The new year had arrived with the cold winds of winter. Hopes and dreams, held hostage by the cruelty of the out-going year; a time of unprecedented calamity since the days of World War II; passed amid falling snowflakes.
The cold wind blew through the valley. The chill penetrated everything in its path. The lone figure standing at the head of the run pulled her collar up a bit, shifted inside the warm layers embracing her petite form then continued to watch the water. Patterns of geometricity formed with each surge of the current bending barrier seen or unseen.
At the edge of the run, closest to the bank, a break in the geometric lines signaled a feeding fish. Despite no evidence of a hatch for days, this was a clear sip. She continued her vigil. There it was. Not two minutes later, the second set of concentric circles formed, dissolving into the current.
No flying insects were present. These surface deformations could only mean a fish was feeding on an emerger of some sort. It had to be small. The winter cold made sure of that. Midge would be the most likely, but the tiny black caddis, known as the ice-caddis, wasn’t out of the question. Both emergers were small and dark, so the angler decided to go with one of her ‘crossers’, a term she’d coined for flies designed and tied to straddle the line between the likely choice of insects showing. Emergers or flyers, once the insects are in the water column film, the fish didn’t care what they were. Because, in the end, they were all FOOD.
She opened the box labeled CROSSERS and began her search. It only took a few seconds to find the one in which she felt the most confident. She’d been here before. On this very river at roughly this same time frame. The first time she’d been stumped by the conditions, offering no sign of any food source of feeding fish. It took her a couple of days of dedicated effort, but she finally broke the code. It was now her Secret Code.
Claire knew others would have this bit of a cleaver fishing system for cold water, cold air, and late-season fishing. But she’d never met anyone who spoke of it, nor heard anyone mention it in conversation. This artifact meant nothing. Most guides hold close and tight their hard-won secrets. For many, such insider-knowledge became their bread-n-butter flies. Some guarded them in the extreme. Others, well, they used them carefully, and only with specific clients. All of them knew they had a small window-of-time before the recipe was out. Fly recipes can become a commodity of leverage. Used just long enough to make-a-name, get-a-hold, or to become the go-to-guide for their waters.
There was little reason for Claire to keep such secrets, inside her CROSSERS box, to herself. She didn’t need to. Such a remote section of British Columbia ensured the only people to show were die-hard serious steelheaders. Steelheaders, by-and-large, didn’t show much interest in the other fish. It was unlikely any of them would be heading up this way this time of year. So her secrets were secure.
There were times, though, she did wish for a bit more human contact.
The fish pushed another set of concentric circles, belying yet another sip. This time the angler was ready. She’d counted the fish-generated ripples down to a pattern. That pattern became a clear 65 to 70 seconds between sips. The last 5-sips had been right inside the sweet spot. Claire determined to be ready the next time she saw the ripple.
Roughly 30-feet out and away from the feeding trout, the angler knew closer would be better. The water wasn’t too deep, the current manageable, but the water was so clear. Claire didn’t want to take the chance of spooking the fish.
The line was out and waiting. At 35-seconds, Claire began the cast. At 15-seconds optimum range was reached, then at 5-seconds, she laid the fly on the water. Four-three-two-one, the line snapped tight, and the run was ON!
The fish exceeded the angler’s anticipation. The fight that hit the line surprised her, as the trout demanded more line, sending the reel screaming and line upstream. Claire just held on. After a scorching 25-yard run, the fish began rocketing back downstream. Though Claire barely kept up with the fish, the value of the large-arbor reel had been proven. The gaudy flash of a bright-rainbow, in winter colors, beneath a greenish, coal-black back, rocketed past her in the 3-feet deep water.
The passing was but a brief moment. Yet, the angler and the fish had locked eyes. In that instant, the two beings became one. Acknowledging the seduction -by a fish- thrilled her. She beamed. She was in love and had to make contact.
The fish was heading downstream, mid-stream. Responding in kind, Claire began coaxing the fish to the right, heading for the downstream bank with a nice gravel bar some 60-yards farther. A clear 40-yard line lay between her and the gravel bar on the right side. She began moving to it.
