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Ironwood Baby!

by Lani Waller
illustrations by Bill Allan
"Dick Larsen and I have drawn the lucky straw. We will, if necessary, crawl on bleeding hands and knees for as long as it takes to reach the heartland of this New Zealand wilderness river — this high-class, drop-your-waders-and-fork-over-the-bread, helicopter fly-out trophy trout river."

DICK LARSEN and I have drawn the lucky straw. We will, if necessary, crawl on bleeding hands and knees for as long as it takes to reach the heartland of this New Zealand wilderness river — this high-class, drop-your-waders-and-fork-over-the-bread, helicopter fly-out trophy trout river.We know the stories: Alaskan resident trout shrink alongside those we will see today. Chile and Argentina will pale in the eye after this. God help us, even Montana waters will leave us yawning.

It looks good, the guides say. They always say that. It rained last night, and the temperature dropped a few degrees, perhaps enough to freshen the water and stir the salmon-sized brutes that lurk in the dark canyons and vertical ravines. We will see some suspended weightlessly in pools of clear water, looking like John McPhee’s perfect metaphor: zeppelins. Others may be cruising and feeding in skinny tailouts, or hopefully at the head of runs, sifting mayfly nymphs and rummaging for anything they can find to eat. If we hit four cherries on the second pull of the casino trout-fishing machine, we might even find some taking cicadas from the surface like sharks feeding on bleeding meat.

I have fished the river before, but never the section we will fish today. If it runs true to form, there will be at least one monster in every pool, or maybe a pair, and sometimes, in the very largest pools, as many as a half dozen or more, browns and rainbows competing for space and food. Some of these will go off the end of the graph, exceeding even the limits of Larsen’s imagination or my efforts to describe them.

“Geentlemen, you will see moor trout theer today over eight pounds than you weel under eight,” one of the guides drawls in musical Kiwi.

“That’s right, mate,” his buddy offers. “These are the ooonly trout that can run a six-foot eel out of the pool.”

I consider the possibilities and look around nervously. My friend Lou Rago sidearms a flask in my direction. “Here,” he says, “better have a swig.” He knows I am an emotional mess and I’m not even on the water yet.

I make the final filtering of the Glenfiddich through the charcoal of a cigarette, almost swallowing the entire butt. Not bad. I think I’m ready. But Tim McCarthy, head guide at Tongariro Lodge, isn’t so sure. He has drawn the long straw: he will be guiding Dick and me.

Why am I so nervous? I’ve landed forty-inch steelhead, haven’t I? So has Larsen. So have a lot of us.

“It’s a bit of a walk,” McCarthy warns, looking mostly at me as we wait for the chopper. I suck my stomach in and square my shoulders.

“How long?” I ask.

“Fourteen kilometers.”

“How many miles is that?”

“Eight and a half. Mostly boulders and some pretty nasty river bottom. We’ll head cross-country if we have to. Mostly it’s OK. Just a keen hike.”

Larsen picks up his rod and exhales his $50 Esplendido. “Good shit,” he says. “Nine for a five-weight, baby. That’s the one. How’s my drag?”

McCarthy looks at the reel, but mostly at our legs, and winces. Larsen and I have probably not walked eight and a half miles at any time in our lives. We both normally do our hiking in jet boats up in British Columbia.

“Ahh, those steelhead are fun all right, but it’s a no-brainer,” the first guide says, without apparent malice or contempt. He goes on in the same manner, smiling one of those smiles you begin to hate after you’ve passed fifty-five. “There are a lot of guests who couldn’t make this hike,” he says, looking at us.

Larsen is cool and shows no emotion, certainly not intimidation from a mere eight and a half-mile trek into the mouth of a feeding trout like those we are supposed to see today. But his veins are pounding. He steadies himself, leaning on his African walking stick — the one he got from a Masai warrior in trade for an empty 35-millimeter plastic film canister. The Masai like to use film canisters as functional earrings, filling them with miscellania and then inserting them into large holes in their lower ears.

Larsen hefts his end of the bargain in a cloud of aromatic Cuban fog. He taps the hiking stick against his legs and says, “Ironwood, baby.” Which one? I ask myself. His leg or the stick?

