Say Yes: the Steelhead

She swam up the last chute of rapids into the tailout and the pool above.

There in the calm water she relaxed her smooth, powerful lateral muscles, silver-red scales running from cheek to tail, pearl-white belly bulging underneath—but her blue-green back, peppered with irregular splotches of coal black, made the fish invisible to all but the keenest eyes above the surface.

Here she waited, resting as the sun fell below the line of the blurry green bushes and willows that swarmed the banks.

Others, too, were swimming under the moonlight that first night, waiting silently, silver ghosts hovering in the tranquil water.

Time passed. Days wheeled into nights summoning days. But with every passage of sunlight and darkness and starlight and moonlight, the steelhead grew more restless.

They began to play and nip at fins—males, mostly. The females swirled in the smooth water, occasionally launching themselves in the air followed by sloppy crash landings as they beat their sides against the surface tension.

Then she and some of the other hens began to slide out of the pool and into the tailout where the water quickened and shallowed, sandy bottom replaced by a bed of rocks shaped like pearls and quails’ eggs and small potatoes.

And then something peculiar happened.

The females turned on their sides, perpendicular to the bottom, beating at the rocks with their powerful tailfins. First they swept them clean of algae, then gradually dug out small depressions in the river bottom.

They kept at it as day faded into night, resting only long enough to recover the strength to resume. Eventually there was a shallow oval scoop the size of a small coffee table or ottoman with rocks glistening gray and brown and bone and maroon on the bottom, sun showing on them like marbles through the cool, blue-green water.

The males were near now, sensing their time, nipping and darting in the water, sexual tension rippling through their tired red bodies.

Then the hens turned once again on their sides, this time to flush eggs from their abdomens into the clean rocks of the nests below. The bucks responded by darting forth to brush against the females, jets of creamy white milt shooting into the flood of little pink spheres as they settled beneath and clung to the rocks or were swept downstream to the whitefish and trout waiting to feast on the spoils.

Like the other hens, she repeated the process again and again until at last there was nothing left, every egg cleaned from her body. Then she felt hollow. And tired. Ever so tired.

With great effort she managed to swim a little way back into the pool. The current never felt so strong.

Some of the others fed, and she tried to, but soon she felt herself drifting off, light fading and eventually going black, and when it returned she found herself resting half-conscious on a gravel bank near the shore.

She struggled back once more into the current, then felt a ripping, violent tear at her side.

And then…



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