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One Hundred Casts
By David Motes
My knee throbbed in deep, regular rhythm with the variations in the current. I had my left foot braced on one of the larger of the rounded stones that made up the stream bottom, and I experimented with positions for the right leg. Normal weight on it didn't work, because that required subtle shifts to keep position on the slick rounded rocks andreawakened the deep ache of the sprain. Keeping all my weight on the left leg didn't work either; the current caused the injured leg to wave and jitter, which was worse. I finally settled on about one-third of the normal load, with my back turned to the current a bit so I could lock the left knee and lean on the river's force.
The rain was like cold smoke, only occasionally appearing as honest vertical drops. It collected on the brim of my hat and then poured off when I turned my head. I had a cold wet patch from the back of my neck to my middle back. The air had been in the fifties that morning, but now it was cold and hostile space between rain. My waders had a hole below the left buttock which felt like cold metal trailing away down my leg.
I looked across the greenblack river, trying to fight the surge of depressed disappointment that had been holding in the eddy of my belly all morning. I shook the line out grimly and picked it up: haul and cast, one false and deliver. 12.
There had been a long awkward pause on the phone when I had introduced myself. A bad pause, foreboding and worrisome. I tried again: "Bob Carlson? We have a trip booked Saturday?"
"Uh, yeah, hang on," the guide said. His voice was rough and uncertain. I heard no words but an irritated tone off-camera.
"Uh, yeah, you talked to me?" he said again.
"Yes, I talked to you. It was July, I called you from Washington, you booked the trip, I sent you a check. It's for Saturday, October 8, that's tomorrow. It's booked," I said, trying to keep the irritation out of my voice.
"Well, I didn't get the check, I guess," he replied, a bit more firmly.
"You cashed it. I have it right in front of me. You endorsed it." The signature on the back of the check looked like a child's Yiddish.
"Oh. I guess, uh, yeah. Here it is, right here," he said, completely unconvincing. "Right. Saturday. Tomorrow. No problem. I thought it was, next, uh week. No problem."
13 and 14 were excellent casts. On both the back cast was fast and tight, and on the delivery haul I had a clear picture of the top half of the rod flexing deeply, then carrying the energy forward and delivering it sharply. The line vipped out of the basket cleanly and hit the reel, not too hard, and delivered in a crisp tight loop over the pool. Sharp, short strips and pick up when you feel the head of the line.
The knee felt better. The pressure of the neoprene and the cold water seemed to be suppressing the throbbing, and the ibuprofen was kicking in. It didn't seem strong but it wasn't everything now; I could concentrate on fishing.
"You will have to concentrate," the guide said for the third or fourth time. His pickup truck was filthy and full of trash, and I had to hold on to the dash to keep from bouncing into the man between us as the guide took us around the twists of the logging road. "Pick your spot, set up, make a lot of casts, methodical like, just wait for a fish to cross your path."
The Other Guy snorted. It was his first sound since he'd gotten in the truck, picked up without explanation from a mobile home we'd detoured twenty minutes to find. The snort perfectly expressed his belief that no fish were going to cross my path that day. It was a needle in the belly of my optimism and excitement over my first steelhead outing. The air seeped out of my enthusiasm.
The guide was a shaggy forty, heavy and pale for an outdoorsman. He smelled of beer and wet dog. He gave me a sour look at the door, then came back chewing and began to dump equipment into the bed of the pickup. He made no smalltalk as we began coursing over two-lane roads through hills until I was thoroughly turned around.
No discussion of rods, lines, flies. No estimation of chances and trends, water levels, seasons, weather. Concentrate, cast a lot, take your skunking like a man: That was all the guiding I was going to get. After a half hour of tense silence he turned on a rock-and-roll station that seemed to be dominated by dozens of advertisements and cutting-edge profanity. The other guy stank aggressively and answered my cheery "good morning" with a direct scowl. The guide laughed and tamped a huge stringy clump of Skoal into his lip with a filthy thumb. We drove.
Things went to hell in the upper teens. 16 tailed badly, balling up in front of me; the current slurped my shooting line out of the basket and wrapped it around my legs. I overcompensated on 17 and lost it, then tried to horse the loop back in. I heard a "sss-POP" as the fly accelerated into the bone behind my right ear. I reached gingerly up and felt where it was buried but not barbed into the numb skin. Breathing relief, I pulled my hemostat and crushed the barb.
From where I stood I could see both of them, lounging on the bank fifty yards downstream. They looked asleep. I sighed and waggled out line for 18.
It was my first visit to the Pacific Northwest. I had learned to fly-fish in the previous three years, mostly on smallmouth bass and stripers in Maryland and Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay. Everybody always said that steelhead were the ultimate, and when the business trip came up I tacked on an extra day to try.
The manager of my local fly shop recommended the guide. He was effusive in praise for him, though he admitted it had been a few years since he had been out with the guy. When I had called he seemed professional enough.
I nearly quit in the early 20's. My face was cold, my fingers were stiff. My knee was throbbing viciously, and the water looked as dead as ever. My leader and tippet were knotted and water was running down my forearm to my armpit on every cast. The guide and his friend were asleep under a hemlock tree. I felt like an idiot.
