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The Day the River Exploded

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Every fly fishing trip is an adventure and ultimately a story to be retold later with some degree of accuracy. Likewise, I have always viewed every trip as a success as well, regardless of the outcome. Optimism is part of my nature and makes the story more interesting.

Despite all the various obstacles thrown at me during fishing trips such as; leaky waders, felt soles falling off a pair of worn out wading shoes or the laces popping from dry rot, high water, falling in or stepping over my head, having the right fly rod but the wrong reel spooled with the wrong line, not catching a fish because I don’t have the right fly or should have been there yesterday, and, lest we forget, the weather, which is always ready to “enliven” the experience.

During the last 50 years, I have learned not to fully trust weather forecasters even though the weather does play an important role in success. Forecasters are probably the only folks that can consistently lie and get away with it. Inconsistent weather patterns can make it hard to plan a fishing trip, especially if any substantial travel is involved. But once planned its best to just go anyway, despite the weather. Therefore, I always pack what I think I need, pack some extra, and then go fishing. It makes for a less stressful event but with a much heavier gear bag.

Not long ago I was invited by an old friend to fish a new section of a particular river I had not fished before. New rivers and new sections of old rivers help perpetuate stories. I peered at my iPhone to check the weather before leaving home. I was confident I had packed all the necessities and the weather forecast showed only brief showers around noon and then clearing up. Perfect fishing weather I thought. A great day to fish, with overcast skies and a light sprinkle to break up the water’s surface.

Turning off the paved road, I proceeded down a muddy, dirt logging track to the put-in. Standing water with excessively deep, mud puddles was evidence that the forecast was again wrong.

Despite another wrong forecast, we were determined to fish. We picked up our gear and walked a hundred yards in the rain over to a dry place to get ready. Sometimes fly fishermen, in their haste to suit up, do unexplainable things.

Stringing a fly rod has a calming effect and helps to start focusing on the task at hand, much like an anxiety pill taking effect. This formality brings a heightened concentration level and occurs to some degree in all sports. I’ve watched football players slap each other on the helmet and then bang their heads together. That doesn’t work for fly fishing. Assembling a fly rod and reel at the riverbank is a ritual that helps perpetuate anticipation of wading a new river and thoughts of big fish to hook.

The rain ceased momentarily as we walked upstream looking for the perfect spot to enter the river. Its clarity was questionable, but we were there to fish, so we began. I rigged up my favorite fly, a heavy woolly bugger with rubber legs tied kind of squirmy, affectionately called the “Attitude.” The name defines the imitation and my persona when I tie this fly on. Deciding to add a small dropper fly would hopefully increase my hook rate, not to include doubling my fly loss when I got tangled in the bushes. With the higher, colored water I thought it to be the perfect combination. The only thing missing was a fish with an open mouth.

It’s always a pleasure to fish new water, see new places and accidentally learn a few new tricks from the fish. How amazing that a small-brained creature can humble a person wearing so much fishing tackle. If only they understood how much all this cost. For the first hour I fished the foam edges and pockets created by boulders pushing and funneling water in turmoil downstream.

A strike here, then hooking a small one until he wrestled off the barbless hook kept things interesting. All rivers have their own personality, and it was exciting to introduce myself to this one. Overhanging laurels and rhododendrons, dipping in the water’s edge, and moss-covered rocks outcropped above the surface looked inviting areas to cast too. The bottom was a good mixture of flat stones and sand pockets which made it easy to wade along the edge.

The rain kept steadily pouring down. The river rose gently and became slightly discolored. My buddy’s jacket was soaking up the moisture rather than reflecting it. For some reason I had tucked my raincoat inside my waders versus keeping it on the outside, thus creating a water slide allowing rain inside of my wader legs. Goretex waders and jacket did their job by keeping the river out and rainwater in. Despite the minor discomforts, we kept fishing. Feeding fish always takes priority.

