This is a copyrighted excerpt from the chapter ‘Her Heartfelt Gift’ from My Mistress Whispers and Roars-Second Edition. It chronicles an evening session while camping between guide trips, and one truly special fish…
There wasn’t much camp to set up. My cot was assembled, a pad and sleeping bag put atop. That’s it. I spent an hour or so tidying and tinkering with the boat, my camp box, flies, prepping the cooler for the next day, things like that. Then I smoked some weed, dragged the cot into the shade of the truck and took a nap.
I’m guessing I woke up around eight o’clock. The sun had forgivingly dropped behind the western rim but still shone on the canyon wall above camp. The air was cooling. But the damned wind was still blowing. I sat up, slipped on flipflops and stood, stretching arms into the soft air. My gut feeling at the time was to blow off fishing and write. When that dastardly wind blows, the caddis tend to hunker down in the juniper and alder, neglecting their primal duty of laying eggs until the calm of darkness. Too many nights have been spent sitting on the bank, alternately cursing the wind and beseeching it to let up. And many of those nights, it kept blowing until a half hour after complete darkness. It can be a frustrating scenario, one I’ve only experienced maybe a hundred times.
On the night in question, I figured there’d be no harm in stringing up a rod, sliding back into my wet-wading boots and taking a little walk. If nothing else, it would be beautiful watching the amber reflections play on the river’s surface, the streaking pastel clouds wander overhead, say hello to a few rattlesnake friends, make a cast tor two. I call evenings like that ‘managing expectation’ sessions. If I don’t go into it with a steely determination to catch fish, then there can be no feelings of failure when it doesn’t happen.
I cracked open another beer, lit a smoke and put together Winnie, my favorite five weight, the Winston BIIIx 590. Unless you’re chucking heavy rigs in big water all day, I defy you to propose a finer trout rod. Actually, don’t even bother. You’d be wrong. That’s that. Fitted to Winnie’s light maple seat was my favorite trout reel, the Galvan Rush in ‘clear’, not that color matters. If you’re going to try to tell me there’s a better made, more beautiful and classically weighted modern trout reel, don’t. Again, you’d just be wrong. And no one likes the habit of being wrong all the time. I’m sure most of you have your favorite set-up for dry-fly fishing. Please know that I’m not talking down to your gear. It’s probably awesome. The important element is how we feel when stringing said rod up. For me there’s an existential brewing of arousal, not dissimilar to before a little hanky panky. If I’m to be real, all hanky panky is good when you get to be my age, but there’s always the possibility that something special is going to come of it, if you’ll pardon the pun. Anyway, whenever I slide the ferrules together and screw the reel onto Winnie, the soft flex of my daily emotions gets a little stiffer, if you follow my meaning. I gird myself for what’s about to happen. And again, at my age, that can require a little more coaxing.
Knowing that the best chance for some dry fly would be right before dark, there was no rush as I connected a new nine-foot 5X leader to my fly line. To the end of that, a tied another fourteen inches of tippet and then a foam-bodied Elk Hair Caddis, size sixteen. That’s usually all it takes if the fish get busy. This is the angler’s version of pillow talk.
After putting my boots on, I grabbed my fishing pack, off of which hung the trusty trout net, put a cold beer in each of the two “water bottle” holders, and set off. In my pack was a pair of 2.75 cheater glasses, smokes and a box of dry flies. Propped on my cap was a headlamp, which is often used on the walk back into camp. Everything else was left in the truck. The wind was still blowing.
I trekked about a mile down to the top of Scorpion Run, looked out over the salmon redds and down into the riffle. The wind was huffing upriver, provoking small whitecaps right where I’d usually watch for ovipositing caddis getting crushed by eager Redbands. I walked a little farther down and found a patch of bank to sit on and opened a beer. The tall grasses swayed and rattled. A few swallows darted, no doubt as eager for active caddis as I was. I checked my watch. Eight forty-five. I had less than an hour. At least with the upcanyon blow, I could make some casts. But the pure dry fly was a bit of a fools errand. I quickly rigged up a dry/dropper with a small Chubby above two little beaded nymphs. I can’t recall what they were. It’s not important. What is important is that on one of my first casts into the riffle, a really nice Redband clobbered the Chubby. As with so many times while fishing the dry/dropper, there’s a moment of disbelief when a fish swirls on the over-sized dry. And this was a good one. Out in the wind brushed riffle, the trout sailed clear, spraying a large area with green and gold sparkles. And then it tore forty feet of line off the reel in one sustained pull. With right hand overhead holding a tacoed Winnie, my left reached for the open beer and I took a long swig, then lifted the can into the warm wind and said, “cheers”.
