The great charm of fly-fishing is that we are always learning; no matter how long we have been at it, we are constantly making some fresh discovery, picking up some new wrinkle. If we become conceited through great success, some day the trout will take us down a peg. ~Theodore Gordon-1907~
What a morning. The sound of the fast chute above me is muffled by the dense fog silently sliding upstream. The water is steel-gray, opaque, appearing impenetrable. My hands are thrust into the warmer pocket squeezing the heat packets I'd stuffed there before setting out, and I'm glad I did. The humidity, working in tandem with a slight westerly breeze in the pre-dawn produces a chill that goes straight to my bones.
I look upstream. The thick, drifting mists completely conceal the rocky point some fifty feet away. Photo opportunity, so I release my grip on the heat packs and dig for the camera. Here's to hoping it works. Apparently, I have a union camera, and have not yet come to understand when it will take pictures or perform not at all. The green light flickers on. Good deal.
I take my pictures, first upstream, then down, giving you the reader/viewer an idea as to the fishing environment here this morning. I'll need to snap a couple of shots after the sun's up, too. It's light, filtering through the now slowly dissipating mists, will heighten the etherealness I like to see in photos of mornings like this.
I work the upper, faster slot of this run with a bead head softhackle as well as I can, trading off the rod from hand to hand so I can at all times keep one of them gripped around those heat packs. Roll cast, mend this way and that, watch the violent swing across and through the standing waves until I must use both hands to strip line quickly or risk getting hung up on the rocks just beneath the surface in the back eddy below me. I've taken some good fish in those, but I've also lost a lot of soft hackles.
About twenty yards or so downstream the incline flattens, and the flow begins to slow slightly. The standing waves formed by the huge boulders beneath are gone, leaving only the aforementioned cauldron of hydraulics, intersecting, weaving, overlapping, you name it. A good roll cast here will land my soft hackle on the far side of all this mayhem and pull my line quickly downstream. I try to throw a little more line out after it as it travels, so after three or four swings I have covered everything from where I am to forty, sometimes fifty feet downstream. I'll usually make two, sometimes three swings through at each distance knowing that I'm never going to get a similar swing on successive casts. I know it sounds crazy, fishing this fast, unruly water in this fashion, but over the years I've discovered time and time again that there are some dandy places amidst all this hydraulic activity for some very large trout to hold, and they wouldn't be there if they had to work at it very hard. Trout are opportunists, both in feeding and lying in wait. They will work only as hard as is sheer necessity to find food or shelter, and will, when possible, seek a spot that satisfies both requirements. That is why I am here, swinging weighted soft hackles through this seemingly uninhabitable slot.
And that is why, as my gold-tungsten bead head soft hackle, tied on a Dai Riki number zero-sixty swings across the front side of a submerged boulder some forty feet down and across from my position causing an upwelling in the flow, I am instantaneously treated to the visual of a flash and swirl as I feel the rod jolt in my cold, red hands. And, as is sometimes the case, especially here in this fast water, the trout that surged upward from his lie to attack my fly has surged downstream rather than up. And keeps going, and going. I've set a pretty stiff drag on the reel. Fishing this way through here has taught me to use as strong a tippet as possible. Given the fact that the flow here is what it is, I can get away with stronger, which means thicker, tippet, and as the big, strong buck continues his run, I can take that five pound tippet for granted.
I write a lot about how strong I believe these fish are, and that claim is again substantiated by this fish. After running downstream, he goes airborne, and after a spectacular mid-air cartwheel, turns and charges back in the direction he'd fled. I can't keep up with him, can't keep him on the reel, so I strip like a madman trying to regain some tension in the line, fearing that he'll throw the hook. And at the instant I finally feel the fish, he turns again and races back in his original direction. And so it goes for awhile. His alternating runs down or upstream shorten, his bursts, more and more short-lived, until finally I have him at my feet. It is at this point where I see how tenuously hooked he was. As I cradle his belly, the soft hackle simply drops out of the skin on his upper jaw. A couple of quick thrashes lets me know he's recovered enough to set free. And before he swims off, hugging the rocks and looking for home, he stays between my feet, suspended, for me. Such an awesome, beautiful animal. Then, he is gone.
A bit further downstream, the incline flattens again, further slowing the flow. The bottom here is a carpet of similarly-sized rocks, and it shows on the somewhat placid-looking surface. Just off the bank below me lies a formation of igneous rocks It is off this tiny jutting that I see a violent rise.
I misstep often as I try to keep an eye out for whatever it may have been that caused this fish to rise in such a fashion. Trying to watch the water for bugs and the rocks I am walking over and around, while sighting in on what I can use visually to mark the position of that rise makes for a somewhat risky traverse over the moss-covered terrain. I have to smile as I make my way. I must look hilarious to anyone who might see me. I'd laugh if I was watching. I'm not running, but I'm sure as hell stumbling and bumbling. And mumbling. Another splashy rise. Still there. What the hell is he/she eating? I stumble and bumble closer.