But then I felt a stirring, a small bright voice of sense. What was I doing here? I was fishing. I loved this. In empty February afternoons I would wish desperately that I was here, on this green stream in a strange place in this shawl of misty rain. I pulled the leader in and cut away the whole lower section, then rebuilt it with careful bloodknots, taking my time. I retied the fly and picked up into 25, made a cautious, thrifty cast, and stripped it in. By 29 I was no longer cold.
I had read all I could find on steelhead fishing. I had cast for hours, becoming intimately familiar with the nine-weight I rarely used. I refined my double-haul, making improvements I didn't know were necessary or possible. I set myself targets and goals and spent so much time in the vacant lot by my house that the people in the neighborhood stopped asking me if I had caught anything yet and just smiled and waved and walked on by, dog on leash and baggie in hand. Reflecting on it now, I realized that I had built the trip up into something it wasn't going to be, had set myself up for a failure.
The guide opened his first beer just after we had turned onto the logging road. It was 8:15 AM by my watch, and looking at my watch had earned another sour look from the Other Guy. They were drinking Ranier from 16 ounce cans. I looked away at the landscape, slanted and ferny.
"How has fishing been?" I finally said. A long pause.
"Well, it hasn't really taken off yet. The season's been a bit slow in starting; it's been kinda hot."
"Like, how slow?" I said.
"Well, I haven't been out in a few days, I haven't heard of much," he said. Another snort from the Other Guy.
"So, is that like no fish so far, or what? When do they come up the river?" I tried without success to keep the pessimism from my voice.
He didn't miss it. He smiled as he hauled the truck around a switchback. We headed downhill.
In the low thirties I began to watch the water and think about a pattern. The current was steady and swift in the flat along the bank where I stood, but it slowed in the pool that began about forty feet upstream and ran along in front of me. There was a cut bank opposite, but the water was shallower there. The deepest point in the pool was fifty feet in front of me and a little downstream, where the flow was broken more by three large rocks. Downstream the water sped up a bit and shallowed up but several more rocks created features, and along the bank at the farthest corner of the pool was a large rock which created a slack-water space about the size of an automobile.
From the bank I could see every detail of the pool. It seemed dead. Even in the flat rainy morning light I saw nothing, especially not a ten-pound fish. I asked the guide about that and he grunted and described several days when he had seen dozens of steelhead holding in this pool. He seemed unaware of how depressing it was to hear that.
My pattern: Cast 1 was as upstream as I could and still keep the fly on a good retrieve. In the middle of the sweep I hold up a bit and let the fly swing through the current break behind the first rock. Cast 2 was straight away and not so long, with a fast start and stripping timed to bring the fly through the eddies behind Rock 2 and Rock 3. Cast 3 was moderately long and was stripped gradually down to swing through the near belly of the pool, coming almost straight downstream. Cast 4 was long and at a sharp downstream angle to bring the fly along the foot of the pool just above the riffle; the fly could be held in that zone a long time by stripping it in and letting it out in each motion. Cast 5 was to maximum length to place the fly directly above or behind the big rock with the slack water eddy at the lowest corner of the pool. 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, repeat.
Cast 42 hung up on the third rock. I knew instantly that it was a snag, but even so the variation in routine caused my heart to lurch. I lifted the rod, line bowing in the current, and threw a loop high above the rock. The first one collapsed but the second carried nicely and the fly popped off, dawdled for a moment in the current, then pivoted and zipped out of the eddy, and behind it something moved--just a flicker, an indistinct vague loom. Everything stopped--breath, heart, mind, even my knee froze in mid-throb. Had I seen it? I yanked my eyes free and looked up to the bank--it seemed to melt and flow upstream, in involuntary compensation--then back down again. Suddenly I saw another flicker, then another, and realized that the sun was peeking through the clouds, making random flashes on the sliding planes of the water's surface. False alarm? I lifted the fly in, pulled my file, and edged its three facets mercilessly, feeling like I was filing down the edges of my teeth.
The guide and the Other Guy had become more malevolent and disdainful as the rough ride along the logging road continued. I wondered if they weren't taking me to an isolated place to murder me. They drank the big cans of Ranier and threw the empties out the window: direct recycling.
I clung grimly to my fly rod and tried not to breathe directly at the Other Guy. They didn't offer me a beer. I could hear the equipment bouncing around the bed of the pickup. I began to calculate the things I could have bought for the $250 I'd sent him.
Suddenly we skidded to a halt on the sloping shoulder of the road. They got out on the driver's side and I opened my door and stepped out, immediately breaking through the thin berm on the roadside and glissading down ten or twelve feet of scree into a tangle of dead fir branches. My right leg bounced off something and the knee went "ping"; I scored the palm of my hand on the sharp gravel. Against the grey sky the guide's face was unconcerned.
I intentionally kept to the pattern, and resisted the temptation to look closely at the eddy behind Rock 3 or chuck another cast into the same spot. The random sun-flashes continued to attract my eye, but my mind kept swinging from side to side: first they were the same thing, then they were different. 43: down through the belly of the pool. 44: along the exit riffle. 45: to the slack-water pocket. 46: to the upper end and Rock 1.
