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Fly Fishing Jazz: Sparring Partners

by Kirk Deeter

There’s a 22-inch brown trout that lives in the same run in my favorite river.  His pectoral fin, on the right side, is split in half. His gill plates are more blue than normal (almost indigo in low light).  And his lower jaw is just starting to curl.  I know all this, of course, because I’ve caught this fish three times in the past two years.  I haven’t given him a name.

Last weekend, I went to the river and just watched him work.  He’s pretty predictable.  The run he lives in isn’t that large, maybe the size of a pool table, but  it’s deep, and two nymph-blocker rocks there create a perfect zig-zag current that forces bugs into a hard seam.  That’s where he likes to set up camp on when the blue-winged olives hatch.  If the wind isn’t blowing too hard, I can actually hear him chopping away, his mouth opening and snapping shut like a tiny music box.

I didn’t feel like casting at him.  It’s been a long, hard summer for both of us.   He’s been on the constant treadmill of atypically high water (when there’s a drought, the powers that be push even more water through this river toward the ranches and farms on the Eastern Plains).  I’ve taken a new job, and have been on the road.

Most trout anglers think of brown trout like this as their “quarry,” and they might even grow to respect them as “worthy adversaries.”  I think of this particular fish differently, almost like a band mate, or a dance partner.  I play better music—my moves are sharper—with him than with most other fish.

Maybe “sparring partners” is a better analogy, because we’ve definitely traded blows over these months, even spilled each other’s blood (I sunk a hopper hook deep into the corner of his mouth; he sliced my finger with the fly line).   But ultimately, I think we’re on the same team, and we make each other smarter… better.

And so, it seemed appropriate to just sit and watch the other day.   I’m not sure he noticed me when I came to say goodbye.  He didn’t seem bothered, since he just kept mowing through the rafts of bugs until the air got cool, and they simply went away.

So I did too.  But not without the hope that the winter would be kind to both of us.  And that not too long after the thaw, he and I might meet up again in this same place.

To answer the bell, and go a few more rounds.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Kirk Deeter is the editor of TROUT, the national publication of Trout Unlimited, and a frequent contributor to MidCurrent.
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  • Vince

    Wonderful analogy, only because I have had the same relationship with a few Brown Trout myself. The true essence of the more discriminating fly fisherman.

  • JWH

    Grouse and a Whale

    Sunday night I went to the Kinni with my friend Pete B. We hiked, as usual, way down river and cast at sunset on a deep bend just below the
    Crossing Pool, water personally christened because a downstream-bound fisher
    HAS to cross the river to keep moving, unless he wants to engage in technical
    rock climbing.

    anyway, Pete’s up at the top of the Smile Pool run. He’s fishing the chute where the river
    narrows and deepens before turning hard to the northwest, depositing its
    contents into the Dartmouth Pool (the Big Green, get it?). There the river collides with a limestone
    cliff and proceeds almost due south.

    below Pete, standing opposite a corner where I once flipped a canoe, my
    9-year-old boy unable to execute a draw stroke which I hadn’t taught him. There’s
    a sporadic rise. Maybe fish are taking
    little white mayflies, but we don’t know for sure.

    doesn’t matter. I don’t have a light. There’s no way I’m gonna try to change out a
    #16 caddis at dusk for #20 mayfly. Besides, as age has its way with
    me I’ve enrolled in the school of fishing where I worry less about fly size and
    matching the hatch and more about whether I can see my presentation to know how
    it’s hunting. So I’m skittering my deer hair bug and fish are taking
    it. What’s not to like? Then the instant before a particular drift
    begins to drag an enormous fish ghosts out of the deep and flashes at the
    caddis but sees the drag (or me) and quickly retreats. It happened faster than I can tell it. It is a vision I retain in my mind’s eye.

    don’t catch many big ones on the Kinni anymore. Or at least I don’t. It would help if more people harvested a few
    now ands then but the assertion could lead to endless philosophical
    discussion. It’s enough to say a 14-to-16-inch
    fish typically represents ‘the trout of the season.”

    is not inaccurate to state that this particular big fish would measure in
    excess of 20 inches. It surprised the hell outta me. So much so I
    let out an involuntary, astonished yelp.
    The thing looked like a whale. I’d never seen anything THAT
    big on my home water before. Not in
    almost 30 years of fishing the Kinnickinnic River.

