This particular fish lived in a type of stream we in the western states call a spring creek. It flows silently through a large meadow on the eastern flank of the highest peaks of the Sierra, just west of the great basin that lies between the Sierra Nevada and Rocky mountains. In the summertime cool air slips down from the mountain tops west of the creek, then moves east through the high meadow, and into the vacuum made by the rising hot air over the basin. So in the late morning, an easterly breeze begins to move over the meadow. Later in the day the wind picks up, and then slows as the shadows grow long and the sun touches the tops of the Sierra. The flag by my cabin relaxes, and once again drapes itself around its pole. The faint sound of cattle bawling in the fields far away foreshadows the darkness to come. The fishing can be very good at that time.
But when the day grows hot and the wind comes up, the fishermen quit; well, the ones with any sense do. The fish in the creek demand very long leaders with several feet of very small tippet because they are easily spooked. “Leader shy” the old hands call it. But even the old timers cannot manage that much leader in that much wind. Some will look you in the eye, and say they can. That’s a fisherman, I suppose.
The creek is filled with vegetation. Green and golden leafy strands floating on its surface gently move back and forth as the current tugs at them. Occasionally, sections of some of the plants break off and float down the stream. They look like the lettuce you would see in the produce section of a grocery store.
Bugs thrive on the nutrients supplied by that stuff. Aquatic insects of all kinds feed on that vegetation, as well as the bushes that line both sides of the creek. Trout feed on them, and grow fat and strong. They have become a legend. Among trout enthusiasts, the creek is known as a “Blue Ribbon” trout stream.
Although it was late June, it was springtime in the mountains, and I was having a good fishing day in spite of the wind. Several large feisty fish had come to my fly, and I’d enjoyed knowing that I had fooled a few of them. These are smart fish; sometimes it seems like every dry fly in the western hemisphere has been thrown over their heads. Old-timers talk about the fish they stalked for days, only to have their best offerings refused. They call it “technical fishing”. That’s fly fisherman talk. Roughly translated, it means that it is hard to catch a fish.
Wandering through the meadow alongside the stream amidst all the mountain splendor sent me into one of my daydreams, the kind I often have while in the mountains. Fueled by thoughts of big fish, my mind took me back to the fishing trips of my youth.
When I first started fishing with a fly, I didn’t know anything about trout, or how to fish for them. They were not plentiful in my home state of Kentucky in those days. Other than a few tailwaters, there is no water in the state that can support a trout fishery.
But when I was a boy, I thought that if you could catch Bluegill all day long, as my friend and I frequently did, then you ought to be able to catch trout the same way. At age twelve, my analytical skills left something to be desired.
As I grew older, I began to cast a fly over the heads of trout who cared little for my technique. Eventually, though, I came to some understanding of the sport. I learned how to turn over rocks to see the insects, how to “match the hatch,” how to dead drift a fly, and how to avoid “lining the fish.” I’ve learned optimal water temperatures for feeding trout. These days I can read a river, cast to a rising fish, and execute specialty casts for unusual situations.
But in my boyhood, I thought trout fishing with a fly rod was an art form that I could never master. I’d been fishing in the small streams of the Smokey Mountains, and had looked on in frustration as the fish casually ignored my fly. With no experience catching trout, I was frustrated that I couldn’t get them to take my fly the way the Bluegill did on the small farm ponds and lakes back in Kentucky. Reading about fly fishing for trout in all of the outdoor sports magazines didn’t help; I couldn’t seem to connect all I’d read with actually catching a fish.
Later, I took a trip through the west with my dad, who was very sick at the time. He knew that he was dying, and wanted to spend some time with his only son. I was awestruck by the beauty of the American West. The winter wheat harvest had begun in Kansas, and large red combines covered the rolling golden fields for as far as the eye could see in that glimmering summer heat. As we left Kansas, and entered eastern Colorado with its flat farms and prairie dog colonies, the land spread out in front of us. Soon the Rocky Mountains with their snow-capped peaks appeared on the horizon. We saw them long before we got to them. “Are those clouds on the horizon, Dad, or are those mountains?” “Don’t know; we’ll just keep an eye on ‘em and see.”