Now it is 8:45 a.m. and we are flying up the main river canyon. From 900 feet, the semitropical forests of New Zealand’s North Island drift below us, folded in images of green cauliflower-like foliage and crumpled canyons whose small tributaries still run in shadow and cold morning fog. Moss hangs from the limbs of some trees like strange, uncombed green hair. We could be in Cambodia, Laos, Borneo, or over the lush tangle of Hawaii. I see what appear to be red flowers and immense umbrella-shaped ferns.

This isn’t Kansas, Toto. If half of what the guides say is true, the trout below really are unbelievable.

I have seen their smaller cousins to the south and west; two days earlier, on another branch of this same river, I cast to a brown estimated to weigh fourteen pounds. I saw a rainbow that looked every bit as large, and others that ranged in size from six to maybe twelve pounds. In one pool, forty casts produced two “looks” and thirty-eight “kiss-my-anal-fin” refusals, each more emphatic than the last, until finally all the trout were onto us, and ganged up in fifteen feet of water in the deepest part of the pool. As we left, Ken Drummond, a great guide and friend, counted more than a dozen of them.

Drummond always shortens my name and pronounces it as if it were spelled “Lawn,” and the memory of his coaching brings a smile:

“A little to the left, Lawn.”

“A little to the right, Lawn.”

“A little longer, Lawn.”

“Oh, he’s gone, Lawn.”

Coaching helps. If you can take instruction, guiding and honest criticism, you will get it. New Zealand guides are perfectionists, superbly gifted and practiced anglers with eyes that can see everything — including your nerves, your ego, and every weakness you have as an angler, even those you try to hide. If you’re smart, you check your privates on some tree by the gravel bar before you wade into position, although most Kiwi pros have apparently unlimited patience. But they will demand that you wear dark clothing, with no red hankies around the throat until the fish is in the net and the cameras are out of the bag. They also insist you have no chrome-plated tools dangling from a light-colored vest, and no wristwatches that might catch the sun and flash in the eye of a trout as long as your arm.

Some even apply steel wool or powdered pumice to their $900 fly rods to scour away the glossy finish. By doing so they reduce the chance of signaling to the trout that all is not well and that the airborne cicada making impossible turns at the speed of light is actually connected to the strange animal waving its arms back and forth over there on the rock.

Tim McCarthy even goes so far as to dye the sheepskin fly patch on his vest. He dyes it black. This is serious stuff.

Everything else is fairly typical. You bring three rods: a small creek rod of say, seven and a half feet, but you never use it, and maybe a nine-and-a-half-foot six- or seven-weight for a poke at the lower Tongariro on the North Island or the Buller on the South, and the all-important ace in the hole: the nine-footer for a 5/6 weight line. But you don’t bring flies. The guides usually won’t let you use your own flies because their patterns have been field tested under conditions that can make our spring creek fishing back home look tame.

Add a few fourteen- to eighteen-foot leaders in 4X and 5X with fluorocarbon tippets, some yarn for indicators (white, yellow or green, but not red) and you’re all set.

The water is relatively warm, usually in the high fifties in late summer, so waders are optional. Most cool hands show up in felt-soled wading shoes worn over a pair of polypropylene long johns and a pair of quick-drying hiking shorts.

We are now at 300 feet and the river begins to come into focus. It is beautiful beyond imagination. In the glare of sunlight it is silver, but one more turn and it yields to cerulean, then turquoise and finally the sweetest green you can imagine. It crawls in serpentine fashion through boulders and mossy canyons, then hangs like a necklace of jade in a myriad of fantastic stone settings, a pulsing artery, alive and shining. It is more than that; it is the most incredible piece of trout water I have seen in forty-five years of looking, and now — at 300 feet — at least one of its trout is suddenly visible. The heavy-shouldered monster lumbers away from the noise of the chopper and disappears into shadow. Do you know how large a trout has to be if you can see it from 300 feet?

We drop smoothly through an opening in the trees and the river explodes in circular waves from our rotors. The invasion from outer space has begun. Moments later, the Bell Jet leaves us there and leans south into oblivion like a howling insect. The wilderness gathers like a shroud.

We are here. All alone. The Inner Sanctum is ours.

Packs and gear are gathered, and I notice for the third time this morning that I have a guide with a walking stick. The first I’ve ever seen.

