Doug and the last steelhead

Time to turn in my steelhead harvest card. Tears well up in my eyes.

Not because of that one pitiful entry but because Doug landed his last fish that day.

Friends found Doug’s decomposing body on the family tree farm last month. No one had talked to him for almost two weeks. He was only 52. Doug was a strong, vibrant, former logger, wrestler. He was a knowledgeable, skilled angler. I was aware of the emotional trauma he had experienced over the past six months. We had spent countless hours on his situation.

My wife and I had been out of state for over two weeks. We came home to the stunning message on the heartless answering machine.

Doug had been living in a 30-year-old camp trailer at the family tree farm in the Coast Range. No power. No water supply. An honest, hard-working guy, from a family of significant means, he had been reduced to a welfare existence, dependant on the Oregon Health Plan for food and medical services.

A family tragedy had brought Doug and me together to fish for steelhead. Doug’s dad, Noah, had been my closest fishing buddy for 10-12 years until cancer robbed him of all spinal functions from base of the skull down. He would be a quadriplegic the rest of his remaining eight years.

One day Doug and I are sitting around Noah’s bed sharing favorite fishing stories when Doug surprises me with: “I would be honored to take Dad’s place and become your plunking partner, if you’re interested,” he asks politely.

“I will have to fish vicariously through you guys,” Noah offers from his special bed.

Doug was my plunking companion for the next eight years of Noah’s life. On the river, we land a steelhead, I call Noah. Bring fish home, make sure Noah sees them.

A noted psychologist once said “You may have many friends over the years but you will only have room for three or four whom you will share what is deep inside you.”

Over the next few years Doug and I arrive at that level. Doug is very bright and eager to learn. We grew up in totally different economic situations. He always wants to know more about how I grew up on a subsistence farm in a very impoverished area of the southwest. Doug always treats me with the respect for older people that his parents had taught. I am some 30 years his senior. We start out, a couple of fishing friends. This becomes a friendship that grows much deeper than either of us could have imagined.

We discover a new level on a cold wet miserable day. Fishing has been slow. I hook and land a beautiful 10-pounder. In the process I slip and splash down in four inches of thick, black mud. Doug struggles to bring 200 pounds of insulation, rain gear and mud upright. He holds me tight in a steady position and softly whispers, “I love you guy.” In the 20 plus years I have known this family I have never observed any sort of love or affection. Hugs became an important piece of our relationship.

Our fishing method is plunking. Plunking has often been described as a “social fishery.” Minutes turn into long hours. We will spend countless hours sitting, talking, and developing a strong relationship.

We have fun fishing. We enjoy our time together. We are eager to get on the river. At times good spots are limited. If we have a particular spot we want to claim, we arrive there an hour before first light. Doug sets our gear in place while I enjoy more minutes of warmth in the truck.

We catch our share of steelhead. We fish through all the storms Mother Nature throws at us–downpours, snow, ice and treacherous roads. We fish on days so nasty the locals stay home.

Doug’s enthusiasm is contagious. He is the supreme optimist. We celebrate each catch like a couple of teenagers.

We have days when there are no fish. Doug always says, “We’ll get ‘em tomorrow.” We have streaks of 2-3 days like that. Followed by times of numerous hookups and limits. Land that first fish of the day, he always celebrates with, “They can’t take that one away from us.” I never asked where that came from.

One special memory comes when I hook what is obviously a huge steelhead. I bring the fish in close and Bob, one of the regulars, steps in to net the fish and blocks my view.

My heart rate triples when I hear, “S—!” and see the empty net come up with only my sinker. Doug grabs my net, jumps in over his boots, nets the trophy and wades out of the ice cold water. By now a small crowd has gathered to watch the battle. Doug secures the 16-pound hatchery buck, and wraps my trembling body in a powerful bear hug. “Can’t take that one away from us.”

As the years slip by my “OLDmeter” seems to spin faster. Gravity continues its inevitable pull on my body. With each of my physical challenges Doug eases in to fill the void.

First comes Doug physically helping me get to areas difficult for me to reach. Next my disabled permit allows us to park closer to the river. Doug packs some of my gear. Then, all my gear. We are often in ankle-deep mud. We wear rubber boots and rain pants. End of the day Doug insists I sit on the tailgate for him to remove the muddy gear. An obvious display of kindness and compassion.

This last year, under Doug’s watchful eye, I struggle to the water with my aluminum walker. I sit in my lawn chair as he makes it possible for me to continue this fishery I have enjoyed for over 62 years. My one fish, he sets the hook and hands me the rod to reel in my last steelhead.

Doug has never been married. He has spent the last few years logging in his dad’s logging business. They work out some kind of arrangement where Noah places money in an account for tax purposes.

After his dad becomes disabled, Doug sells his home in the Portland area and lives with his mother and sister in the home where he has grown up. He continues the outside work his dad has always done.

One evening a highly emotional battle develops between Doug and his sister. They have a long history of angry battles.

She has him arrested and charged with two felonies. It becomes one of those “he said, she said” situations.

After his arrest Doug is evaluated by a psychologist that concludes he is sane and not a threat to himself and the public.

Upon release he learns he is banned from the home where he grew up and is allowed one visit to gather his personal items. No place to live, his truck in the garage, barred from money his dad has saved for him, he calls his best friend and hunting buddy since the 5th grade. Friend refuses to talk to him. “Any guy that threatens to kill his sister is no friend of mine.” A crushing blow to Doug.

His sister has called all family and most friends and told them of the threat to kill her. Two of his cousins didn’t buy her story and offer him temporary housing.

Doug manages to get his truck into a garage for transmission repair. They want a dollar guarantee he cannot provide.

He calls me. My wife and I bring him home. He has a total meltdown. It has to be crushing for this tough, rugged outdoorsman/logger to do this with me.

We spend the rest of the day dealing with emotional highs and lows. By the end of the day we feel confident enough for him to drive my truck to his cousin’s home in Dallas.

We talk on the phone daily, sometimes multiple times. He can’t decide to hire a tough lawyer and fight back or not. To go after his sister would “hurt his mom.”

He is kept in limbo for the rest of his life. Going to court. Postponed again.

“Charges may be reduced.”

“I may go to prison.”

He has no money. His funds all frozen.

A proud young man is forced to resort to welfare for food and medical services. He has not been to a doctor for years. He sees a doctor. He has diabetes and a thyroid disorder. He is assigned a psychologist that he is seeing regularly.

Our phone calls become less frequent. Always the optimist he is making plans for next winter’s steelhead fishing. He wants to make it easier for me.

Doug died alone in the mountains he loved. He was living in an old travel trailer that has not been used in many years. No power. No water. No heat.

The family never releases cause of death.

It has been said, “We are a building made of memories.” Doug is a special part of my building.

“They did take that one away from us.”