My question was soon answered. As the road took us higher, we came alongside a stream, a beautiful mountain river, and the air quickly cooled. Evergreens began to replace the lower flat, blond, hot farmland. The sweet smell of pine freshened the air and invigorated me. It was as if we had moved into a different world. It was much different than Kentucky. “Everything is big in the West” I thought to myself.
I insisted that we stop at almost every tourist spot anywhere in the Rockies. There were “trading posts” with real furs, from Buffalo to Bobcat, and every type of souvenir of the old west. Dad didn’t like souvenirs, but insisted on buying one or two postcards to mail back home to Mom and my sister wherever we stopped. We were at odds with each other. “You’ll spend money on a souvenir that you won’t keep until Christmas, Jim; it’s just a way to take your money from you”, Dad would say. “Well what good are those ridiculous post cards?” I responded. Common sense is not one of the virtues of an eighteen year old boy. Our trip was punctuated with long periods of silence, as neither one of us could figure out how to tell each other how much we loved each other, and how afraid we were.
The cards had beautiful scenes of the West on them. Wonderful rivers, some with waterfalls, great mountains, western wildlife, Moose, Deer, Grizzly bears and Elk decorated the fronts of them. The beauty of the land we saw made a profound impression on me. The post cards, though, did not satisfy me. They were cheap imitations of what we were seeing, of the American West. I developed a deep yearning to somehow to be part of it.
Dad would buy a few cards, and we would continue on our journey, moving to the next beautiful place, always moving, never stopping for any length of time. I think now that I did not like the cards because they did not tell the real story of the place. The smell of the trees, the wild flowers in the meadow, the sighting of a wolf moving through it, the sound of the wind as it made its way through the trees - none of this could be told with a postcard. But those were the things that excited me.
I took my fly rod on that trip, and was frustrated yet again. There were large fish in big beautiful rivers, some gin clear, some with an emerald tint to them. I could see the fish, but could not seem to figure out how to catch them. One stream after another yielded no trophy, no acknowledgment that I had finally arrived at that point where I could say I was a trout fisherman.
We traveled on, seeing the sights not only of the great wide open spaces, but of the cities of the West, as well. We visited former neighbors, who had moved to the San Francisco bay area. I was surprised that there were no real sky scrapers in the City. The Mark Hopkins hotel and the Fairmont, atop Nob Hill, almost defined the San Francisco skyline at that time.
Dad died several months after we returned from that trip, and I was left with my memories of him, and of the trip we had taken. I recalled the beauty of San Francisco with its soft blanket of fog that summer, the splendor of the mountains, the Rockies and the Sierra, the Trinity Alps and the Cascades. My father’s memory haunted me for years after that. In my mind, I would seek his counsel, even though he could no longer give it. Later I realized that, were he still with me, he would have no counsel to give. He was part of a different place, a different age. He would not understand my world.
Years came and went. I went into the service, and spent the last year of my enlistment in Vietnam. My mom died while I was in the service, perhaps of a broken heart, but the doctor called it cancer. The family’s home and business were sold, and my friends all moved away. When I returned, there was nothing left to keep me in Kentucky. I was young and unattached, and I was angry. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was. I’d forgotten about fishing.
A month or so after coming home, I spent several days in a friend’s cabin by a small lake well away from the city. The autumn leaves had fallen, and the sky was leaden grey with a late November overcast, the kind that warned of colder, shorter days ahead. Late autumn in Kentucky always put me in a pensive mood. It brought forth in me a kind of quiet reflection, or pensiveness, that I still cannot explain. I see it now as the ending of the cycle of life, natural, but an ending in any event. It’s the time of year when my father died.
I read a book while I was staying in my friend’s cabin. It seemed to stir something in me. The book had a kind of rebelliousness to it, a defiance against an unknown oppressor. The writing was powerful. It touched something deep within me. Maybe it was my anger, I don’t know.
And so I decided to leave Louisville, to have an adventure, to recapture my “lost youth”. I’d smelled too many dead bodies. Although I didn’t feel a shroud around me, Death had left its calling card at my doorstep. But I was young, and didn’t really notice, at least not in any conscious way. Now, as I grow older, the shadow looms much larger than it did then.
