The Bow

The Upper Delaware River: her wild trout are hard earned and wonderful, particularly the ones with the red racing stripes…

Many anglers travel to the Upper Delaware River each spring, some just to witness her natural beauty, most to cast a fly and find out what all the excitement is about, and a few to measure themselves against the legendary difficulty of her grandest rewards.

The wild rainbows are the stuff these legends are made of, the moving wraiths of the great river. Even big fish can be curiously subtle when feeding in plain view. Hundreds of hopeful anglers walk right by those isolated little spurts of bubbles in the midst of a wide riffle, their eyes searching for some expected head and tail rise, some grand profile on display like an artist’s rendering.

A fifteen-inch Delaware rainbow can spool you if he has the inkling, and an eighteen-inch fish can send you running toward shore with your rod high in the air and leave you with visions of leviathan haunting your dreams. Life, survival is hard in this greatest of Catskill rivers, and those trout that succeed leave an impression of electricity and muscle to tease the angler who has enjoyed a taste of their energy.

The eighteen-inch bow is a big fish in the Delaware, for the difficult life in the river and long, seasonal migrations to avoid wide temperature swings do not foster a long lifespan. A few reach the coveted twenty-inch mark, and those of us who love them never forget the days when such very special fish are brought to hand.

A 22-inch torpedo that reigned as my largest Delaware rainbow for more than a decade. Scanning the wide riffle in the background for subtleties drew my cast to a tiny spurt of bubbles I thought I saw.

Once I had tangled with my first mighty Delaware rainbows, I had a quest for one larger than the rest, a fish in excess of that twenty-inch size, a giant for the river. That quest lasted a decade, until the trout pictured above came to hand on a gray, early May afternoon. During those years I learned to spot those insignificant little spits amid the riffles, the kind my mind once believed were nothing but cast offs from the constantly rolling currents that bounced through the rocks of the riverbed. The great Haig-Brown wrote of the glory of the unexpected fish, and Delaware rainbows of this ilk truly deserve that moniker.

I shall never forget the monstrous, deeply hued fish that grabbed my Leadwing Coachman on a morning swing in another great Delaware riffle, then vaulted from the boiling water. I was left flyless and shaking when he rushed downstream, leaping again and again until the tippet parted on that final aerial display. Indeed, an unexpected fish as I idly swung that wet fly waiting for signs of a hatch.

One morning two seasons ago I stalked into a quiet bit of water. The gentle bubbles along one thread of current attracted my attention. I cast my caddis dry fly once, twice and then again, giving it consecutive drifts downstream. A mild spurt of bubbles greeted it on that third pass, and I raised the vintage bamboo rod in my hand to see the calm river explode! A great silver fish leaped five times in succession, rushing toward the opposite bank, and then the reel was spinning and screaming in my hand!

Fly line and backing vanished in the distance until the bow vaulted once more from deeper water, the spray caught in midair as a crescendo of light. This time though, that final, spectacular leap was not a goodbye. The ancient rod doubled fearfully, though it turned the fish out there a hundred and fifty feet away. I reeled furiously to recover my backing, then ceded it once more in a second blistering run.

Each run grew shorter after I regained my line, and at last I brought him to the net. I ached for a photo but dared not let him linger in the slack water at my feet. Holding him against the net, his length touched the old mark: twenty-two inches, but the depth of his flank and his girth exceeded the torpedo like proportions of my long-ago trophy. My hands shook as I walked him to faster current and cradled him in the flow. An unexpected fish, yes, and a memory I can brightly recall to bring a smile and a touch of excitement to a winter’s day.

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