If I’d had Jack’s phone number, I surely would have canceled. Dude, I’m way too busy to go fishing at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon — with the rodeo tab and the election tab and Lord knows what all to do.
But he kind of guilted me into it.
Well, not exactly guilted. But Jack Kearns is such an affable, quietly enthusiastic, endlessly good humored fellow that he makes me feel like I ought to be a better person — which in Jack’s world pretty much comes down to fishing more.
I met Jack about four years ago, when he appeared in the Roundup parking lot trembling with barely contained exaltation — saying he had to show me something.
Odd. But he seemed harmless — smallish, trim, open-faced and soft-spoken with that ageless quality living in harmony with your own nature confers.
Jack spent a lifetime building things and maintaining Mesa’s water and utility lines in 115-degree summers. He loved that. Now he loves fishing.
Jack led me out to his well-used SUV, popped open the back and introduced me to the biggest trout I’ve ever seen up close. My mouth gaped open like a largemouth bass.
“Where the heck did you get that monster?” I asked, breathless.
“The East Verde River,” said Jack, all but dancing in the parking lot.
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” he grinned.
“Impossible,” I said.
He just grinned, fit to bust.
He said he’s walked up to one of his favorite pools on the East Verde River up by Verde Glen when the river was running low and by force of habit stepped up on a rock back from the edge of the pool to survey it. To his astonishment, he saw the monster fish sitting in that insignificant pool, like a lion in a phone booth.
Jack crawled up to that pool on his hands and knees, so as to not scare off Bigfoot. He cast carefully, hands trembling. After three casts, that behemoth hit on Jack’s undersized rig. They struggled for 20 minutes before Jack reeled him in.
So I took pictures and did a little write up. Neither one of us could generate a theory on how such a fish had ended up in such a pool.
Later we learned the Tonto Creek Hatchery had some fish they’d been growing for three or four years. They stocked them into the East Verde and the Tonto. If the fish hatchery guys had met Jack that day — they would have felt their whole purpose in life fulfilled.
Ever since that day, Jack has urged me to go fishing with him sometime. We bump into one another here and there — this being Payson. I always say, “we definitely got to do that.” He always smiles gently. I never follow through. Jack always forgives me. “I know, you’re a busy guy,” says Jack. “Heck. I used to be busy like that. Seems like I just never got it done.”
Truth be told, I had another reason for begging off. Jack’s an actual fisherman. I write about being a fisherman: Big, big difference. Whenever we chat, we talk about fishing — mostly his most recent adventure. The sad truth is: I love to fish, but don’t generally catch much. I read the books, glean the tips, but only fish fitfully. When I do, I use whatever leftover whatnot I can find in my fishing vest. Most of the time, I wander off with my camera when the light’s good and the fish start biting. I have accepted all these hard truths about myself: But I didn’t want Jack to know.
However, last Sunday I bumped into Jack again at the Buffalo for the Junction 87 jam session and said, “Let’s go fishing Wednesday.”
He looked at me, surprised. “Sure,” he said.
“If I don’t just schedule it, I’ll never go,” I said, still convincing myself.
“Sure,” he said.
So here it is, Wednesday. I got no time. But I told Jack I’d meet him on the Control Road and I’m gonna be late no matter what I do and I can’t reach him. So I just have to go.
He’s waiting there, affable as always.
“Hey,” he says.
“Sorry I’m late.”
He shrugs and smiles. “But we got a problem,” he says. “They turned off the river.”
The Salt River Project puts water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir into the East Verde up by Washington Park all summer long, in a normal year running about 11,000 acre-feet down the East Verde to the Verde for those insatiable reservoirs in the Valley. But after a dry winter, the reservoir started out about 60 percent full and they’ve run it down to empty to do maintenance work on the normally submerged pump tunnels. So now the lake level has fallen below the pump intakes.
“What do we do?” I ask.
“Don’t know,” he says, looking down at the trickle of water passing under the Control Road bridge.
“We could go to Tonto Creek,” I say.
“Could do. Kind of late by the time we get there.”
“Sorry,” I say.
“I do know a pool — probably got water.”
“Might as well look since we’re here,” I say.
He grins. “Let’s do it.”
So I change into my fishing gear, feeling already lighter. We leave my car and meander up on the thready dirt track that leads along the river. We park in his accustomed spot and pick up some trash left by the flatlanders. I talk him out of the white, curly-tailed grubs he swears by, rig up the drop shot to his specifications and off we tromp.
He shows me where he caught the monster, which is barely a pool at all at this flow. He urges me to make some little wrist flick casts to see if there’s anything hiding under the log. Nothing.
But I don’t care. Even at this flow, the stream’s gurgle — a happy limerick for the ear. The wind’s telling secrets to the pine needles overhead, although they keep shsssshing it. The light’s playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. The air’s freshly washed, full of damp forest smells.
So Jack leads on to his favorite pool, the one he saves for people he wants to make happy. He ushers me to his favorite spot on his favorite pool, like a maître d’ presenting the window seat with the view of the Champs-Élysées.
I cast and get two definite bites on the recovery.
On the third cast, I pull in a fish — nice little rainbow.
Jack’s standing back, a delighted and generous grin fixed on his elfin face. I know his type, taking more pleasure in other’s pleasure than in his own.
Thus began the best hour of fishing ever. I caught eight trout — and had another 30 bites. I kept three, as I have been eager to make use of a ripe mango and some garden herbs in a likely futile effort to impress a certain person with my culinary skills.
Jack caught maybe 10 trout and put them all carefully back.
Afterward, we drove down the Control Road, stopping to exclaim over an unhurried, 5-foot-long rattler. Then headed for the Sidewinder bar to debrief.
Now, here’s the funny thing about the day: I cannot now remember a single one of the neglected tasks that so nearly convinced me to cancel.
But I never will forget the golden hour when the fish were hitting everything I offered and Jack was grinning like a largemouth.