47: across , short. I ignored Rock 2 and timed it out perfectly. The line slowed a bit over the riffle and the fly passed through the middle part of the riffle and held for a bit. I mended hard upstream. The fly paused again, nodding its head upstream as the line reset, and I gave it a big fat strip across the eddy, a long, obvious money cast. I was holding my breath.
They had had to haul me out of the deadfall with a rope. The road plow had made an unstable slope of rock which had drifted into the fallen trees, probably felled and bladed right off the roadbed. Successive passes had created the perfect mantrap; the heavy middle limbs of the tree held me but offered no purchase, and the rock slope just shifted under my hands. My knee was hot and numb. I had held onto the flyrod case all the way down; it was a good thing, because the slope continued into dense understory for about eighty feet before the angle moderated. It was not deadly but it was inconvenient. A bit of warning would have been nice.
They held me with the rope then hauled me up when it became apparent that I couldn't climb my own way out.
"Are you hurt?" the other guy said, the first words he'd said to me. I'd half expected him to suggest leaving me to the wolves.
"Sprained my knee a bit, I guess," I said, but downplayed it out of pride. My hand was an orange poultice of blood and rock dust. I retrieved my vest from the truck cab--driver's side, this time--and said "Let's go fishing."
48, 49, 50, 51, 52. I began to cast for casting. I concentrated on the form and hauled hard, placing casts far up the pool and trying to hit small targets. The most challenging spot was the big rock downstream; it had a small groove above and a big space below, but both hits were at the limit of my shooting range, almost eighty feet out. 52 was well off from excess force, but 57 took an odd oblique hop and delivered the fly softly into a dark crease in the front of the rock about the size of a Ranier tall boy. I allowed myself a cheer.
My hand began to ache again in the low sixties, and the grip was slick and hard.
The walk down to the river had been agony. The Other Guy held back--his first concession to the formality of a guided trip he was freeloading on. The guide carried a rod case and a backpack and nothing of mine. He gave my stripping basket a strange look then went first.
It was about eighty downhill yards to the stream bank, then a brutal 300 more on big round river-rocks and over fallen firs upstream to the cut-bank over the pool. I was in some pain but more worry over the injury and my prospects for fishing out the day. The guide's cavalier attitude and the hulking discord of the Other Guy had sprained my confidence, but the smell of the river revived it. Fishing's foolish confidence is hard to kill.
We stopped on the lipped cut-bank opposite the pool. I was surprised; it didn't look much different from the other pools I had seen from the passenger window of the truck. Not a pool, exactly; more like a slow spot along the inside of a shallow bend in the river.
In answer to my unasked question, the guide said his first guide-like thing all day. "This is the first slowdown after a long stretch of flat riffle downstream," he said, pointing. "And it's the best slowdown in about a mile upstream, and there is a big feeder branch up there. That feeder's low, no protection in it, and the confluence pool there isn't as good a hold-up as this one. Don't look like much, I know, but it's a good producer. The feeder up there, called Bow Creek, it's the best spawn-out for steelies in this whole system. Great water-quality and gravel, tons of trees down and small pools. It produces a lot of young, and they come back."
No repeats of the vague energy behind Rock 3; I was already rooting the memory mercilessly in case it was the crowning achievement of the trip. The sun-flashes had stopped and the rain had begun again. #66, the beginning of a cycle, got loose on the haul and shot backwards into the weeds along the stream bank. I over-stroked 68 and slapped water on the false cast, then tried to fight it in again before giving up and stripping in. It took me a moment to tease out the wind-knot and then I had lost track of my pattern. My vision was blurred by more than misty rain. My knee was ominously quiet.
Readjusting my vest, I felt a large lump in my back pocket and remembered: a can of Heinecken, shifted from the mini-bar fridge to the miniscule freezer compartment and frozen hard overnight, then stashed in the vest for celebration. It was a trick of my fly-fishing mentor, who had always carried the means for a celebration with him on the stream: a beer, a good cigar, a flask of Irish. In fact, I had had that nip of Irish on the Gunpowder River one afternoon. He had slid down the streambank so that his wading boots hung in the water after he died, and I found him there after a lovely hour of working separate pools. When I had arrived his fly was neatly stowed and the landing net was wet. I always hoped that he had caught a big fish, had waded to the bank to enjoy the glow and pull that nip of whiskey. Of course, it is just as likely that he felt something, some premonitory tickle in the arteries of his brain, or some gust of pain that forced him to shore. The Gunpowder is in a deep valley, and it was a long haul with a heavy corpse to get him out; but some orders aren't ignored so I drank the whiskey and watched the river for a final resting hour with my good old friend.
I hauled up for 69 and was astonished to find myself falling forward into the river. The knee wouldn't bend and I lost the rod putting my hand down through two feet of fast water. I almost didn't believe it until my hand hit bottom with my face two inches into the icy current. Once down I rolled over and sat out, grabbing at the rod as I floundered along a few yards. Once stable I couldn't stand; the knee was a stiff cold stretch of wood. Finally I levered it back to straight and hobbled on it, pins and needles and a weird pressury warmth, back to my approximate position along the pool. My arms were wet to the shoulder, first so cold they seemed hot, then just cold. Water was under the bib of my neoprenes and under the gore-tex short jacket. My vest was a sodden weight like a dead animal around my neck. I took a long pause, hunched and crooked on my one good leg. Downstream the guide was pissing, looking up into a hemlock.