As we continued working our way down the river casting into pockets and fishing foam line tailouts, trying to keep the nymphs bouncing on the bottom, I looked down river to see my buddy’s fly line go tight and the rod arc. He nodded confidently, which is a form of nonverbal communication to other fly fishermen that a good fish is hooked. I watched him play the fish with confidence and offered to net it. A nice rainbow was scooped up, fist bumps, pictures and then released. Pouring rain was becoming a minor inconvenience.

With the steady rain, the river became more discolored and increased in volume and the fish kept biting. The coffee-colored water made wading both good and bad. We had to feel the bottom more with our boots while maneuvering around rocks, but the fish weren’t as spooky with that extra layer of discolored protection.

I changed the dropper fly and went down to a small size 18 nymph tied with a hint of flash and ultraviolet dubbing material. There was an eddy that looked deep and inviting and calling to that fly. As the river tumbled across several large rocks it created a back channel where the fast water had carved a pocket.

In order have the fly deep, I cast above the rocks and let the water guide my fly deep into the eddy. As it cleared rapids, I felt a bump or a strike and set the hook. Nothing happened. Did I just set the hook into a snag, I thought? Maybe, but the snag felt heavy. As I applied pressure the snag began to carefully and steadily move up and down in the current. More subtle pressure from the rod tip and I quickly realized the rather large, heavy, swimming snag had fins. It was slowly wavering to the left and then deep again. Whatever was swimming below my rod tip was in charge and I knew it. Hopefully I could gain control when it decided to test my nerves, knots and tackle.

And then it happened. Maybe the fish realized it wasn’t in total control or was tired of not maneuvering where it wanted to go. Either way the water exploded like a grenade had been dropped sending small tsunami waves into the bank of this small stream.

A huge rainbow materialized above the surface. Its body too big to fully get airborne, it started frantically crashing the water’s surface, pulling at the tip of my rod and pulling out fly line. The beauty, strength and size of this fish was humbling. I have caught and lost big fish, but this fish was different. Naturally my thought process was overcome with concern for anything that could go wrong. I needed to keep thinking positive and live in the moment. Would my knots hold? Surely a mental defeat and solemn drive home would follow if this fish was lost due a poorly tied knot.

The fish violently erupted, displacing a rather large volume of water with its return to its liquid home. The fish even sounded heavy, with a deep thud like a large rock being dumped into a pond.

Several surface bursts later it began to thrust itself into the rapids trying to escape. And then, after a couple more acrobatic leaps I realized quickly that a new strategy was needed. During the last airborne display, I noticed the small blackish purple fly was hooked in the upper right corner of the mouth, and a tug from the wrong direction would pull the fly out.

Scrambling to climb up the bank I swiftly headed down stream to get better leverage on this behemoth. The river was probably thirty feet wide with a deep run in the middle, and my goal was to hold the fish upstream with positive pressure to keep the fly lodged in place. When it did try to run downstream, I jumped and thrashed myself, spooking the rainbow back upriver. Keeping tight leverage was my only hope of landing it.

My buddy waded into my right side and, after four attempts, my prize was finally secured in his net. The struggle had taken twelve minutes of maneuvering and feeling my heart beating, pounding the inside of my rain jacket like a hammer on a nail. I felt as worn out as the fish but had accomplished my mission. I stood there reflecting on the battle.

Until I heard the words shouted, “My net is tearing!”

With a bearhug wrap, he attempted to hold the fish against his chest while I ran back upstream to get my big net. Too big to grab and pull out, I eased down in the shallows and lifted this monster into my large net while trying to revive both the fish and me at the same time.

As with every fish, there needs to be a sense of humility and thankfulness for the opportunity to even be standing in cold, clean water. This fish provided wonderful memories that will last my lifetime and probably be spun into various stories wrapped in extreme truths.

As I gently held this river monster headfirst into the current, I could watch its gills pump oxygen as it swayed back and forth in my hands. Its tail garnered momentum and strength as it eased itself back into the current, heading towards that corner eddy. I watched the fish swim away with respect and admiration and felt humbled to have even witnessed the event. Tired, rain soaked and wet, I looked at my buddy and asked, “Where’s the next run?”


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