There are moments in our fishing lives that we will never forget. Such moments are often not taken from a scene of victory.
There is a short run along the West Branch Delaware that has received a great deal of my angling attention over the years. The casual angler will not often see activity there, thus it receives a perfunctory cast or two in passing, though at times it is outright ignored. It is one of my favorite places.
I have taken many fine trout from this place, generally all of them requiring time and effort: stalking, study to identify the species and stage of various naturals, changing flies, and casting repeatedly. These fish do not come to hand easily, and some do not come to hand at all. There is one that stands clear in my memory, a great fish, a connoisseur of the tiny mayflies; a foe I have engaged many times over a period of several seasons.
The trout that lived along this inconsequential little run would take the flies nature offered them, tending toward a high degree of selectivity to a particular stage of only one of the insects currently occupying the drift. Over the years I fished there I took many brown trout of twenty inches or more on sulfurs, various olives, Blue Quills, Hendricksons, Gray Fox, Isonychia and at least four species of caddis. On a given day, those caught would invariably be taking only a certain stage of one bug, though it was not unusual to find at least two or three species of insects in the drift. A few were even more discriminating, like my friend The Connoisseur.
I can recall at least four epic battles with this fish, and a few pricks and misses after an hour or more of painstakingly careful angling. Many times when he appeared to be on the fin, he was simply untouchable, utterly ignoring every fly and presentation I offered. Of the times we engaged physically, or nearly so, he never accepted a fly larger than size 20.
That first encounter was taxing. For two hours I crouched in fast, frigid water under skies ready to unleash a storm of storms, fishing to this tiny, sporadic little ring in the fast and broken current near the top of the run. The fish had taken what I would learn was his favorite position behind one up thrust, angular chunk of rock, and would glide left and right behind it as he fed daintily. It took intense concentration just to see his rise, to identify that two inch diameter ring that dissipated as soon as it formed, as the wink of an eye.
There were olives beneath those stormy skies, dark little size 20 olives with grayish wings, tossed hither and yon by the flow that cascaded over and around his rock, but also a half drowned sulfur or caddis now and then, just to keep me guessing I suppose.
My fishing was methodical, working two or three patterns of olives, then the sulfur and caddis, before edging a step upstream or step out toward deeper water to change my angle of presentation slightly, to modify my drift.
My neck was aching, the arthritis firing through all my nerve endings bolstered by the chill and dampness, and I stretched a bit as I changed to a slim thread bodied CDC olive, moved a step and a half deeper into the run, and cast again. The take was quick: that tiny spurt of bubbles, the recognition that my spot of gray had vanished from the froth, and the rod rising into a horribly acute bend for my whisper of tippet. Then it was all line slashing for deep water, the reel spinning wildly, and a great powerful force streaking away and downstream, first with my fly line and then my backing.
I stopped him finally, or rather he chose to stop and turn sideways to the substantial current, and I regained what line he allowed, before charging down again. He came around then, running toward me as I tried to keep tension, reeling as fast as my pained body could muster. I felt him deep in the gut of the run then, shaking his head and darting left then right as I relaxed the pressure just a bit. Hope began just then, though this demon trout was not yet controllable. I had fly line back on my reel and was inching him closer, a turn at a time. I knew I couldn’t let him rest, despite my fear for the small hook and slender tippet, down there amid the rocks, and my pressure incited another lightning run downstream, my backing surrendered once again.
Those who angle the West Branch are familiar with the moss, the green veil that coats the bottom where the current slows. That was my adversary’s destination it seems, down and across the breadth of the river, leaving me with too long a line to have hope of pulling his head away from the bottom. That gooey moss has the habit of collecting on the leader during battles such as these, coalescing and sliding down in a ball against the fishes mouth. One turn of the head and the current will catch it and pull the hook as cleanly as any tool contrived by man, and so it did. I was left breathless, my heart pounding with eighty yards of lifeless line to retrieve. The fly was there, buried beneath that glob of slime.
We danced three more times over the next few seasons, and that great fish never changed his preferences or his tactics. Once more with the olive, a time with a thread and CDC sulfur, the last with a little sulfur spinner, each retrieved in its glob of moss. I saw him only once, his head at least, and he was indeed a brown trout like the other residents of my little sanctuary.
As I slid onto the big leather sofa that evening, thrilled and dejected, those emotions sharing equally all the space available in my exhausted brain, the television barked of the earth quake that had shaken the East Coast that afternoon. The announcer said it was felt in New York at about the right moment, the moment I recalled getting that one and only glimpse of my mythical trout. I had a quick vision of his head, there behind his favorite rock, that still lives in my memory. The head that appeared, lifted close to the surface with his nose out into the air for a split second, was half a foot wide between the eyes. I swear those eyes were twinkling, ready for our last battle.