"Take a hundred casts," the guide had said. At that moment the Other Guy shuffled past us, down the river bank, the grocery bag of beers under his arm. "It's early, not too many fish up, so your best bet is to run your fly through the likely spot over and over to meet the fish just arriving." He finally looked at me, bleary blue eyes and stubble, but also a surprise of honest. "It's early, yeah, but this is the big fish time up here. The front of this run is usually real big fish. No place better than here, either, with the water low and the weather so hot and all. Make a lot of casts, be patient, wait for one to cross your path. Methodical." He handed me a fly, a nondescript chartreuse woolly-bugger-like streamer that looked good for smallmouth bass in my home river, the Potomac. "Take a hundred casts," he said again, defeatedly.
I got mad, and I hallucinated. The sun-flashes were back but it was raining as hard as ever. Little flickers in the side of my sight, black streaks to balance them. I needed a rest but I was afraid to unlock the knee, afraid that if I sat down on a streamside rock I wouldn't get back in. I was afraid that the guide would see me, would come back upriver and shake his head at me, would gather me up and stuff me in that vile pickup and drive me back to his trailer.
I fought back, imagined my beer, popped in front of them: not a Rainier, but cold and green like the river, opened nonchalantly as we stood, men blanked by fish but still appreciative in a philosophical Norman Maclean kind of way, then the THOK! of the beer opening up and they looking at it, cottonmouthed and fading from the last beer two hours before, grainy and chalky from a short alcoholic nap in the rain. See it on their face: where did that come from? but too proud to ask. Then proffered to share, a toast to the river, a move made by a better man.
My casts were spattering and flailing. 71 overshot sharply and fetched up on the far bank, and the belly of the line drew downstream and hauled the streamer in a hasty unmendable rush across the pools. 74 was aimed at the soft-water pocket at the lower corner of the pool but tailed into a snarl, spinning in mid-pool in an ugly splash. 75 went well left of target and delivered inside-out, wind-looping and landing in an ugly circle. "Jesus," I said to myself. "I've been screwed."
That morning I had waded out, knee shrieking at the odd footing, and began stripping out line into the basket. I'd asked questions: "A steady retrieve, or strips, or what? And should I vary it, or just keep to a pace? If I want to change. . .." I had looked back at the guide and found him gone, walking heavily up the stream bank to where the Other Guy had set up the bar. I was talking to myself.
I was able to steady down for the early eighties, keeping to my pattern but shortening up the casts and concentrating on form. The exercise no longer had any point, and I found myself watching the trees and the sky during the cast. Downstream, the two men were sitting, arms drawn over knees, talking, not looking at me.
Suddenly an idea opened in my head, a thought that had been there for the day or maybe longer. The guide was irrelevant to this operation. He drove the truck. It was no more use to blame or belittle him than it was to calculate the cost per pound of fish caught on my flyrod and compare it to the cost of corn-fed pond-trout holding on crushed ice at the Giant Food. The professionalism of the guide, the weather, the place and time, the capriciousness of steelhead, these were all the natural elements of the world I had chosen. The blown knee, now throbbing from ankle to testicles, was just another branch overhanging a rising fish. The ugly karma of the Other Guy was not a factor in my thinking or my relationship to the ocean where where steelhead came from. If I thought of it, or let it bother me, I was less a fisherman and more a customer. The guide was a complication, a reduction in the relationship. If he had been brilliant, funny, experienced, well-prepared and as inspiring of confidence as Macarthur I would not have noticed. It was still my fish to catch or not, whether there were any fish there at all.
And the catching or not, that was suddenly less important. I wasn't a competitive angler, but I was as everyone is conscious of the numbers, of the sizes, of the highest jump and the longest run and the most vicious strike. It occurred to me now, in a spreading vision of things that included me, standing in this river and shrugging out another cast to the top of the pool, it occurred to me: the drive to fish that moved me so far and so long was a more deep and complex thing than I had imagined. It was a sad and pleasurable realization like the ones parents have when their children do a new thing well.
87 was downstream again, toward the big rock, and I pulled back inside myself to throw it. I pulled my arms in, shortening the stroke. I rocked on my feet and included my hips in the process, and pushed the rod forward a bit, holding on to the haul before I delivered, careful not to muscle the movement. I kept an eye on the backcast, and I watched the shooting line for another second, turning the reel in toward the basket as the line shot out, giving the little rock with the grip to minimize wobble after the rod unloaded. The line went liquid in my sight, spraying up and organizing itself through the stripping guide. I looked up to find a good loop spending itself across the pool, much more distance than my game-trained muscles and nerves had made in a dozen broken-down casts before. It was a pleasure to see. The fly delivered clear across the big rock, draping over the down-stream lip a bit and out of site in the very back of the pocket. Stream drag drew it gently off and I stripped it blind once, twice, until it appeared in the heart of the soft, deep water, pausing on each strip.