Larson grins, and fondles his ironwood. I reach around to see if the collapsible wading staff he lent me is still there. Tim begins the instructions as we start walking. “We will not,” he says emphatically, “fish right away, but will hike for two hours, no matter what we see. It’s necessary. Otherwise we will never make the fourteen kilometers to the 6 p.m. pick-up and we’ll have to stay all night.”

This is the last day of our trip and I have a non-refundable $1,500 ticket and a more than decent wife waiting for me to come home. Nevertheless, the thought of staying all night and fishing one more day is tempting. After all, there are no bears here, no man-eating tigers, no snakes — not even any snake-oil salesmen disguised as timber-management specialists.

Besides, for all I know the mortgage payment is due at home. Not only that, while I have some pretty hefty trout written down somewhere in my notes — including a nine-pound rainbow yesterday — it would be nice to add a few more. Larsen has fared even better; he took a ten-and-a-half-pound brown when we fished the South Island’s “Wherearewe” River on a trek we affectionately referred to as the Death March of February 15, or simply “Camp Boris,” named after the guide who dragged him and Washington, D.C. angler John Ferguson along several miles of secret pools where nothing was under ten pounds.

I watch Tim, who has now stopped and is waiting for us to catch up. He is looking at the center of a pool as we join him. He points. “Not bad,” he grins. “Better than that, actually. About nine pounds. A rainbow. But we can’t stop. I know it’s hard, but we’re better off doing the bulk of our walking now than at the end of the day.”

An hour later we are in the guts of it. The forest canopy here is spectacular — a thousand chandeliers of curling limbs, covered with moss coiling across a clear blue sky and cotton clouds. Leaves wet with last night’s rain sparkle like diamonds in the sunlight. There are no cut stumps or man-made signs anywhere; the forest is still aboriginal, perfect and unspoiled. The ground is spongy and so rich it smells of peat. Immense ferns and small wildflowers hang suspended like intricate floral bouquets over water so clear that ten feet of depth looks like three, and four-foot boulders shrink to pebble size. It is cool and refreshing in the shade. When you ford the shallows on a crossing, swimming mayfly nymphs scurry erratically away from your boots, and the hollow ghosts of last month’s stonefly hatch cling to rocks still drying in the sun.

Suddenly a deer whistles and the sound echoes through the forest. A fish rolls heavily in the pool just ahead, free and undisturbed. He has seen nobody in a month. It is one of those defining moments when the best expressions of the sport are palpable, within reach, and the river you are wading is full of wild trout that few anglers have seen, or caught. I expect to see monkeys or Munchkins, but none appear.

“This is incredible!” Larsen exclaims. “When do we meet Tyrannosaurus Rex?”

The first pool we will fish is just ahead now, shining in the light and Tim has a fish spotted. “It isn’t a really big one,” he says, “but a good place to start — about seven pounds. Who’s up first?”

It’s a complicated issue and Larsen and I think about it. The run looks like an easy shot. The currents coming in at the head are straight; drag will not be an issue. A high cliff borders the river on the right and Tim says the fish is feeding heavily in the center current like a phantom submarine, gliding back and forth ingesting who knows what. Maybe caddis. The cast will be forty feet from a position directly below the fish and the tailout is a broad sweeping fan of shallow water with no trees near; there’s plenty of room for a backcast.

I look at the run. It seems incandescent in the morning light. The tailout is still in shadow. The caster will be hidden. Perfect. I can’t see the trout.

So, the first pool is always a mixed bag. On one hand, you’re wired and ready for the big tug. On the other, you’ve been sweating and walking for so long you’d rather just flop down in the moss and take five. The thought also crosses my mind that what I really wanted to do was just get in the water, open my mouth and let the entire river run into my stomach. But I also had a down-in-my-gut, gnawing feeling that I really didn’t want to be the first one of the day to blow a fish and a hard-earned opportunity. Not after two hours of hiking. If I let the other guy do that, then somehow it seems like my own sins on the next pool and for the rest of the day are somehow diminished by his.

I wonder if Larsen feels the same way. During this trip he has qualified for induction into my own pantheon of angling heroes, not only by delivering some of the best jokes I’ve ever heard, but also for a piece of wisdom that will change my life forever.

“Do you know,” he asked while I was crawling over a fallen log, “What the single most important factor is for good health and longevity?”

I was swimming in sweat and fantasizing about a root-beer float. “Exercise?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“Diet?”