A minute later, a sixteen-inch native lay gasping in my net. The nymphs were hopelessly tangled so I snipped all the crap off, unwound the tippet from the gorgeous fish, loosed the Chubby from his mouth and then cradled him in the river for a few seconds. It was one of those fish that would make a client’s day. And mine. Really solid, healthy Redbands that size are not easy to catch most days in the middle of summer. And so I gave the trout its due appreciation before it kicked free, darting back to the riffle. My heart sighed as I gazed into the glowing heavens. And just then I noticed that the wind had died. As if a flick had been switched, the canyon air went suddenly still. The harmony that had been river, leaves and swaying grasses had silenced. I looked up to the alders on the island and clouds of caddis flitted over each one.
In barely workable light, I switched the Chubby for the caddis imitation from earlier and cast against the bank. On one of my first casts, a head tipped casually up and contact was made. This fish would go thirteen or fourteen, pulled hard and looked stunning in my net for the five seconds it was there. Another fish was rising fifteen feet farther up. I move into position and put eight or ten casts over it with no attention. That’s when I noticed some elegant little Pale Morning Duns floating amongst the darting caddis. To the hook of my fly I affixed twenty inches of 6X tippet and a size eighteen Light Cahill. After a little floatant was applied, I cast up to the same fish. I could see the caddis just fine, but the PMD was invisible. To me. The fish could see it just fine. This was proved by a sizable snout slowly lifting up and eating it. Once again, I was playing a fired-up trout, now in almost complete darkness. Sometimes in these situations, I actually close my eyes. There’s almost nothing to see, not to mention all the sensations are heightened when I’m simply feeling for it. I did that with this fish. It surged out to the redds before bolting downriver towards the riffle. I turned my body with its path, letting line tear from the reel. After maybe thirty seconds, I resigned to most likely never seeing this fish again. It was eighty feet away now, thumping spastically, far from any semblance of quitting. I wouldn’t chase it. If the fish came back to the bank, I’d have a chance. It had eaten the little fly on the lighter tippet. Odds are the fly would be shook loose or the 6X would come apart.
And then the fish did the near unthinkable; it charged not only to our bank, but then right towards me. I couldn’t reel fast enough, so I stripped line by the armful. I opened my eyes at this point. Curiosity got the better of me. I’d had the image till then that the fish had swum ashore and was heading for the trail. Instead, it was right on the bank, now holding station only twenty feet away. I began slowly moving that direction, reeling slack line onto the spool. And then the fish must have scraped the bottom because it went bat-shit ballistic for three endless seconds, thrashing, summersaulting, shaking it’s big head.
The line went slack. No big surprise there.
I lowered the rod tip to the river, reached for the can of beer and took a good long swig, finishing it off. Then I tipped it in the direction of the fish’s last known location. “Nicely done,” was all I could think to say.
Both flies were still there when I reeled up. I hooked the little PMD on one of the snake guides, made my way through the tall grass and up to the trail. Camp was only a ten-minute walk. I clicked on my headlamp, lit a smoke, cracked open the other beer and began the slow trek. FYI, don’t walk fast that time of night. The snakes tend to come out in force. You want to give them a second to scamper out of the way, or rattle you off before stepping too close. In almost complete darkness, I made my way along the river trail, loving the stillness of the night, the quiet of that stretch of river, looking forward to some tepid Safeway fried chicken.
Now, for those keeping score at home, you’ve most likely realized that this story could still qualify as just another Mecca last light session. And wouldn’t you be the astute ones. You’d be right. Proud of ya. And thanks for sticking around this long.
But this is where the normalcy of the night might fade like the very last, soft-pink glow of dusk.
