Part 2:

“The actu­al mechan­ics of short­’­line nymph… relies large­ly on intu­ition and the abil­i­ty to see things that aren’t imme­di­ate­ly evi­dent, or rather, to see things that are evi­dent in their own way.”
—Zen and the Art of Nymph-Fish­ing: John Gierach

It is Oct. 12th, 2019.

It is 7am. First light is show­ing on cue, as I turn off the engine. I am parked in the same tired-look­ing pull­out from last week. There’s been just enough rain over the past week to keep the water thin and spooky like before. I have a chance to step into the same water twice. Because its my sec­ond time, I move more effi­cient­ly upstream, know­ing when to walk up the left, right or mid­dle of the stream. I work my way up, cast­ing to the known holes I’ve pre­vi­ous­ly mapped in my head. What took me three hours takes me less than an hour to reach last week’s endpoint.

As I wade past the first bridge, a spin-fish­er­man has just parked and is climb­ing down the embank­ment to start fish­ing. I con­tin­ue to wade up the mid­dle of the stream. We don’t say any­thing to each oth­er; I’m sure he’s sur­prised to see some­one in his water this ear­ly. For a brief moment, I wait for the splash of a Rapala being thrown near me. I won­der how I would react. Instead he goes down­stream of me and flings his lure to the oth­er side of the bank. The lure arcs up and then down, spin­ning a per­fect curvi­lin­ear rain­bow of monofil­a­ment as it crash­es into the water on the far bank. He reels it back in. Noth­ing. I watch the spin fish­er­man, for a minute or two more.

I am final­ly on new water. As I move past the bridge and out of the eye­sight of the spin-cast­er down­stream, I see that there is on the oth­er side of the creek, right along the bank, a dark­er patch of water. A small gaze­bo of branch­es shel­ters the water pro­vid­ing per­ma­nent shade and cov­er. I watch for a few min­utes. Noth­ing is ris­ing. No sub­tle sur­face dis­tur­bances to sug­gest activ­i­ty. So l leave my lit­tle nymph on the line and cast down­stream a few times to adjust for length. I’ve got to get under the foliage, land close to the bank, drift the nymph for a few sec­onds to get it down deep, keep the fly line low with­out touch­ing or foul­ing the water, and not get caught up in the thin fin­gers of the branch­es a foot or so above. The set, if there is one, will need to be down­stream and low. No glo­ri­ous­ly sky­ward sets. This is not so much cast­ing as doing the limbo.

I make the cast. I watch. I wait. Noth­ing. I adjust to let the drift set­tle a bit clos­er to the bank. Few things these days feel like faith but I know there is a trout there. I make anoth­er cast, and anoth­er. On my third or fourth cast, the nymphs flies clean­ly under the branch­es and slips into the water and sinks quick­ly. I watch the line track just under the branch­es, the slight­est teth­er to hope. Although, I am expect­ing a trout, I am not expect­ing the size of it. Nor­mal­ly, I fish very small streams, where the fish are no more than six to nine inch­es long; this one is well over twelve, maybe fif­teen. It takes a sec­ond for my eyes to believe what they are see­ing and I start to pull the fish in. It is already putting up more fight than any fish I had this year. It feels large and cum­ber­some to bring to net. The land­ing is clum­sy, because I sim­ply am not used to it. It is the first large trout of the year for me.

Tak­ing out the phone, I snap a pic­ture of the hole, the fish, the nymph/rod and mark the spot on my topo map. The Mas­ter Angler (“MA”) would also say to record water/air tem­per­a­ture, weath­er, cloud cov­er­age, wind, myr­i­ad details that make my head spin. The fish is released and swims back across the water. And for a sec­ond, I con­sid­er my job done and I can go home. I have caught my trout. I am tri­umphant. I have spent two days get­ting this fish—it would be a good cap­stone. How­ev­er, I am just at the begin­ning of this new water and it has been rec­om­mend­ed by Ma that I get famil­iar with Lit­tle Pony. I am begin­ning to under­stand why. LP is wide with open sky to allow a good cast, but not too wide that much mend­ing is need­ed. It can be wad­ed from side to side with­out much prob­lem. Even­tu­al­ly, I’ll return with clients here and guide them as I appear to dowse for trout, mys­ti­cal­ly read­ing the impen­e­tra­ble water.

I con­tin­ue wad­ing and fish­ing the thin, rif­fled waters and find noth­ing until I once again hit anoth­er dark patch of water and luck into anoth­er fish. This one is big­ger and fights even more. Because I’ve not had enough expe­ri­ence with big­ger trout, I reach for my net too soon. The fish is too far away. Some slack devel­ops in my line, in my aware­ness, in my aware­ness of my line, because I’m think­ing about how to close with the fish, which is bend­ing my rod heav­i­ly and keep­ing me from angling the rod back­wards. The reach of my net is too short. The fish frees itself from the hook and is gone. I am too excit­ed and stretched the moment a few sec­onds too long and broke it.

