“Whoa! Back up! Abort! Retreat! Run away!–but…CAREFULLY!”
I could hardly believe my eyes! The question, which I had just posed aloud to myself and to my vizsla, Enzo, had been answered: “Do you think this is deep enough to hold a fish?”
We were exploring a side-channel along one of Idaho’s many fantastic trout rivers. Although I have fished here 50 times or more and consider it to be my home water, this was only my second visit since the powerful Spring runoff of 2017. The deluge, combined with the aftermath of a fire a couple of years ago, had sculpted the riverbed in ways both subtle and substantial. Unlocking the river’s new secrets gave the whole day a kind of freshness that a veteran angler really enjoys.
So there we were, staring with disbelief into the shallow but dark water of this side-channel. Although it was immense–half the size of a Buffalo wing!–the hopper had been claimed by the shadow as if it were a sesame seed. The take was effortless. No big deal. At least to the wild rainbow who was altogether titanic in comparison to the jumbo insect.
Meanwhile, this angler was trembling with delightful anticipation. And also terrified that I might have defiled the holy ground by unknowingly treading upon it and angering the deities who found sanctuary within it.
I licked my sun-chapped lips and redirected Enzo away with a whistle, then backed upstream carefully, trying in all candor to summon the ability to hover so as not to disturb the setting any more than I already had. As a good angler does, and as all intense anglers must after an encounter like that, I took a moment, first to gather my wits and pinch myself, and second, to consider whether there might be a way to present my hopper imitation to this fish.
Casting across-stream was out of the question: too narrow a channel and too much vegetation. A downstream approach would create instant drag and a messy pickup that would surely annoy the fish into retreat. But an upstream approach might be possible if I were both skillful and lucky, and I do mean two scoops of each!
A counterclockwise detour around the small island took only a moment.
Nearing the tiny pool from below, I felt like Gandalf nearing Bag End: suddenly everything seemed enclosed, crowded–even more so than I had expected. I pushed some tender branches to my left, took one more step upstream, and knelt in the shade on a tiny patch of gravel.
This would be a challenge!
Looking up and to my right, I could see the foliage of two small trees overhanging the channel: one from my side (which I had just pushed aside) and one from the opposite bank. They were well within reach of my 9-food rod, so there would be no casting through them. Period. But, while the highest branches were reaching toward one another, they were not quite touching. Recall the outstretched fingers of Adam and God in Michelangelo’s fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Now think about flying a 747 between them. This was my task.
Had I known exactly where it lay, I could have just as easily tapped the fish on its head as rattled the overhanging branches with my rod, so there was precious little space in which to work. I tilted the rod backwards through the overhead slot and pointed it downstream, then withdrew only about five feet of line from the reel–just enough to give my bulky hopper adequate momentum to stall out and drop to the water about 12 feet away on the forward cast. I jiggled the line and leader out through the rod guides and let the current straighten it out, visually gauged the one precise casting arc that conditions would permit, and swept the rod forward.
Rats! Tangled in the canopy. Pointed the rod toward the hopper and pulled in all the line until the last guide was pressed up against foam. A gentle upward twitch with the world’s most expensive de-hooker…had worked! Phew!
Feed out the line and leader again. Gauge. Ready…and…sweep.
This time the dynamic parts all cleared the static parts and the giant hopper landed in just about the correct spot. I watched, waited, listened. The shadow emerged, escorted the hopper downstream until I could almost touch its tail, and then sat on the bottom, letting the fly drift away, alone. Hmm…maybe a smaller pattern? Even though my present hopper closely matched the pinky-sized natural that the fish had taken, my instinct told me a slightly smaller representation might strike the trout’s fancy and prompt it to eat. I quickly made the switch. Meanwhile, the fish blended back into the darkness under the tangle of branches on the opposite side.
Feed out the line and leader. Gauge. Ready…and…sweep.
Success! The needle had been threaded once again. The table was set.
And this time, the big trout was wearing a bib!
A bomber hook-set even in the close quarters signaled the beginning of the contest. The trout came toward me then headed for an intricate mesh of branches both below the surface and above on the opposite side. (I was astonished to see that there was a second equally-large rainbow in this pool who came out of hiding to check on its friend.) For a moment, the trout found shelter in the woody tangle, but I dipped the rod tip to get it as low as possible and insistently guided the trout back out. Knowing that the subaquatic branches would sooner or later allow the fish to escape if given enough chances to hide there, I backpedaled downstream and led the trout to a much bigger pool below the confluence with another side-channel. The wily rainbow took the long route around a rock that broke the surface, and his experienced opponent quickly maneuvered and reached with the rod to clear the line from the obstacle. It was a mighty, clever, vigorous trout, and exhilarating to behold when it came to net.
Nearly 20 inches long, this divine specimen had been drawn from water neither that deep, nor quite four times that wide.
This year marks my twentieth anniversary as a serious flyfisher. (In fact, it might have been twenty years ago to the day that a college friend and I set out for Henry’s Fork on what was a strange choice of destination for a first flyfishing trip. Given our knowledge and experience, the decision to pursue trout at Henry’s Fork was a lot like foisting a tee-ball player into the World Series!) Over the years, I have been blessed with opportunities to chase trout all through the Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions. I have caught big fish, different species of fish, and vast numbers of fish. It has been said that one of the hallmarks of a mature angler is that he or she obsesses less about size and quantity of the fish caught, and cares more about catching fish in the way he or she most enjoys. For me, twenty years in, yesterday’s monster wild rainbow coaxed from little more than a rivulet was a very new and special experience indeed! Does that make me a “mature” flyfisher? Who knows? But in a marvelous testament to the endless challenge and depth of this passion we live for, the experience made me feel like a wide-eyed child again for a few precious moments.