A little over halfway to camp, I heard the distinct gulump of a fish eating near the bank. An alder tree hung out right there. It’s a spot I’ve fooled nice fish in the past. Most nights, I’d have kept walking. And I really can’t tell you for sure why I didn’t. After easing quietly into the slow water of the run, loving the cool water on my tired legs, I stripped line from the reel and made four or five casts up behind the alder. My plan was to set the hook on even the vaguest sound of a fish rising. But I never did. The hum of the river went uninterrupted. But then, farther out, maybe forty feet towards the middle of the river, gulump. I quickly stripped more line from the reel, roll casted the lot of it downriver and then put one smooth, single-hand Spey move on it. The stroke felt effective, but there was no way of knowing because, as I believe I’ve mentioned, it was dark. With all the micro currents through there I figured I’d get three or four seconds of decent drift at tops. Five seconds later, with all hope lost, I went to lift into one more cast. Gulump. Could that have been me? Lift the rod and find out, dummy. Yup, that was me. The initial thumping out there in the smooth, black water was next level heavy. Unlike the vibration of normal head shaking, this was heaving, distinct and individual tugs with brief pauses between. I could feel the rod torque and relax, torque and relax, several times. I mean, it really could have been a beaver out there for all I knew. And it was all happening subsurface. So there was no noise associated with the power. Just angry, brutish strength. And then it made its move.
From the abject chaos of the first few seconds, the next tactic was to get as far away from me as possible. In that stretch of river, we’re talking at least a couple hundred feet. And that is how far the fish must have gone. I remember straining my eyes to see something, conjure an idea of where the fish had gone. But I couldn’t. I just knew it was a long, long way away. The reel had given line so fast for so long, I figured the backing was close to depleted. I’ll never know because, as I may or may not have illustrated, it was really quite dark right then. So stolen was my breath, my ability to cohesively process everything that was happening, I really can’t relate how long the fish was over there, through the night, across the broad river. What I do remember clearly is that at some point it came back towards me, angling downriver on its way across. Once again, I had the rod high up over head, my left hand reeling as furiously as it ever has while my right fingers measured backing onto the spool. I felt the backing knot click through the tip top and then slide through my fingers. Then I remembered the snag in the river sixty feet below me, in the vicinity of where the fish was heading. Feeling as if I had no choice, I began trying to lead the dance, angling the rod out over the river, keeping the tip low, hoping the fish would turn away from the snag.
I’d guess us at five minutes into the fight. And just then, I actually thought the tables may have turned. But that was not a correct assessment. When the fish was maybe fifty feet away and almost directly downriver, it finally, and for the only time, surged towards the surface. I can’t describe what the jump looked like, because it was, you know, really dark, but I can relate the sound as the fish exploded from the river. It was as if a cloud of starlings buzzed by mere feet from my ears; a great whooshing flourish. The fish reentered the river with a thunderous kerploooosshhh. I’d have bet the farm just then that the line had broken or one of the knots had succumbed. But incredibly, out there in the darkness, the fish and I were still attached. And then it took off for the far bank again, not stopping for a long time. I could feel it angling upriver, as if trying to get back to the exact same spot where it had been a few minutes prior. The line/backing joiner ripped through the guides as the fish proceeded to steal every bit of backing it had before. And again, I was left to stand there, not much to do or say about what was transpiring, and probably little change going forward. What astonished me more than anything just then is that we were even still connected. I was after all fishing 5X to the caddis and 6X to the PMD. This fish had already put that much pound stress on my rig and then some. We should have parted ways during its first run. And yet, way out there, across the ancient river, under a building blanket of stars, the fish and I were still sharing the experience, neither, I can assure you, especially stoked with our position. The angler was exhausted, stressed out, drunk and high, knowing a bag of greasy fried chicken awaited in camp. The fish was beyond indignant, its tenacity and pride surging through the tippet, leader, fly line, backing and graphite straight into my soul.
And somewhere in the vastness of that shared experience, I knew that we’d have to meet. Even then, with a flowing canyon floor between us, I was convinced there was a reason we’d had this encounter. Could this fish have had any idea how many days I’ve floated over its midriver lie? Is there any way it understood my astonishment that it even survives in that shadow of a river? I know it doesn’t live where and how most of the others do. I’d have seen it, probably even cradled it. Regardless of what this fish and I could have understood about each other, we had come together right then because it was meant to be. There was nothing happenstance about it. And so, let’s meet. Let’s do this properly.