I am now at least a quar­ter mile away form the last easy access to and from the road, when I reach anoth­er big dark hold. I latch onto anoth­er large brown trout—they are big enough to iden­ti­fy at twen­ty feet—that once again I can’t land. My hands vis­i­bly shake from adren­a­line and so I breathe and look around. The banks of the creek have grown steep­er, the thorn bush­es denser, the thick­et thick­er. The water is now knee deep and push­ing steadi­ly. A cou­ple of tat­tered strips of white sheets and what looks like a soli­tary, white-burlap bag are tied to a near­by branch. Even out here: Trash. It reminds me of scat­tered beer cans and crushed car­tons which at best indi­cate a place to fish and at worst rep­re­sent every sin­gle thing wrong with the World.

I’m prob­a­bly into the my third hour of hik­ing up this stream and my abil­i­ty to con­cen­trate on every­thing is laps­ing as I teeter/fall into a hole hid­den by the mid­morn­ing glare, scar­ing up a mess of fish that skit­ter away. I am stand­ing waist-deep in the mid­dle of a large deep hole, that momen­tar­i­ly is a star­burst of fleet­ing shad­ows. D’oh. I look around embar­rassed. But now there are more of these mys­te­ri­ous white burlap bags fes­toon­ing the near­by trees and bush­es, like Christ­mas orna­ments. I notice a par­tic­u­lar bright-blue burlap bag tied up very high, like a star and that’s when I see the per­fect hole.

It starts with a flat seam­less run of water that goes for 20–30 yards then nar­rows and deep­ens. The water dark­ens as the creek con­stricts, fan­ning in, and runs full force into a large boul­der sit­ting in the mid­dle of the stream. The water is both slowed and divid­ed even­ly by the large boul­der. The large boul­der has been worn/eroded at its water­line and below; it’s form­ing a nat­ur­al mini-cove. The top of boul­der leans upstream and over­hangs the dark water. The col­or is a deep-sea green that looks almost emer­ald and impreg­nable, like amber.

I freeze. Breathe. Slow down, I tell myself. Breathe. Think about the dis­tance and think about how I want the nymph to land just so and how long it will take to get it deep into the water, and how long I will let it drift and how I will fol­low that drift and how I will set the hook and wait…Is my net ready? It is ready. Don’t get it hung up in my belt or pack again; it is slung lose and lim­ber like a six-shoot­er at high noon. I prac­tice my draw so that I know it will be smooth and quick and then I cast.

Like a sub­ma­rine sur­fac­ing, I see a large, thick, dark shad­ow slide out from under the rock, straight to where my nymph should be. For a moment, I for­get I am fish­ing and just watch the fish rise… I get my sens­es back just in time, because the fish has slight­ly turned its head. I set the hook and the line goes tight and vibrates alive. I’ve hooked ‘em. My rod is flexed hard and down; the fish is run­ning back to its sub­ter­ranean hol­low, but I turn its head to the left, forc­ing it towards the bank, forc­ing it inex­orably to me. Instinc­tive­ly, I know I have one chance to net this fish. I can’t step down­stream, because I am crouched on a anoth­er rock with just a few feet of sta­ble foot­ing behind me. If it were to get past me, it would be gone. I keep the pres­sure steady as I reel him in. It jumps up out the water, buck­ing hard and fast; I low­er and angle my rod tip fur­ther, forc­ing the fish’s head down into the water and towards the bank. The rod is now in full bend. I grab my net and begin to scoop from below.

The last few cru­cial moments are the most tense. It’s the oppo­site of that joy­ful antic­i­pa­tion when you first cast your lure, manip­u­late the drift, and if you are lucky, see the flash indi­cat­ing the take, or in this case, watch spell­bound as the leviathan ris­es from the depths (your mind’s eye infi­nite­ly expand­ing a moment that prob­a­bly lasts but for a sec­ond) as you guessti­mate the size (also infi­nite­ly expand­ed) and then at last, set the hook for the final pay­off. No, land­ing the fish is the oppo­site of antic­i­pa­tion because it’s not the expec­ta­tion of gain but one of loss. If it is not land­ed, it is unfin­ished busi­ness. It does not count.

For any sport or endeav­or, there is a code, a set of ethics. Like any moral ground­ing, there are var­i­ous camps—some on ter­ra fir­ma, some not. There’s the perennial/perineal debate between the Catch&Release crowd and the Catch&Cook crowd, even dur­ing delayed har­vest. With­in fly fish­ing itself are the “Dries or Die” purists, the “Nymphs or Noth­ing” sta­tis­ti­cians, the “Wool­ly Bug­gers or Wont” hedo­nists, the “Eggs and Worms” heretics… I take no sides in this. There is some orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple at work, but the it’s hard and elu­sive to grasp. But every sin­gle one of us has a cer­tain set of rules in our heads and a fish is not caught until it is land­ed is one of mine.

I land the trout. It has been maybe four, pos­si­ble five hours of wad­ing since I start­ed. I mar­vel at what this trout rep­re­sents. Stalk­ing, read­ing the water, cast­ing, crouch­ing; climb­ing up and down rocks, sliding/falling down into the sand and mud; tra­vers­ing bram­bles, thick­ets, and thorns so large and men­ac­ing that they have tat­toos say­ing, “You Shall Not Pass,” and mean it.
Which is why pho­tos don’t mean any­thing. It’s why you won’t see a pho­to unless you ask, because it will mean absolute­ly noth­ing to you unless you fill in the blanks with your own sto­ry, which is all one can do.

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