It is at about the time I arrive at where I figure my best angle will be when an idea as what to throw at this fish comes to the surface. The next rise is a swirl, but it moves a lot of water. There is a deflection of the current off of the rocks I mentioned earlier which forms a perfect little seam off of which this fish suspends, waiting for whatever in the hell it is he's eating. I have one of those Spruce Moths left in my box. After a quick examination of the circumstances; add to that the fact that I just plain wanted to see what the Moth would look like as it drifted past those rocks, and seeing another ferocious rise, I set the plan in motion. Damn hands. I'm starting to lose the power of digital dexterity. The cold is winning. I can't feel any pressure when I pinch my thumb and index finger together. Not good. But I've been in this situation many times before and have developed a kind of alternate method whereby I utilize only the types of movements necessary with whatever fingers that will, can still cooperate. I wait again, Spruce Moth at the ready, for another rise.
A couple of minutes flow past. Nothing. Then a couple more. I began to wonder if this event was just a hallucination, some sort of delayed flashback from all those rock-and-roll years I thought I'd survived. Did the mushrooms cause this? And, it seemed a short-lived revisit at that. I let go of my Moth, false cast, get the distance, maybe twenty feet, dialed in, and fire away. The Spruce Moth settles, riding high, right into the top of that deflection. There is this sudden sensation of suspension, timelessness. The Moth is drifting, almost in slow motion, right into what I know is the strike zone. The sun is breaking through the fog and I want to get some photos. My winter pal, the blue heron, flies overhead. Thank the gods, I can feel my fingers again... then all hell breaks loose.
I'm going to struggle a bit to find the right words here to effectively describe what takes place in the next few seconds, but I'll give it my best shot.
I've never, in all the years I've fished with dry flies, wherever I've fished them, experienced a take like that except for those bygone days when I used to travel to the Bogachiel River up on the Olympic Peninsula to skate packed deer and elk hair patterns for Steelhead. If any of you have experience with that sort of madness, then you know of what I speak.
But this is the Spokane River. This is the short, basically unknown, taken-for-granted blue squiggle on the map that runs right through our fair city from a lake in Idaho to the Columbia River and eventually to the ocean. It's where I fish. And through all my years of fishing, of falling in love with its trout, I have never had a trout take a dry so aggressively as this one. Anywhere.
I am watching my Moth. It is halfway through the deflection. Very shortly I will have to pick it up and reset. I start to reach forward on my fly line to haul it a bit as I pick up. There is a sudden loud turbulence from the river side in the proximity of my Moth and then a loud, huge splash. Water droplets are thrown skyward into the dim sunlight. A huge tail is ever so briefly frozen amid the shards, then gone. So is my Moth, but I know this without seeing because of the jolt I felt. In shock, I lift my rod, and then am further stunned as the trout cartwheels into the air, the Spruce Moth impaled through his lower jaw. Again and again he goes ballistic, each re-emergence some twenty feet further from me, until there are only a few wraps of fly line left on my reel. Another reel-screaming run. My Water- works sings 'I'm into your backing now', and still he runs away, downstream.
The Lampson Waterworks reel I am using has room for approximately one hundred and twenty-five yards of twenty-pound backing. I wound it with much less than this, never once thinking I'd use even half of the hundred or so yards I settled on. It left more room for fly line. And it's easier to respool on the large arbor of my Lampson without having to eyeball too carefully. But you don't want to be so careless as have all your line in one stack on either side of your spool.If you are and it falls over on itself, well then you've got a serious problem should you ever hook into a fish with an attitude. I once lost a fly line to a rough-and-ready brown trout on the Missouri for that reason. But this fish? Oh man, he beats that one all to hell.
I have, on my fly rod, marked one-inch increments starting at sixteen and extending out to thirty inches. I started doing this when I still had my first Sage, which is now in the hands of my son. And although I've also done this to my present Sage, my favorite, I seldom use it, for several reasons, not the least of which is an overriding fear of jinxing myself. But once in a while there arises an occasion when all that superstition must be set aside. This is one of those times.
It is not often that I live in fear for such an extended amount of time. This fish is testing the limits of all my gear and knots, not to mention the five-pound tippet and the hook on which my Spruce Moth is constructed. I don't know how long I have been battling this fish, and indeed its more like I'm often just holding on, waiting for him to tire of his runs and muscularly spastic twists and turns. But gradually, foot by hard-earned foot, I begin to gain the upper hand, and in an ever-decreasing arc of back and forths upriver and then down, I finally catch sight of him. I am stunned again. For the first time in many years, I wish I'd brought my net. It's amazing how the sight of such a fish will suddenly make everything from that point on seem so much more difficult. How all of a sudden I'm all thumbs. And, I know I can't hurry this project along. I worry that if ever there is a time a fish will be lost, it is in these final moments of the struggle. The size and strength of this fish dictate a patient, steady demeanor, but I shake like a leaf anyway.
He is perfect. A wild, purebred Spokane River Rainbow. A broad-shouldered buck with white-tipped fins and huge, square tail. I will never forget its sudden appearance as he attacked my fly. I lay my rod down in the water next to him. He lies still, as if in anticipation, as I slide the rod forward, matching his nose with the end of the rod, and when I count the number of marks until I reach the end of his tail, I then realize how badly I'm shaking. He's twenty-six inches in length. This is the biggest, fattest, strongest trout I've ever landed here. By far. I know this to be true because there have only ever been two prior occasions on this river whereupon I've wanted to measure the fish. I tuck my rod underneath my arm and tail the buck, pointing him upstream into the flow. He holds there, in my hand for awhile, recovering, before I feel him move. Time is suspended again. We wait, together, for his departure. Then, I gently propel him forward as he now tries to free himself, releasing him from my grasp, but never from my heart.