“A Wicked Place”

The spot is full of poison ivy. And ticks. And timber rattlesnakes. So don’t go there. Ever. Plus, it’s not particularly fun to fish—a steep, uneven shoreline where you have to stand angularly, like you are wearing high heels instead of waders.

One wrong step, and you are in cold river water up to your chin. But trout like to line up in the bubble line just off the bank and eat sulfurs. So here I am.

The fish gently tilts up once every 30 seconds and takes another bug. I approach it from upriver, where I plan to float my fly down to it. This runs counter to traditional fly fishing dogma, which says to cast a dry fly upstream only. But here on the big river, if you want to consistently hook trout, you feed the fly downstream and hopefully into the fish’s mouth.

But there’s a problem: I have to get into casting position first without spooking the fish, which more or less is looking directly at me. This is particularly challenging because I’m perched relatively high up on this steep bank with nowhere else to go. So I crouch so low I am practically crawling—poison ivy and ticks be damned. Meanwhile the trout continues to rise steadily.

I inch along until I reach a spot where I’m close enough to make a reasonable cast. But instead of staying on my knees, I decide to sit in the grass, slowly swing my legs out, and let them dangle over the riverbank. I do so, and my only direct connection to the water are the bottoms of my boots, now resting against a partially submerged rock. If I had a cane pole, I might look like Huck Finn dunking worms for catfish.

The trout comes up again maybe 30 feet away. I look over my shoulder to calculate the physics of how to keep the fly and leader from snagging in the steep brushy bank behind me. I angle my back cast upward, then manage a sort of half-roll cast up and out into the river. It’s ugly, but it somehow works.

The first few casts are off the mark, but the next one is not. It lands six feet above the trout and maybe three feet beyond its feeding lane, which is my intention. I quickly lift the rod to skip the fly up current and above the fish. Then I drop the tip and pop a few extra feet of slack into the river so the fly can drift without drag.

It works, and I tense while my sulfur imitation approaches the trout. It drifts another foot, then pushes up in a bulge of water and vanishes in a slow, confident rise. I lift the rod and feel solid, thumping weight. Then the fish very purposefully turns and heads into the current and downstream. This is not the high-octane run of a crazed rainbow just before it greyhounds out of the water. It is the measured but unstoppable retreat of a very big brown that has just declared, “I don’t like this, and I am going home to my favorite logjam three miles downriver.”

Fly line pours off the reel in one, long, sustained run. First, the thicker weight-forward section is gone, followed by the thinner running line. Then I feel a little speed bump of my backing knot dancing through the guides, chased by yards of thin, white Dacron.

I try to stay calm, and I do this by remaining seated. The grassy bank has become my fighting chair. My feet are braced on the rock, and the deeply bent nine-foot five-weight is pointed upward, with the butt resting firmly against my belly as if in a gimbal on a rod belt.

All I can do is wait for the fish to stop running. When it finally does, it immediately changes course and begins swimming toward me. I reel quickly but steadily to keep even pressure on the rod. I don’t want any sudden movements to agitate this fish any further. I don’t want it to jump, and I don’t want it to run again. I want to gently but firmly ease it closer and closer, until, before it realizes what has happened, this trout of a lifetime is in my hands.

Yes, I believed it was that big.

Reeling up 50 feet of backing plus an entire 90 feet of fly line takes a long time even without an enormous trout on the other end. Minutes pass, and the fish slowly draws closer. The backing knot comes bumping back up the rod—briefly catching on one of the snake guides and terrifying me—but then pulls free and safely nestles back onto the reel. Then comes the running line and the first half of the weight-forward head.

I strain to see the fish, which up to this point is just an unseen force. How big is it? I have heard stories of 25- and 26-inch browns sometimes taken. A few years earlier, there were rumors of a 10-pound, 30-incher caught in the West Branch maybe 15 miles from where I stand—I mean sit.

Just then I see it—a yellow flash 15 feet away and maybe 4 feet deep. But that’s all it is: a flash. Too far and too vague for me to even begin to estimate its size. And by now, that’s all I want, just a good look to know if it’s four pounds or five pounds or maybe even larger.
I’m sweating now. All it will take is another few turns of line on the reel to get my first solid glimpse, and I will know.

And then, without warning, it’s gone.

The hook has pulled. Just like that.

The rod hangs limp as I reel up the last few feet of fly line. The sulfur imitation comes to the surface and V-wakes in the current, looking like a wet piece of fuzz after being submerged for the last 10 minutes.

The full gravity of what just happened sinks in—that I will never see this trout. Ever. And it will haunt me. I slump in my grassy fighting chair feeling like Hemingway losing a 1,000-pound marlin off Cuba.

The big river flows past, oblivious. Sulfurs continue to hatch.

Eventually it’s time to get up and look for more risers while dodging ticks, poison ivy, and rattlesnakes. Like I said, you don’t ever want to go to this wicked place.


Excerpted with permission from “A Cast in the Woods” (Lyons Press, 2018, all rights reserved).  Purchase on Amazon.