Not the good and evil stuff, or the violence stuff—even as a kid I had a handle on that. It’s the trout stuff that I found confusing.
To recap the novel: Ray Hicks and Marge Converse go on the lam with a backpack full of heroin, pursued by some frightening quasi-laws. They’re in California, in Berkeley, and they head down to Los Angeles, where Hicks might have a Hollywood contact who will buy the dope. That doesn’t work out. (Seriously doesn’t work out!) So they then head off to a ranch—somewhere. This is where I got lost as a teenager (not lost in terms of the narrative, but in terms of a map). When they arrive at the ranch, the son of the guru-ranch owner is happy to see Hicks, and says, “Last time I saw you, you were fishing for steelheads.” Later Hicks says to the guru, "Last time I was here, I was fishing for steelheads...."
Oh! I thought as a kid, they’re in Oregon or someplace north.
See, steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout. They spawn in freshwater and spend most of their lives at sea. They’re found along the Northern Pacific coasts, from California all the way around to Siberia. They’re not as common as they once were in California, so my kidish thought was—Marge and Hicks moved up the coast to Oregon to find some steehead.
Which makes sense. But. The ranch is also described as being up in some mountains close to the Mexican border. And when you get down out of the mountains, it’s all flat desert. The area really doesn’t sound like a place where steelhead are going to run. I thought—maybe the kid remembers Hicks fishing for steelhead some other time and place in the past.
But now, as I re-read it as an adult—as a writer—I’m thinking that Stone just didn’t know his trout. The ranch is pretty clearly in Arizona, and the trout in the stream that runs through the ranch would be, if they’re native, Gila trout or Apache trout—though rainbows and browns have been introduced almost everywhere.
Stone has odd salmonoids in another fine novel--Outerbridge Reach. In it, a guy named Owen Browne is taking part in an around-the-world solo yacht race. But his boat breaks down and he goes mad and spends his time sailing in circles around the South Atlantic. And then he finds an island and goes ashore—and comes across some salmon in a stream.
“He was surprised to see salmon in the pool, struggling upstream. He could see them clearly in the fading light—enormous, ponderous fish, their bodies gray and scarred…The sight of the salmon moved Browne to tears. He thought he had never seen creatures of such gravity. They had won out over time and the ocean. They had survived everything and come home. Browne thought he would give anything to be in their condition.”
And…who knows? Maybe there are salmon running in some island stream in the South Atlantic. There are certainly sea-run brown trout in the Falklands/Malvinas, so it’s possible that the crazy British could have colonized salmon elsewhere in the south, too.
In the long run, I guess, for most people, it doesn’t matter too much. Robert Stone was a terrific writer and you need to read his books.
Still, it might matter a little if you’re a writer and want to have fish in your narrative—it might be a lesson that you need to know your trouts. (Google can be your friend).