“Uh-uh.”

“No booze, or ciggies?”

“Nah.”

“Well, what is it then?”

“Flossing your teeth.”

“Larsen, come on.”

“No, it’s true. Your immune system has to work very hard cleaning the germs out of your teeth and gums. The effort doesn’t leave much in reserve for defense against attacks on other fronts. So if you help out on the gummy end of things, you can live to be at least ninety-five. No matter what else you do.” He gestured with the Masai stick to punctuate the comment.

That was almost enough, but the clincher came later while we were waiting in the Auckland airport for the long ride home. We had checked our voicemail and compared numbers of messages (the “How many do you have?” game.)

“Three hundred and seventy,” Larsen said.

“Whaat?”

“Three hundred and seventy.”

He wasn’t kidding.

Then, three hours later, as the milling throng of international passengers started fighting one another for early boarding and the best shot at an overhead luggage compartment close to their seats, Larsen put on his shades, ruffled his hair and started leaning a bit, listing seriously to port. He looked weak and confused. Suddenly, without warning, he moved forward in a meandering, staggering path, tapping his Masai cane back and forth on the floor as if he were blind, alone and afraid. The rest of us watched incredulously as two airline attendants sprang to his side to help him tap his way past the business-class passengers, past the old lady in a wheelchair, past all the first-class passengers waiting to board.

Forty minutes later, when I got on the plane, Larsen was already asleep. The Masai stick was safely stored in the overhead luggage compartment above his seat.

My reverie is broken as Tim asks again, “Who’s up?”

“Waller is,” Larsen says generously, and I can hear the sound echoing off the canyon walls and reverberating all the way back to the lodge where I feel like everyone is watching us on television — to say nothing of Tim McCarthy, ace guide and expert trouter, who is now crouched in the bushes waiting for first blood by a guy who writes stories and performs in videos.

My first cast is short. That’s all right, it usually is. After all, you don’t want to line the darn thing.

The next one is six feet to the left (sudden breeze) and the fly lands in three inches of water. I have no idea where the fish is because I can’t see it in the glare.

“Do you see him?” Tim asks.

“Yeah, I’ve got him,” I shout back.

My next cast is eight feet to the right and almost lands on the rocky outcrop (sudden lack of breeze.)

“Are you sure you see him?” Tim asks.

“Well, I’m not sure, I guess. Where is he?” All I can see is ten million rocks at the bottom of the river and an endless labyrinth of forest.

“Do you see the brown rock?”

“Which one?”

“The one by the green bush.”

“Which green bush?”

“The one by the tree.”

“Oh, yeaaah…”

“Well, come straight out from the brown rock for ten feet. Then go four feet up to the gray boulder and then seven feet to the side. Then drop back a foot. He’s just to the right of the fourth tan rock. The one next to the one that’s not quite so tan.”

Then, suddenly, I see him. The next cast is perfect and I watch the shiny leader turn over in the sun, flashing (not a good thing, but what the hell, it’s out there isn’t it?), then settling gently to the water. The cicada indicator dry fly drifts down with the size eighteen Passenger Caddis Nymph tied on 5x tippet following closely behind. I wonder which one he’ll take. He’s just to the side of the rock, over there by the shadow. I see him. He’s lifting, and I’m ready to hit him.

Then Tim stands and makes the reel-em-up gesture with his right hand.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“Your cast was ten feet too long. He’s gone. You lined him. I told you he was by the brown rock, next to the green bush.”

The next trout took only ten minutes to find. A large fish rose with a shouldering splash just at the head of a shallow pool, in full sunlight next to a drop-off where the water ran like lime soda. Then a second trout surged on the other side, rolling over small cobblestones with the weight of his body, blowing open a muddy hole in the riffle as he turned to collect his harvest of nymphs. He was so big I instinctively thought “steelhead.”

This time Larsen was up, thank God. He was already in position and maneuvering to attack, apparently with nerves of steel, his head and shoulders invisible in a cloud of cigar smoke as he puffed and double-hauled at the same time.

I wondered how he could see anything. He had no head, legs or torso-just arms. Four feet of gin-clear water and his fuming Cuban had erased everything else. Each haul and each puff added another five feet to the length of line he had in the air until I thought he would line these two fish and have a decent shot at one in the next pool upstream.

“NOW!” Tim shouted.