When I left my hometown, I had no idea where I would go, or what I would do. My travels took me to a number of different cities, in the South, as well as the west. Finally, I found myself in the San Francisco bay area. It was the beginning of the decade of the 1970s, so what better place was there to go? Settling in the east bay, I soon rediscovered the great Sierra Nevada mountains, and walked into them as soon as I could get my hands on a back pack. Short trips led to longer ones. I wanted to become a part of the scene, and I needed an excuse to stay in the mountains for a time. Fishing seemed just the thing.
But I didn’t make that connection until I met and fell in love with a woman. I’d had girlfriends before, but none like her. One of the reasons that I loved her was that she could read my spirit, knew it better than I did. It was she who led me back to my boyhood love of fly fishing; she loved it as well.
Although well educated, and quite cultured, she preferred to be out of doors, in the mountains, with a fly rod in her hand. She loved the same things, the same places that I loved, and took me to those places as often as she could. “Oh Jim, I just caught a beautiful little brookie”, she told me on one of our backpacking trips. “That’s just fucking terrific... great” I thought to myself, as I continued to tie on flies that weren’t getting any attention from the fish. “Now she is catching more fish than I am, and she doesn’t even fucking fly fish”. Of course, I wasn’t thinking about the time she spent with her father and her grandfather, whom I knew she loved and respected. In past conversations she’d described them to me as outdoorsmen of considerable skill. “Caught it on a number 16 Royal Coachman”, she continued, “Just thought you might want to know”. That last sentence was her gentle way of telling me “Settle your male ego down, and catch some fish. Don’t be an asshole; have some fun”.
“Shit, now she’s telling me how to fish” I thought. Of course, I did tie on the fly, and caught remarkably beautiful little mountain brook trout the rest of the afternoon. We were at about 10,000 feet altitude, and the growing season for fish is short up there. The lake is iced in for maybe eight months of the year. So the fish were spawning, and the blood red pectoral lines along their snow white bellies made me think that I’d gill hooked the first one I caught. For the rest of the day I caught beautiful little brook trout, until the coachman was in tatters from their sharp teeth.
Later, as the sun went down, we ate dinner quickly. Mountain twilight gets cold fast, even before the sun is completely down, and freeze dried camping meals were not that great. After dinner, we slipped into our matching sleeping bags and made love in the cold crisp mountain air. Then we watched the stars on that moonless night, with spikes of light so sharp you could almost feel them, talked about nothing for awhile, and drifted off to sleep in each others arms.
And so I came back to fishing for trout with a fly rod.
It’s a strange thing about trout fishing with a dry fly. There are different ways to do it. Some people sight fish. They watch the water to see the fish, and then cast to it. Some cast to a likely looking spot, only guessing that a fish will rise. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I often fish that way, because sometimes I’m too lazy to go off stalking a fish, and sometimes the view is just fine right where I am.
If I can’t see the fish, I look for spots that seem to me likely to hold a fish, a resting lie, a feeding lie, or spots where insects collect in the current.
As I walked up to a little oxbow bend in the creek that afternoon, I realized that I’d discovered such a place. There were lots of rises. Fish were feeding voraciously in that bend. Everything seemed to come together, the time of day, the hatch, the bend in the stream where the current slowed, with the insects collecting in little eddies where the water swirled as it made the turn. The sun was at my back, and the wind was slowing.
And then, there he was, the granddaddy of them all. The fish that made the others move away when he went for a fly. His rise was bold and splashy, much larger than any of the others. Clearly, this guy was the alpha male in that part of the creek. He ruled that little oxbow bend. I sat down a few feet away from the bank, and watched, carefully concealing my shadow from the stream.
I studied the bugs floating down stream on the far side. They slowed as they entered the backwater of the little oxbow. I watched the flashy rises as the fish rose to take them, and I began to make my plan. The big fish made a number of splashy takes, slapping his tail loudly as he did so, and letting me know that he had not seen me.