Come on, honey. Get back over here. I started whispering to her -not sure why I decide it was a her– letting her know that we needed to start working together, a bond of cooperation needed formation. I assured her that I’d be kind and gentle in my handling of her. As I reeled in all the backing and then the first bits of fly line, I promised that if she’d let us come face to face, I would do everything in my power to protect her, her river, her spawn and relatives. She may or may not have known that I already do that, but I felt compelled to let her know just then that her strain, her home and all the denizens she shares it with have become the very core of my love of fly fishing.
The line kept coming in. There was no way of knowing where she was out in the dark, only that she was getting closer. I hadn’t so much as budged since casting to her all that time ago.The river’s slight flow was more of a caress than a tug. And we were getting closer. Before I even had my net at the ready, I felt the fly line click through the tip top. I quickly pulled loose the magnet on the hoop of the net and flipped the handle into my left hand. Then I lifted my rod towards the diamond-pocked sky and eased her into the net.
The first sensation I felt, in the complete darkness, was not of relief or satisfaction or triumph. It was the fish’s sheer weight. The net I had was the Fishpond Nomad Series Native model, as close to a teardrop as they make. It’s a wonderful little net for the vast majority of my fishing and guiding. I like it because its shape doesn’t cause it to hang up on so much crap along the river. Anyway, it’s a great net, just not made for the fish that was in it right then. Forget the length of this fish, its heft was most alarming.
It never thrashed, never again tried to escape. That’s when I remembered my headlamp. I chucked the rod onto the bank behind me and switched the light on. My breath was properly stolen. No wonder it was so heavy, its thickness pretty much filled the basket of the net. It’s sheer width was hard for me to reconcile, so out of the norm in my daily life. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought this fish was a salmon.
Oh, and it was a her. Figures.
Okay, just because I know stats are not insignificant, let’s try to convey dimensions. The basket in that net is nineteen inches hoop to hoop. There were two or three inches of fish protruding from either end. Let’s call it twenty-three, maybe twenty-four inches long. But again, the far more impressive aspect was her girth. My hand, from wrist to fingertips, is around seven inches and completely disappeared underneath her. So her girth would have been twice that plus two or three. Let’s call her sixteen to seventeen inches at her shoulders. I know, that is an awfully thick trout, but I’m not making this up. I’ve met narrower twenty-eight-inch steelhead. I think I’m actually being conservative here… So, by the generally accepted weight estimation with trout, that would be five and a quarter pounds.
Oh, and she had eaten the PMD. The tiny fly fell from her upper lip as I was worshipped her every shape. I cleared the flies and tippet from the net and then turned to face the river. I knelt with her and lowered the net away. She lay calm in my hands as the net drifted to the end of its tether. She was on her side, every coloration, every spot, each over-sized fin, her translucent, abalone shell gill plate overwhelming my vision. In all my years, in all my travels, in all my days guiding, in my wildest dreams I never imagined a fish such as this.
Under the headlamp’s glow, she was the only thing in our otherwise darkened world. The spotlight was hers and she seemed to accept and tolerate my obsequious adoration. But could she have really known what she meant? Did she feel the vibration in my voice on her violet lateral line as I gushed over her beauty and strength? Did my affectionate fingers, brushing her broad shoulders, transmit the love from my heart to hers? Was there a part of her uncomfortable with my hot, ardent glare? Was she ready to exit the shaft of center stage light and slide back into her uncelebrated world, wishing only to be left alone from here on out?
I turned her upright and even under the headlamp she almost disappeared. Ok, you can go now. I can’t thank you enough. And I’ll never, ever forget you. Goodbye for now and forever… She kicked free and vanished into the reflective glare.
After gathering and stowing my rod, I went back up to the river trail. There I stopped and switched off the light. I lit a smoke and stared into the heavens, my father’s house, where spirits linger for eternity, observing. I know this because I believe it. I know this because I’ve felt it as deeply and as pure as a sun’s rising and setting. I’ve felt the same vibrations from the earth. I have the same roots as a tree. The same history as a waterfall. The same permanence as a truth. And right then, all these elements came together, channeling through me, through her, through our ephemerality, transcending into forever.
For the next couple hours, sitting on the concrete picnic bench in my campsite, after talking to Jasper, after the fried chicken and last beer, and straight through the peanut butter cups, Bushmills and smokes, my psyche spun wildly, desperate to grasp what had happened out there in the quiet currents, under the darkening sky, as angels whispered meaning into her heartfelt gift.