I didn’t see what happened when he let go of the cast. The polarizing filter for my camera had fallen down inside my waders and I had to urinate. When I looked up again, Larsen was reeling in and there was nothing on the end of his line. I think he shrugged, but I couldn’t be sure; there was so much smoke out there.

Later, while we were eating lunch, I got to thinking about Tim and everything he had to go through to make his living. I had to ask.

“Tim?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you have the same nightmare every night, with only the faces changing?”

“You’re close.”

“What changes?”

“The boot size.”

At $600 a day U.S., fishing success or failure becomes a serious business — not so much because of economics (who gives a damn? it’s only money) but because of ego and because the hour is growing late and this could be it for another year. That’s the stuff of nightmares.

So that afternoon, after lunch, old Larsen and I did our best to help Tim get a good night’s sleep. But after eight more pools, twenty-seven fly changes over ten truly large fish that refused fifty decent presentations, and six more kilometers of walking, I no longer gave a shit who hooked one of the bastards, as long as one of us did. The bigger the better.

How about a twenty-pounder? They were in here, weren’t they?

I guess the same idea hit Dick about the time his third Esplendido wore out. We started walking closer together and talking. Now that I think about it, maybe the conversation meant more than our fishing. All I knew then was that we had walked a very long way and made dozens of casts without a strike.

A half hour later, when it was my turn to be up again, I went for it, hip-deep in water, with my life and reputation fully exposed, trying my best to just make it, just make the frigging cast. Everything else could go to hell.

Are you kidding? There was nothing else.

I knew the fish was a good one because Tim hadn’t said anything about its size. I was nervous enough already. Even at forty feet, and from a crouched position, I could see the trout moving back and forth like a fighter plane, gliding up and down in currents as clear as air while I just tried to keep from falling down and drowning in its liquid sky.

He or she swam from right to left, then right again, then up and over a rock that went in and out of focus as I prayed for no wind and a good loop. The trout looked like a chinook salmon, all shoulders and heavy flanks. It looked black in the clear water and for a moment I thought Tim had blown it and I was casting to the fattest eel in New Zealand.

I made the cast, several in fact, but they weren’t quite right and my would-be trophy would have none of it. When we left the pool, Tim looked away. “Too bad,” he offered. “That was a nice one. You didn’t do anything wrong.” But I knew better.

“How big?” I asked. “Maybe twelve or thirteen. A brown.”

On Dick’s next turn, we cut through a shrubby plateau to find Tim down on his knees, staring at the river. He asked me if I had seen the big brown at the head of the pool. I looked, and if I fish another seventy years I won’t forget what I saw. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I had seen it even before he pointed it out, but I thought it was a log.

Three smaller fish lay just downstream from the log — one a rainbow of perhaps eleven pounds and a couple of others that appeared to be around eight or nine.

“The brown might go seventeen or more,” Tim whispered. “I have heard of twenty-pounders being taken from this section of river.” Then he turned his attention to Larsen and me. “Who’s up?” he asked.

Larsen had one eye on me, the other on the huge brown. “Have you ever taken a really big one?” he asked.

“No.”

“Go get ‘im. He’s yours.”

“Dick, it isn’t my turn. I had the last shot.”

“Shut up. Take him. I’ve got mine.”

By this time the brown had turned and was lumbering slowly back down to the tailout. As he passed us I could see his body and his eye. He looked like a brooding shark with the head of a trout. When he took up a new position just above the riffle below the tailout, I began crawling toward him on my hands and knees, praying as I did so.

The forty-five-foot crawling stalk under the cover of forest shadows took fifteen minutes. The casting took a lot less. I had five refusals on five presentations. My five-weight line and .005-inch leader tippet looked like rope in the sun. I did manage three fantasies about taking casting lessons as soon as I returned to California and one promise to never say “fuck” again in public if the damn thing would just bite.

After the fifth cast, I was out of tricks. Tim motioned for me to crawl back up toward the head of the pool. “It’s no use, he knows we’re here,” he said. “Try those rainbow over there.” Larsen nodded. approval, pointing at one with his ironwood stick.

I turned for a last look for the brown. It was gone. It hadn’t taken, so there was no point keeping my promise about vocabulary. “Fuck him,” I said to myself.