My mentor had described that cast to me, and had coached me to experiment with my casting as I learned and to wait and feel for that moment when the rod came alive and the line leapt out, straight as a desert highway. But it never happened; about that he was wrong. I listened to that advice and cast a thousand wobbly loops, listening to the rod each time, and never heard a thing. Some were better than others but I never had that moment he called satori when it came together and I knew it. Instead, a thousand or twenty thousand casts later, I could move the line and the fly a respectable distance away and put it more or less where I was aiming. I felt cheated until I realized that the point had been made, if in a different way.
The spring of that year we had taken a trip down the New River with a guide friend, each taking a trick on the oars of the raft while the others fished. By the time my turn came to fish, it was clear nothing was going on. A few dink smallies came in, but the big hogs the New was famous for were not going to bite. So I stood in the front of the raft and made a mechanical exercise of casting that fly, retrieving it right, shaving tiny points of technique off my movements, refining it in subtle little shifts. I remember the kind of trance that made, the mechanical but alive ability it made to step aside and watch the operation, how it covered and cleaned the time on the water and made the absence of fish irrelevant. No surprising huge fish bit that day, or the next; we caught eight or ten small fish and saw one muskie make a lazy pass then made the long drive home in rain.
And now I watched that fly trace its way through the dark, dead water and had my satori. It flashed in slow, silver dignity behind the fly, unreal and vaporous; the practicing, the wiggling of rods in the fly shop; the hobnobbing with local legends at fishing shows in the winter; the logistics and the endless driving; the tying of ranks of flies in the cold midnight study; it was all foundation and formality. Without water, there was no soul to the exercise. Maclean liked the stones for the message, the old stones in the Blackfoot where his family's history formed him as a new stratum. For me, it took moving water giving its sense in a second conformity to river-stones and scent. Not fish, but water.
Then in that moment of daze, I wondered if the slow silver swash in that pocket had been real. The fly was stopped, dead-setting sideways through the belly of the pool. But the water behind the rock was exactly still still, flat and black at that distance with a braiding of ripple from the point where the current broke across the mouth of the pocket. I shook my head and stripped up the fly. It was worth it, that moment, and I began to reach out the Heinecken, fly rod under my arm, line trailing away.
But I looked downstream to the two men, now supine on the forest floor, hats over faces; from distance they looked like a pile of abandoned clothing. He'd said a hundred casts.
Into the low nineties, then, closing on the goal, haul and deliver, fish the pattern. I found my trance again, in a few casts; maybe I'd been in it since the morning. The light was higher now, still diffuse in rain but showing afternoon. The pattern held, deliver and strip, mend, shake, run the fly with a pivot through the fern-green of the water laced with lines of white. The ache and friction in my hips and wrists became a subject of thought, and the fly flew its own way across the pool. I ran one across the top of the big rock, and the next one through the heart of the pocket; on the next cycle I laid the fly in the middle then mended three, four, five times with perfect partial roll-casts and kept the fly within a foot of one spot, turning downstream each time then spinning to hop up as the line rolled by, dying right at the leader nail-knot--a trick only attempted in exhausted confidence.
I had no m7ore movement or flashes to contend with, and it was as well then; I wasn't fishing so much now as meditating, drilling on the thing I had found. It was in that moment of drill, that clear but resistful movement of arms and minds, that I realized that I must be well over the hundred casts; I had cycled two or three times, the rain had redoubled, the men downstream were supine again and still. I laughed and delivered to the middle rocks, looking ahead to the big pocket, aware that this was the ironic payoff now; if there were a strike and a fish now, why, that would be a great accomplishment, much better than if the fish had struck in the first half hour.
But it was time to quit. The flyline was tacky to the touch and was knotting in the basket; I was soaked, from the slow pressure of the Pacific rain, and comfortable enough when moving but with the edge of cold touching ribs and neck. My knee was a warm, distant core of ache in my waders. I had done enough. I had fished out my hundred casts, against the current of hope and expectation; I had outwaited hasty fate and the pull of the pessimist. I had caught something after all.
I picked up for the middle cast, and delivered it crooked and low to slap down up from Rock 3. As the line had delivered, I felt a snarl pass roughly through the guides. It stalled the cast, aimed at Rock 3, and dropped the fly upriver of the rock about fifteen feet and a good ten feet in from the aiming point. The river had risen; in the morning, Rock 3 had had a dry crest of an inch or two, but it was now deep enough for the floating line to slide over with only a bit of resistance. I stripped quickly and lifted the rod to handle the tangle, which looked like a triple coil and a single binding loop at about the point where the double-taper began to fatten up again.