I was pretty sure that this fish was nobody’s fool, and would go down to the bottom and stay there if I spooked him with a bad drift, a bad cast or a shadow on the water. I am one of those fishermen who believe that trout do not get to be large by being stupid, and this was a large fish.
It looked like I needed to set my cast up about thirty five feet upstream from the beginning of the bend. That way, the fish would not be spooked by my fly landing on the water if I happened to make a bad cast. Also, the long drift would give me enough time to mend my line to have a good dead drift so there would be no little “motor boat wakes” from the fly to scare the fish down. Nor would the fish see the fly line first. There were several different seams in the current between me and the far bank, and these, I knew, could mess up the drift of my fly. So I had to have my line mended by the time my fly entered the turn in the stream.
It seemed like a good idea to remain seated on the ground several feet away from the inside of the stream. I had a good hiding place. Even so, I had the problem of casting the line without casting a shadow of it and my rod over the water where the fish were rising. I had to execute a side-arm cast while seated to keep any shadow from touching the water in front of me.
I told myself that I had no chance at the big guy. It would be quite alright if I took one of the smaller ones. “A fish like that only gets caught by a master; it’ll be ok to catch a smaller fish”, I thought. Of course, I didn’t really mean that. It’s just something fishermen do, or at least something I do, in order to soften the disappointment of not catching “the big one”. I convinced myself, though, that I would not get a chance at this fish. The frustration of my boyhood trout fishing experience still haunted me, in spite of all that had transpired since then.
Leaning back, I lowered my arm and began short, slow casts, stripping line off my reel. The line was behind me, and just above the sage. I stripped out line until the fly almost touched the bushes on the far bank. Then, I let the fly settle on the water.
Because of the seams in the current, it immediately began to skate across the surface. My mind was racing. “Mend your line, Jim; mend it again. Get the dead drift, dammit!” The fly was quickly moving toward the pool. No takes yet, no rises. “It’s now or never; either pick it up and try again, or let it move into the pool, and hope for the best.”
I gently picked the fly up, and began all over again, carefully keeping my casts low. Several false casts later, I again let the fly drop on the water, but this time it was a curve cast, forcing the fly to land a little closer to me and well downstream of the flyline. It floated along directly over the seam farthest from me. The first mend in the line was over the other seam, the one closer to me. Ok, this was better. I was completely focused on the fly now, could see every bounce it made as it moved down the current.
I made a mental check: line mended, yeah, it’s good. Right bug? Think so, I’ve been catching fish with it most of the day. Leader? About fourteen feet, 6X tippet; that should be good. Oh, shit! Is the leader mended? Oh yeah, it’s good. Thank God! Now the fly began to enter the pool, slowing a bit as it did, and moving smoothly over the surface. It was moving like all of the other bugs, and that’s what I wanted. I expected one of the smaller fish to come up for it at any second. They’d been rising in the upstream part of the little pool, presumably to avoid the old alpha’s territory. The bug continued to float smoothly. Seconds passed; they seemed like an eternity. Why isn’t something happening? I should at least get a bump, some indication of interest. And still the bug floated, unmolested. It was in front of me now, and it was going to drag at any second. I got ready to pick it up with a backcast.
WHAM! He hit. It was the old man. One of those vicious takes, the kind that first caught my attention, the kind you can hear from maybe twenty five yards away. Right in front of me, not twenty feet away. He startled me; maybe shocked is a better word. I hadn’t expected him to take my fly. My rod tip was low in order to avoid the shadow of the sun. In my surprise, I leaned back, rather than raise the rod tip, just straight back, that’s all. Of course, that’s all it took. The tippet snapped immediately. I had him on for not quite two seconds.
Stunned, surprised, shocked and disappointed, I sat there for several minutes, maybe longer, wondering about God, my fate, the fish’s fate, what I do and don’t know about catching trout in the mountains. The beauty of the stream and the meadow, the sun setting over the Sierra behind me with the softening breeze and the serenity of the place were lost to me for a moment. Deep disappointment gave way to philosophical resignation. “Is this what fishing is all about?” I wondered. I got up, stretched my legs, and began the walk back to my cabin. I could feel a small smile coming over my face. “Yep, I reckon it is”.
© James Webb, 2011