It’s always nice to see an empty river access parking lot. Helps maintain the illusion of wilderness, the delusion of discovery of a bit of river. Dave, JT, and I climb out of our vehicles, waders peeled halfway, which is supposed to prevent the summertime never-dry-wader funk from transferring to the upholstery. We walk to the bank and ceremoniously gaze upon our evening domain. The river is wide here and slides along without sound. Greasy seams and boils, bubble lines and micro-eddies, but no rocks tall enough to gurgle. We walk back to the lot, suspenders dangling.
We have been in these funky waders more than not this week, and our fingers have mastered the clips and zippers, and those of our packs, which sit comfortably on our shoulders. Rod ferrules straight, knots strong, reel seats tight – all checked with the smooth accuracy of a week’s practice. The fading afternoon is warm and this time of year a warm afternoon promises an evening of rising trout. It will be a fine way to finish the week.
“You look like you’ve been on the road for about 10 days,” JT says to me. It’s only been seven or eight, but sleeping in my truck and the sun and wind of the freshwater flats have weathered me. For the last few days we’ve been walking the rim of the big lake, hunting for smallmouth and carp.
“You don’t look much better,” Dave says to JT, his own grinning face wizened beneath a seven-or-eight-day beard.
We wade out to the edge of the shoal, almost halfway across, dark water slipping around our knees. In the deeper midstream current we notice a few bright white mayflies floating serenely. All sails set, perfect symmetry, spinning downstream. Dave first spots the fish: nose, dorsal, tail. Black. Big. Silent. Halfway again to the far bank, in a pillow of roiled water.
We watch one of the white mayflies, which are about size 14s, cruise down this trout’s feeding lane, only to pass uneaten right through the kill zone. The fish rises again, taking something we can’t see. And then again a few seconds later. He is a happy fish.
A big black stonefly with orange bodyparts rasps unsteadily past me. Our fish is not eating stones, but they’re bad fliers and crash a lot, so it seems reasonable that he might eat one given the chance. Dave ties on a number 10 Stimulator, and creeping forward, bent at the waist, makes his cast. The drift is perfect despite several hard-to-see seams. We hold our breath as the fish comes up – nose, dorsal, tail – and nudges the fly aside. A rejection, or coincidental rise to something else? Dave casts again and this time the fish does not rise. On the third drift the fish rises, but ten inches to the right of the fly. Dave remains composed until the fly has drifted clear, and then stands upright and hollers a curse which reverbs down the river valley. JT and I look around for other anglers to apologize to. There aren’t any, and we add our laughter to the echoes. The trout rises again.
As do several others, we now notice as we look up and down stream. Subtle rises are dimpling all the current breaks, the soft-water spots. Each is similar in size and form – nose, dorsal, tail – and no sounds from any. JT sidles downstream to line up a shot.
“Give him a try,” Dave says, stepping back and pulling out a fly box, looking upstream at another rising fish. “I need a new start.”
After a bit of staring into my dry-fly box I tie on a size 14 Light Cahill, an extra-bushy storebought job that’s been in my box for a decade at least – and it proves to be a very good match for these white bugs that the fish is not eating. He keeps rising, sometimes within inches of my fly. I continue to cautiously change flies, angles, casts, and drifts, creeping ever closer. Still he feeds. The oily eddy that he’s in not only makes the drift difficult, but also difficult to read. Maybe I’m getting invisible micro-drag. I lengthen my tippet, downsize to a number 18 Borcher’s Parachute, and take another small step forward.
Downstream and up, JT and Dave are also working through fly boxes, making small adjustments to positioning and rigging, casting, watching, picking up, casting again. The afternoon breeze has died, and the light is softening. Various bugs are in the air and on the water, and as of yet, no artificial flies have been eaten.
“Can you guys see what they’re eating?”
It’s said softly, as we’re in easy earshot of each other.
“This one’s still ignoring those white flies, and he’s not eating my Sulphur.”
“This son of a bitch is ignoring everything, but here he comes again.”
It’s been an hour. At our backs, the sun has dipped behind the thick black spruces, which allow passage of a few red-gold beams that mottle the spruces on the opposite bank. No other anglers have appeared. JT momentarily hooks a fish – it took some kind of Red Quill on about the hundredth drift – and after a short but brutal round-the-legs fight it breaks off and the quiet returns.
I have moved in so close now that I’m waist-deep in the black water, casting my leader only. The fish is still coming up once per minute or so, roving around within a bathtub-sized bucket behind an invisible rockpile. I can see from here that there are no bubbles. His nose isn’t breaking the surface film. He’s not really rising at all. I say nothing but I find a rusty number 16 partridge-and-green soft hackle in a fly box that I haven’t opened all week. I tie it to four feet of 5X tippet and wet it with saliva so it’ll sink just a little.
He eats it just below the film on the second drift – nose, dorsal, tail, no bubbles. At first it feels like setting the hook on a log, but it begins to throb and then explodes. I am not ready. Without running he jumps twice. JT and Dave hear the first jump so they see the second, and we all get a good look: he is a tall and dusky river-resident rainbow of Great Lake proportions. The second reentry is sideways, thunderous, and soaks me with river-water ejecta. He lets me lead him up onto the shoal a bit, but then turns and surges toward deep water, pushing a wake like a killer whale after a seal. My six weight noodles and my drag is too loose and it backlashes and the 5X pops.
I caught a lot of fish this week; I am due for a defeat. But it still hurts. Will hurt for a while. That was a big trout and I worked hard for him. How do I learn how to fight big fish on light tippet? Not on the spot, that’s for sure.
While I sulk, JT earns his fish – nose, dorsal, tail, strike! – and we spend the last of the light gathered around the net admiring a stout rainbow of about 16 inches. The tannic northern water has blackened its back and reddened its sides. It is a beautiful consolation fish and we are glad to have it. When we walk back to the parking lot we leave lots of feeding fish untouched; we can’t see their silent riseforms anymore anyway.
Out of our waders now, the woods fully dark, the week truly over, we’re each about to drive home in a different direction, and are putting it off. Our voices are low, barely above the hum of the mosquitoes; no celebratory enthusiasm boils over.
Later I’m driving through the nighttime spruce forest, radio off. Norman Maclean’s famous “the whole world is a fish and then the fish is gone” spot-of-time line rings in my ears. But as the miles click west the shock of that two-foot trout fades, and so too the ringing. I’m left with what Dave said, just before he climbed into his Jeep.
“Sometimes,” he said, “it’s good to just be in the vicinity of large trout.”