At that moment the fly passed quickly through the eddy below Rock 3 and suddenly there was a large looming shape behind it--a geometry of angles and planes that had several explanations. I locked there a moment then dropped the rod tip again, making the fly hitch and settle a moment downstream. I caught the stripping line in my left hand and gave a single jerking strip, and--
an impossible wide silver-grey-green veer in that spot, fly gone--an instant of roil and pivot. The flyline said "tunk" in my fingers, and became lead-heavy and alive, and vectored out and left across the current as a skirling boil bloomed in the spot, sliding downstream in the softwater vee but rolling with life
then a slow, wobbling arc described by the unseen end of the line, and in there my mind watched my hands and back react: a hauling, stumbling strip-set, lunging back and twisting hips and hacking through the air with the rod to bring some force to bear on that hook through a long belly of downstream line. At the limit I have him on the spine of the rod, a moment of contact deep in the hard-bending butt that has the feel of a permanent hookup. In it I feel the tangleknots of the line clicking as they lock tight then pass through the first eyes of the rod, as I strip set, strip set, drawing in the arc of line downstream and hitting the fish again and again. But I lose the line, it pops out of my numb fingers and flaps in an uncontrolled slacking spiral around the guides and through; but no line feeds through the tip--it's still tight to the fish. I'm fouled.
a stalemate in a second or two, the line end wobbling with weight, live deep dense weight, in about four feet of water thirty feet straight in front of me. And in that moment I shoot the rod back, line dragging out from under the unshot line in the basket, reel in the water, the whole thing now a steel rod connected to something elemental, and delicate delicate pop loose the last long loop in the flyline from where it has tossed over the rod blank at the second eye and bound, locked, freezing the line, which has now cuts upstream with great force pulling the line free with an audible pop as it rushes, towing a fringe of bubble along through the arc and saying visshh in the water dragging the tangle into the water looking like a small bubbly flower as the rod, released, starts forward sliding down my hands and the line begins to pay out of the basket, tensioned by my right hand holding the blank at the stripping guide, left now groping for the reel seat now holding the rod out from my side as the last coils of line articulate and leap out of the basket and join the arc, now flattened and aiming upstream for Mt. Hood, dragging a white trace of foam through the disordered pool.
In the soggy, heavy pause comes a fundamental change of direction, a quickening of the vibration, and the thing explodes gracelessly out of the water, raw rosy-grey force tumbling across the surface in a quivering, bouncing vortex and at the center a black, calm eye.
The fish was huge, out of all proportion to images. It was blacksilver, uncertain of color in the flat rain-light, and it erupted three more times across the pool in flat greyhound leaps now more disciplined and directional than the first one, which had been all anger. These were escape, and they gave it sixty feet of loud space upstream before the fish entered the water last, clean and silently contrasting with its first appearance. I stood with my bucking rod a quiet moment gaping as the blasted surface of the pool repaired itself and ripples tugged at my neoprened hips.
The reel was ratcheting off line through the leaps, but in spurts; now the line cut upstream completely and the reel spooled up like a turbo. The backing knot went out tink!tink!tink! through guides, accelerating away. I had to do something, but reaching for the reel caught fingers on the handle, mauling them and giving the rod an incensed bucking action that made me fear for the tippet--what was it? 12? 20? And all the knots I had tied. . .suddenly those book-learned exercises mattered dearly.
I cut a glance downstream and was astonished to see the men unchanged of position despite this fundamental shift of the universe.
Gingerly I palmed the reel a bit--at first it bucked again but in another second I had good friction, added a pound or two to the drag. White dacron was purling off at a line-winder rate. Alarmed, I looked up to see the line taking a weird angle--across the pool and up on the bank before the thin white bead came out of sight around the bend.
At that moment some large animal made a sloppy crashing progress across the stream about sixty yards up, and it took me a stunned moment to realize that it was my fish. Galvanized, I began to forge upstream against the current. I unsnapped the stripping basket and flung it to the bank to my left.
The knee was screaming but it was pure pleasure to move. The fish was still on--muted bucking of the flyrod told me--but its progress was slower now. I worked my way back to the bank behind and began a plodding trot up the bank, reeling as I went, gaining line against tension. In twenty steps I had straightened out the vector caused by the bend in the river and the backing was now back in the water. I allowed myself to slow to a hunching march, holding the rod steady, recovering line only in stretches but giving no more.
I could see the fish at moments, capering and flopping in the shallow riffle ahead. It looked like a large animated log, now rolling over, now thrashing and humping its body up and through the shallow water. I thought for a moment that I might be able to just run up to it, tackle it, just touch it--that would be enough. But suddenly reaching deep water, it flashed out of sight but for a head-wake against the agitated water.
Now it became a steady drag. Fifty yards upstream the fish was dogging through a shallow pool, not a riffle but not as deep as the bigger pool downstream. I moved with it, keeping contact and steady pressure through the long, wide riffle. The water was about a foot deep, easy walking and wading. I walked up on the fish, steadily gaining line, and soon crossed the top of the riffle into the deeper pool. Rising out of the water in front of me came the reel end of the flyline, dark green where it joined the backing.
Up the pool the fish wallowed a time, then again; not really jumps, but shaking splashes. I gained line steadily for a moment, then the fish ran again. I let it go.
Something was wrong. The action of the fish was suddenly damped. I could see the end of the pool, another run of riffly water with no features before a large deadfall and rockpile a hundred yards up on the right. But there was no sign of the fish in it, and it should have been there by now. I abandoned my strategy of steady reeling and began to run up the bank in earnest.
