moved out. In fact, Jim moved out all the way to California. My fourth brother, the one who was closest to me in age was furthest from me in spirit. We never did get along. We were more like tenants that lived across the hall from each other than brothers.
So, it was Ron who was the one I grew closest to. When he and my sister were dating he always had time to play catch for a while before they headed out on their date. We tossed the ball back and forth and talked. He actually listened to what was on my mind. Around the time that I was 12 or so Ron introduced me to trout fishing – which developed into a lifelong passion for me.
We started small. There was a trout creek near where Ron grew up in Oconto Falls. He knew the stream up and down, having fished it for years with his father. There were native brook trout hiding in the dark shadows of undercut banks and in the few deeper pools as the stream quietly meandered mostly through farm pastures or small woodlots. This was the perfect stream to apprentice on. If you could approach close enough to casually drift a worm under the bank, or mid-stream log without spooking them, it was a very good bet that a brook trout, aggressive by nature, would inhale the bait, electrify the line, and come splashing and wriggling to the net.
By the time that I was in high school Ron had gotten the directions from a co-worker to a spot on the Oconto River just north of Mountain that had some nice brook trout and the possibility of catching an even bigger brown trout. And so, Ron and I started heading up north whenever he could get away for a day of fishing.
Since the new destination was farther away, I started staying overnight so we could get as early a start as possible. The alarm usually rang about 4:00 AM. Ron did not like coffee but being a paper mill swing shift worker he still had a need for caffeine to get going: Ron got his jolt from Coca Cola. I remember him sitting at the kitchen table, chair pushed back and turned sideways as he put on his shoes and socks. More than once he rubbed his eyes, took a deep drag from his cigarette, guzzled a couple of swallows from his Coke, and then dozed off with a half-pulled on sock dangling from his foot. I had to shake him back awake.
We always fished the big river the same way. Ron got to start in the big deep hole just down the bank from where we parked the car. I slipped through woods for about 25 yards to the next pool upstream. After that we just leap-frogged each other as we made our way upstream. When we reached the place where cabins lined the river we turned and fished our way back to the car where we stopped for lunch. We chomped down ham sandwiches and shared the stories of the morning. The fish from each creel were spilled out so we could share the stories in detail of just where and how we caught each one.
Although Ron had more fish in his creel at the end of most trips, and he usually had the biggest fish of the day, I earned the biggest trout ever award one July morning – more or less. Ron had been using trusty nightcrawlers and I had done pretty well with a caddis fly pattern that I had learned to tie. Then came the blessing and the curse.
Caddis flies by the thousands suddenly filled the air and everywhere you looked, trout were rising. The surface of the river looked like it was raining – there were that many trout rising. For me it was the blessing. The very fly I had been using was a good enough match that I was hooking trout one after another. For Ron, it was the curse. Once the trout were zoned in on caddis flies they had no interest in his nightcrawlers. After about 20 minutes he stomped over to the shore and sat down in a heap on a large boulder. Then it happened. I had cast my fly near the ring of a rise and with the next rise my fly disappeared. I brought my arm up and my fly rod arced gracefully, then it began to throb as the big fish felt the hook and shook his head. Ron jumped straight up, “Holy cow, don’t lose him!” I didn’t.
I was standing at the edge of a gravel bed where the water was just a couple of inches deep. The big brown came to net peacefully enough. As I watched him slip past the rim of the net I hoisted him up. He more than filled the net with the tip of his tail above one brim and the tip of his nose just over the opposite side.
Ron wasted no time getting to me. “It’s a beauty! Let me get a good look at him.” I just stuck the net practically in his face. Ron reached in, grasped the monster and pulled him out of the net. The big fish suddenly straightened out, gave a twisting flip and dropped into the water. At first I watched in stupefied horror as Ron, on all fours, like a fish-starved brown bear, pounced and pounced and pounced as the trout tried to flee in the two inches of water that washed over the gravel bar. The fish changed directions, went frantically through Ron’s legs and made it to deeper water - gone!
I helped Ron to his feet. We both just stared for a long moment at the place where the trophy made good his escape. “I’m so sorry,” Ron moaned. I looked him in the eye, smiled, and said, “You should have seen yourself trying to grab that fish!” We laughed. We took turns retelling the story over and over again the whole the drive home. That was the last summer that we fished together as Ron's children were growing and rightfully demanding more attention. I was spending more time with friends, one of whom shared my love of trout fishing.
I went back there last summer for the first time in 30 years. It’s much different now as cabins line both banks of the whole stretch. I had to park in a different place. But I found the gravel bar of fame and fable. I had my fly rod in hand but I didn’t even make a cast. I came for the river and the experience of the river. I pictured it all again in my mind and smiled. I pondered Ron again who has been a memory for nearly 10 years already. A good man; a good brother. I know that officially he was my ‘brother-in-law’, but in my heart I dropped the hyphens way back when I was just a kid playing catch.
PS The nice brown trout in the picture was intentionally released as are almost all of the trout I catch these days.