    know I spooked the fish. I knew I
    spooked the fish. I knew I had no prayer
    of catching it that night. Nevertheless,
    the sighting makes a good story to tell Pete B as we walk out and drink Rush
    River IPA drafts at the Copper Kettle. Of course we pipe-dream about
    going back another night to try to catch the whale. Maybe run a bugger in there. See if he’ll take it in the dark after he
    comes out to play.

    today I’m down in the DNR office talking on work time to a guy about locating reasonably
    local grouse cover. He shows me detailed
    waypointed Google Earth maps, teaches me how to identify cover on them, orients
    me to the finer points of the DNR’s Web site maps and shares information about
    the kinds of forage grouse favor—young stands of aspen especially adjacent to dogwood
    and beak berry thickets. “Look for the
    white berries on the dogwoods,” he says.
    “Grouse love the banana-shaped catkins on the beak berries.”

    smart enough to know I don’t know Jack Doodle about finding grouse. I’m also smart enough to realize that I’m
    smart enough to listen to this fellow.
    As my Irish father-in-law used to say, “Ah, he knows his onions.” Bottom line?
    As the man talks, I know I’ll take away sufficient information about how
    to do something I’ve never done. Come
    October, I know Rosie-our-rescue- Springer and I are gonna hunt couple of state
    forest areas he’s recommended. Rosie’s got a grand nose, loves the hunt and
    possesses the good grace to withhold comment on my totally lame wing-shooting
    abilities. I’ll be happy to go along
    for the hike.

    DNR guy is a great chatter. He’s clearly
    happy to have someone to talk to who’s interested in what he knows.
    He’s a trained naturalist, has hired out as a hunting/fishing guide and now participates
    in the three outdoor activities he likes best: grouse hunting (“You know you’re in good shape
    if you’re in cover so thick you can’t fall over.”); bow hunting for deer (“I’m
    not a trophy hunter. I take the first
    one I see for the meat.”); and trout fishing (He’s got picture of a brookie on
    his desktop and makes his own bamboo rods.).

    piscatorial admission triggers another ten minutes of conversation. He a minimalist fly fisher but it turns out
    he takes a lot of photos. Pretty soon
    he’s clicking at fish images on his computer screen in a sharing way that
    doesn’t make me feel like we’re comparing penis sizes. The dude just loves what he does. He loves to hunt, fish and to tell people
    about it. Good for him. I’m jealous.

    thing I know I’m looking at a photo of his friend who’s holding a 26-inch brown
    trout. The fish is so big I immediately
    place it in Montana. “He took it out of
    the Kinni earlier this year,” the guy said.

    way,” I said.

    way,” he said, confessing rather sheepishly he thinks his friend might’ve
    “cheated” to catch it by locating it with a camera he extended into the water
    on a wand. “He released it, though,” an
    admission granting absolution.

    HAVE to ask. “Where?”

    I don’t know this guy. Never talked to him before. But he’s
    not the kind of guy who keeps that info to himself. It doesn’t take long for him to describe the
    same Crossing Pool and deep bend in the river just a hundred yards
    downstream. The exact place I stood when I saw the whale.

    you know what comes next. I had to go
    back and try to catch the whale. The
    following Sunday I trudged down river late and spent an agreeable half hour
    casting to greedy risers in the Dartmouth Pool.
    Just after dark, I snuck upstream to the Smile Pool bend, shortened the
    leader and tied on a mouse.

    all my years of fishing, this is first time I’ve ever stalked a particular
    animal, really known where he lived, what he even might like to eat. I’m not even sure I wanted to catch this
    huge fish. But I knew I had to try. It’s a point of honor. Briefly I pondered the On Golden Pond bass Henry Fonda named Walter but started casting
    carefully, deliberately, quietly in the dark and got lost in the process.

    course, the big trout didn’t take the mouse.
    After a lengthy wait, he didn’t a big streamer either. He didn’t take a whole bunch of things I
    cast into the river. And it was longer
    walk out than usual, hot and sweaty, and darker than I’ve seen it. I usually don’t need a light on the outbound
    hike but this night I did. Spooked a
    deer and more than one blue heron. But
    the beer at the Copper Kettle sure tasted good.
    And I had good story to tell.

    week later as the sun set on the last day of the trout season, I made few final
    futile casts at the whale. I walked out
    in dark that didn’t seem as dark this time and said a fervent prayer, “Please
    God, let me come back next year.” After
    a pause, I added. “Whale or no whale.”

  • David

    I love this piece, so well written. :0), there is something magical about brown trout. People say there is no better than our UK grayling, I disagree.