Fifty steps and and still losing line, I realized that the backing was up on the beach across the river again. I approached a bit more and realized that the bank was divided, that there was a side branch or a feeder stream there, and that my fish had gone up it. The backing was well up the bank, running through roots and trash on the stream bank, taking odd angles and holding and jerking as it slid through the uneven tension of the dirt and wood.
The smaller branch was twenty feet across and shallow, grooved to the outside of the bend to a depth of maybe two feet, and a maze of roots and deadfalls. The main river right at the mouth of the creek was deeper than I expected. I forged across belly deep, holding the rod up face-high and watching more backing spool off steadily. Only a single row of holes remained covered up by backing still on the spool; the fish had to be 150 yards ahead of me. I slacked off on the drag as I waded up the slope to the left bank of the side-branch and began slogging up the creek, cranking backing in resolutely.
I was short of breath. The whole right side of my waders was full of water, and my hand stung in concert with the ache in my right shoulder and elbow. The bank was clear, easy walking along a sloping gravel and shingle verge next to the vertical cut-bank that was about the height of my head. I came around the bend steadily gaining line, hoping to pick up speed, when suddenly I was falling through flashing black and silver streaks out away from the bank and into six inches of rushing riffled water--right hand then hip, knee, shoulder, and around to my back so I am staring at the rainy sky, laying comfortably at a head-down angle flat on my back in a creek. Above me is the gnarled grey crag of a deadfall laying perpendicular to the stream, extending out over the cut bank at forehead level. Hung neatly on a small peg branch is my hat, still rocking slightly.
I levered myself level, dizzy and nauseated with the blow, feeling a fat hot puffiness across the left side of the top of my head and a deep-sea chill on neck, arms, back, and head which were now soaked with water that was even colder--how could that be?--than the main river below. And empty handed?
The rod was twenty feet upstream, swimming steadily forward, the reel spool skirling bubbles into the dark water. I crawled forward to it and caught it by the reel frame just as the last curls of line ran off and the spool froze against the arbor knot. The tension increased vaguely to an impossible pitch as the fish pulled it all, then something somewhere gave and I got the rod back, reeling frantically against a dead too-light resistance.
Cursing, I staggered upright and reeled frantically, but felt no more fierce tension, no powerful Pacific throbbing resistance. Sobbing now, I hobbled forward around the next bend. I knew it was all done.
Before me was a huge tangled deadfall of fir and spruce trees, some fresh, some weathered gray by a lifetime in that rushing spot. The mass of trees blocked the entire passage of the creek. At the right bank, a deep dark surge of water roiled up from where the force of the creek had cut below the compressing wood. To the left the water shallowed a bit and ran under the snarl of branches about 18 inches deep. My backing passed under the deadfall at this point.
I stood sighing, looking at this obstacle. My flyline was on the other side of that mess, if it wasnt still attached to the fish--and if it was attached to the fish, I decided, I would walk this creek until I saw it then grab it. I wasnt giving up that easily.
As if in response, a loglike shape suddenly appeared in the deep roiling pocket and accelerated straight toward me downstream, trailing green flyline. The fish flinched aside when it came closer but continued straight downstream.
Shocked, I instantly knew what had happened: it hadnt broken off, it had turned. I had turned it with the last few ounces of resistance at the arbor knot. And now it was through and through this deadfall, and I had about eighty yards of backing before the fish came tight against the line again.
I lurched forward and dove into a military crawl, poking the flyrod before me through the tangle of branches. It passed cleanly through and I forced my way, feeling the branches break and tear at my back. My vest held but the landing net was yanked free. The water pumped up over my hands into my chest and chin. I ducked my head and took a drink. Then I was worming out from under the trees, gasping for breath, astonished that I was able to pass cleanly through the space.
Reeling frantically now, I looked upstream for the encroaching point where the backing turned. Not seeing it yet, I edged into the deeper part of the pool, peering for a passage.
Choice: I could hold the backing in my hand and reverse the rod, which would keep the handle close to my hand and enable me to squirm through the branches; but that would take the drag out of play if the line came tight as I went through. I could feed the rod through and then release it, climb the deadfall and catch up to the rod on the other side. I wasnt going to swim through that ugly narrow passage. My fish had, twice now, but that would drown me.
The line seemed to have slowed. Flyline was still going downstream. I looked at the reel: thirty yards at least. On my knees, then, I peer at the line where it passes downstream through the dark tangle of branches. I cant see the green against the black, but that moment the green goes white as the flyline became backing. I could see only that the deadfall ended more or less evenly with only a few odd bits sticking downward into the deeper water, and the line seemed to take a downward angle. No time; I reverse the rod and gently point the tip along the backing as it pays out under the mass of wood, reeling quickly. I take the position shown by the backing and look over my shoulder just as the loop that marks the turn of line cruised by, stop reeling and extend the rod as far as possible, feel the tension take up and let go.
Then a slogging stagger across the stream to the edge, a frantic clamber up the cut bank and across the trunks that slope back from the creekbank and sit out on the bank, down again to the downstream side of the deadfall--no rod.
Along the bank forty paces, under the headhunting grey snag with my hat still hanging there--grab it, yank it on, surprised at how cold it is--and theres the rod, up on the bank and tangled in roots.