Then I changed focus to the rainbows at the head of the pool. The cast looked impossible because there were trees right behind me. The only possibility was to make a twenty-foot backcast almost straight up in the air, then shoot a perfectly straight cast forty feet over the rainbows to a spot about the size of a large serving platter, then mend quickly to avoid drag.

Somehow I made it. The shot was perfect and the fly hit just right, the way they can sometimes. Even Tim liked the cast.

And wouldn’t you know? One of those magnificent rainbows saw the fly and quivered. Six desperate human eyes watched intently as the size 14 Royal Wulff wiggled its butt in the meniscus and passed over the trout like a little red ship with white sails. Just for a second I felt like a hero, but then I mended too late and drag set in. The trout dropped to the bottom.

Larsen motioned for me to try the other fish, and my next shot was fired at the big rainbow near the top of the pool. He was twenty feet away and feeding in plain sight and there were no trees anywhere nearby and the wind was perfect, coming in over my left shoulder. It was an easy shot at the trout of a lifetime and I blew the cast so badly that Larsen cleared his throat behind me and Tim just looked at the ground and said nothing.

Finally we reached the last pool of the day — and the trip and the year. Darkness was falling and we’d been walking all day. A ragged brown nymph was hooked in the second snake guide just down from the tip-top of my rod and I reached for it with an odd feeling. 5:30 p.m. This was it, the last chance.

Fatigue and paranoia gathered. I hadn’t had a strike all day. I had, however, just fallen in on the last crossing, soaking my Nikon and my ego. I was cold and on edge.

What a way to end it, I thought, shivering. Not one strike.

I wondered what Tim thought of me. And what about Larsen?

The fly was loose from the snake guide and Tim was back at his post, watching like a heron as he had all day, never quitting, never giving up, never showing a sign of impatience or urgency. Larsen is waiting patiently, too, sitting on a sandy bank in the dark shade of wonderful trees and clutching his Masai stick. He is here for the same reason I am: He loves it.

As for me, I’m just a little older and a little tired. But maybe I’m ready for this one.

Tim begins his work. The fish looks good, he says, and she’s lying only two feet from an almost sheer wall of lemon-colored stone to my right and up forty feet. Just there by the cut with marbled streaks of black on it.

I look. The water is purple over there. I’ll never see her.

“She’s feeding heavily,” Tim cautions. He says nothing of her size, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve done all I can and the guy back at the lodge was right; I’d rather be skunked here than land twenty in a no-brainer somewhere else.

The line unrolls in the air and I refuse to let it go until I have those words jammed down into the rod and reel and anywhere else I can stick them because they are the truth. Finally I let it go, all thirty feet of it plus fifteen feet of leader and it looks really good as it unfolds in the cooling air like a beautiful arrow going straight to the heart of something I can’t explain, but can’t live without.

“Grrreat shot,” Tim whispers. “Let it go, let it go. Oh-oh, wait a minute, she’s moved upstream now about five feet and she’s right up against the wall. Right next to it. Pick it up and go again. Now!” (They always say that.)

The cast is now fifty-five feet and the fly has to land a foot from the cliff wall or she might not see it. The line lifts off the water like oil, smooth and sweet behind me, and I am begging my wrist and arm to wait and get it right, and I pull just enough with my line hand to gain another ten feet. I’ve been doing this for fifty years; when will it become automatic, without anxiety and prayers for luck?

When everything lands out there the indicator is almost kissing the rock. But is the leader straight? Where is the fly?

“Perfect,” Tim whispers.

Nothing happens for ten years. Then without warning Tim is screaming: “LIFT! DAMMIT, LIFT!”

I look at the indicator. What’s this lift stuff? What’s he talking about? The indicator hasn’t twitched; the drift is as steady as silk, smooth and certain. But I know this: I’m lifting, pal. This guy knows what he’s talking about.

I raise the rod and the fish is there. I greet her with another private, very happy vulgarity. I have her. She’s on!

I’m not very good at describing fish fights. I wish I were because this one was a beauty. I saw her sailing through canyons of deep water with the light reflecting from her sides and I bit my lip when she shook the line like a dog. I ran downstream and then back upstream four or five times with all the grace of a wounded ostrich, holding my rod up high and winding the reel with my back to the fish so I could see where I was going, and not trip again.

But it was the jumps I most remember. When she came out, she seemed to hang in the air over the dark water like a great balloon, beautiful and silver as the morning sky, and when I saw her girth I didn’t think it was possible for a stream resident rainbow trout to grow that large. Not even in New Zealand.

And I remember the look on Tim’s face as she finally came on her side into the shallows.

“God, what a horse,” he whispered.

Even Larsen was impressed and said something like “Holy shit.” Actually, that’s exactly what he said and I silently thanked him for the perfect description, because when you get right down to it we are not really vulgar. We are not liars. We’re just informal descriptionists.

And then she was in the net, straining against the cord, with her wet tail flopping in the air. She looked like a salmon and I loved her instantly.

The fly was loose from the snake guide and Tim was back at his post, watching like a heron as he had all day, never quitting, never giving up, never showing a sign of impatience or urgency. Larsen is waiting patiently, too, sitting on a sandy bank in the dark shade of wonderful trees and clutching his Masai stick. He is here for the same reason I am: He loves it.

As for me, I’m just a little older and a little tired. But maybe I’m ready for this one.

Tim begins his work. The fish looks good, he says, and she’s lying only two feet from an almost sheer wall of lemon-colored stone to my right and up forty feet. Just there by the cut with marbled streaks of black on it.

I look. The water is purple over there. I’ll never see her.

“She’s feeding heavily,” Tim cautions. He says nothing of her size, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve done all I can and the guy back at the lodge was right; I’d rather be skunked here than land twenty in a no-brainer somewhere else.

The line unrolls in the air and I refuse to let it go until I have those words jammed down into the rod and reel and anywhere else I can stick them because they are the truth. Finally I let it go, all thirty feet of it plus fifteen feet of leader and it looks really good as it unfolds in the cooling air like a beautiful arrow going straight to the heart of something I can’t explain, but can’t live without.

“Grrreat shot,” Tim whispers. “Let it go, let it go. Oh-oh, wait a minute, she’s moved upstream now about five feet and she’s right up against the wall. Right next to it. Pick it up and go again. Now!” (They always say that.)

The cast is now fifty-five feet and the fly has to land a foot from the cliff wall or she might not see it. The line lifts off the water like oil, smooth and sweet behind me, and I am begging my wrist and arm to wait and get it right, and I pull just enough with my line hand to gain another ten feet. I’ve been doing this for fifty years; when will it become automatic, without anxiety and prayers for luck?

When everything lands out there the indicator is almost kissing the rock. But is the leader straight? Where is the fly?

“Perfect,” Tim whispers.

Nothing happens for ten years. Then without warning Tim is screaming: “LIFT! DAMMIT, LIFT!”

I look at the indicator. What’s this lift stuff? What’s he talking about? The indicator hasn’t twitched; the drift is as steady as silk, smooth and certain. But I know this: I’m lifting, pal. This guy knows what he’s talking about.

I raise the rod and the fish is there. I greet her with another private, very happy vulgarity. I have her. She’s on!

I’m not very good at describing fish fights. I wish I were because this one was a beauty. I saw her sailing through canyons of deep water with the light reflecting from her sides and I bit my lip when she shook the line like a dog. I ran downstream and then back upstream four or five times with all the grace of a wounded ostrich, holding my rod up high and winding the reel with my back to the fish so I could see where I was going, and not trip again.

But it was the jumps I most remember. When she came out, she seemed to hang in the air over the dark water like a great balloon, beautiful and silver as the morning sky, and when I saw her girth I didn’t think it was possible for a stream resident rainbow trout to grow that large. Not even in New Zealand.

And I remember the look on Tim’s face as she finally came on her side into the shallows.

“God, what a horse,” he whispered.

Even Larsen was impressed and said something like “Holy shit.” Actually, that’s exactly what he said and I silently thanked him for the perfect description, because when you get right down to it we are not really vulgar. We are not liars. We’re just informal descriptionists.

And then she was in the net, straining against the cord, with her wet tail flopping in the air. She looked like a salmon and I loved her instantly.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Lani Waller has served as an angling and travel consultant for many years, and his work has appeared in all the major fly fishing publications. He was inducted into the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame in 1997 and currently lives in Novato, California. He is at work on a new book called Steelhead. Excerpted from River of Dreams, West River Publishing (October 2004), 240 pages, hardcover. Article copyright © 2004-2006 Lani Waller.
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