Across and tear it free, feel the dull damped power of the fish, still there! last few feet of backing again, and were off downstream, march and crank.
My back is a sheet of cold lead. My head doesnt hurt but it has a detached, numb presence that makes me feel that my head is held at an angle. My knee is a loose, clicking lump that feels wrapped in miles of hot string. Something has happened to my left foot, too; every step is a sharp stab in the arch. But I go on, maybe because its downstream and downhill.
To the confluence, where the fish has turned left. Its no longer dogging, just holding somewhere around the corner and Im gaining steadily, trying to make minimal movements translate through to the fish: I know if hell stand still I may get close, to a place where I can play him normally instead of all this steeplechase.
At the junction of the creek, Im recovering backing more slowly. Around the corner I can see the edge of the riffle about forty yards down. The aiming point for the line is down and near that point, and as I watch it wobbles left, then right about ten yards; hes hesitant to cross that shallow again.
Tentatively, I pump back on the flyrod; Im trying to gain line the old fashioned way. A moments stalemate and he turns and rolls up a bit. Its not a clear victory but Ive got five or six turns I didnt have before. Again, and again, and again I pump; each time is worth eight feet or so, and the fish is much less alive and animated than before. Once he wallows and its slower and duller movement than before. I begin to creep down the bank, and I actually consider for a moment where to set up for a landing. My Orvis Stretch-and-release net is long gone, part of the deadfall up the creek, but it was never big enough for this fish.
One more pump. . .and slack as the fish blows up across the pool and jumps twice at a tangent in front of me, then does another wobble turn across the fifty feet or so of pool I had gained and accelerates away. I let him go, again, watching the reel spool up to blur. Just as I look up the fish pops up across the riffle at the tail of the pool and goes squirming across the shallow water like an alligator. I follow.
But theres little left for both of us. When I get knee deep in the pool the following water fools me and I go down, in control and twisting to bend and sit out, down one-handed with my face half immersed. Rod in my left hand, I cant get up. My knee is locked at 90 degrees and I half to hop around half a circle to get my left leg in play before I can erect myself to knee and foot then upright, levering slowly to vertical as the knee popped and crunched.
The rod is not bucking now, just surging tamely. I cant see the fish; its in the slower run above the original pool just at the big bend. Holding tension I lean and walk, crank and walk, recovering the backing knot and then just walking down on the fish. It made a few wobbling turns at resistance but didnt accelerate again. I kept tension and moved to within about thirty feet, then set up and began to pull against him.
Stalemate again, this time for keeps. Head away, across to the bank or upstream against the tension, the fish just held its position doggedly against my efforts. Fine with me. We leaned on each other like drunks for five minutes or so before he began to slip across the current toward me. Lean and pump, and the leader knot rose out of the water for just a moment.
Now the run, an act of sodden desperation. The fish sort of shrugged and thumped steadily downstream, pulling drag steadily but with no fire. I lightened up and let him go, walking not to recover line but to get to a new position. But he surprised me; the run extended slowly, through the pool and beyond. The backing knot went out again, and I picked up my pace to the point where the spool wasnt turning. I let the fish drag me slowly downstream toward the Columbia.
This went on for forty yards. In the riffle below the pool I could see the fish at times, turning side-on and pumping with the effort of tacking downstream. At the top of the next run--really just a wide spot slightly deeper and slower--I made my stand. The fish continued for twenty more yards, then held in the middle of the river, almost motionless, a dead weight against the rod.
With a shock I realized that the fish was thirty feet in front of the guide, who lay motionless under the same hemlock tree. The Other Guy was not visible to me, then I saw him standing behind the tree, pissing a steaming hole into the pine needles. At that moment the fish wallowed again, and he looked up suddenly at the commotion. He saw the spreading ripples, flyline angling up to where I stood, and I met his astonished bleary eyes for a moment. His mouth hung open.
At that moment the fish veered again and ran up toward me, new last sudden vigor. I turned my body and swung the rod to maintain contact as he chugged on past me, a leg-long black torpedo across the green sandy bottom. I tailed him up the riffle for another thirty yards and caught up at the tail of the pool. As I cranked myself up over the tail of the pool, I caught several flashes as he turned sideways to the current.
The leader knot appeared again as I came up opposite Rock 3, and this time the fish came in steadily, a solid inanimate weight. It still swam but ineffectively, unable to muster any headway against the rod. I lifted and his head came out of the water, an enormous blunt angle, lovely rose blush on the cheek. A hanging moment and he turned to me, sliding down the water with feeble wags and head shakes, and my hand touched him underside and slid naturally to the balance point of the massive flank. I slacked off, dropped the rod under my arm, took his tail with my right hand.
I glanced downstream. The Other Guy stood apart from the sleeping form of the guide, looking up to me. I turned back to the fish and just looked a moment: black specked flank, a haze of rose and orange, a violent powerful slant of head. The fly wasnt visible so I clipped the leader where it entered his mouth, and just pushed him away. He sagged for a moment flank-up, then turned upright as the current swept him downstream, and turning his green-black back to me made him disappear again into the confusion of green and silver water, which took him without complaint.
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