Ten yards into the move, the fish, now 20-yards downstream and edging left, finally took-to-the-air. A bright silvery rainbow monster with a midnight-toned back came off the surface like a Trident missile! Into the air, it soared. The flight topped out at well-over 12-feet. The fish made three, four, five, head-to-tail, body contorting moves, trying -in vain- to shake the fly, before topping out and beginning its crashing descent. The water re-entry shattered the silence of the pool. Any spot earlier would have resulted in a likely fatal injury. The shallow run was a race lane only. The re-entry splash was a hollow bass-toned, Splooohsh, building an impact column rising like a monument to the piscatorial giant. The column rose an impressive 5-feet before collapsing into another thunderous, Splooohsh!
Distraction was the element of the hour, and Claire fell for the deceit. In the process, she nearly fell on her bum. She came even closer to losing the giant. Still, staggering like a drunk on a weekend bender, she managed to hold the fragile line just this side of oblivion. The big trout’s race-for-the-sea brought tension in the line, fortunate to be on the angler’s side. That 60-kilometers separated him from big-water did not seem to matter at all. But the angler was not game for that line of foolishness. She engaged a stop to the dangerous rampage.
Claire applied the rod with command. Throbbing like a Clydesdale on the line, the trout seemed unstoppable. Yet, the angler stuck to her guns and telegraphed an ‘ALL STOP ORDER’ to his boiler.
As piscatorial communication goes, delays are not surprising. But this finned Pegasus seemed a bit daft in the ‘getting it’ category. Claire felt a bit of doubt creeping in. She began to wonder if she was going to be able to bring him to hand. She remained resilient. The rod bent deep. The line began to sing. Claire continued uttering her own piscatorial devotion, ‘The Saboteur’s Prayer’,
‘Tis true I may have sabotaged my likelihood of success. But I ask for one small favor if I might be so bold. Endow more spine unto the rod, give a grip o' steel to my line, Meld determination with patience true, that this fish's tale I might hold.
Claire held ground and continued to pray, sensing an actual gaining on the old-man. More reel applied gained line again. The struggle continued until the mighty rainbow was but 30-feet away at the edge of the big pool. Yet again, the Trident roared into the air.
She thought for sure the line would break. She pushed the rod at the fish, down and upstream, it worked. She put the bruiser off his game and gained five more feet. Again he leaped into the air, and he gained 10-feet. And so the see-saw began until the big rainbow was a dangerous 50-feet away and into the current’s edge.
Claire knew where this could lead. So she gambled.
She ran 20-feet down the gravel bar and pushed the rod downstream; the trout responded. She then ran 30-feet back upstream and did the same in the upstream direction. Again the fish responded. Yet he remained out at nearly 50-feet. Claire repeated this four more times, and on each subsequent move, she gained another 5-feet. Now they were back at the 30-feet margin.
She was tiring, so was the trout. Claire gambled.
She put a hard sale onto the old boy, punishing the tippet to its maximum, and her unconventional move paid off. She began gaining ground. Twenty-five, twenty, fifteen feet, then it happened. Catching Claire off guard, the big trout went airborne again before leaving the pool. The tippet snapped at the apex of the leap. The big fish landed back into the water with a loud Splooohsh! and the line rocketed back, laying in a heap-of-slack at Claire’s feet. The fish, nowhere to be seen.
Claire stood on the gravel beach, looking out at the stream rolling by. Whirling currents, eddies, and slips mocked her amateurish mistake. She saw the event pass from the first take to release. She questioned each move and reanalyzed to clarify her assumptions. No matter how many times she executed this exercise, it always told her the same thing: “You could have -should have- done better, kid.” The voice in her head appeared in the same clear, low-toned voice of her mentor, her Uncle Deni.
Uncle Deni would regularly say to her, “Kid, you gotta read the water like a musical score. Play the fish like a delicate Stradivarius, time your moves like a prize-fighter, move to them like a ballerina.” She’d always be smiling at this point, knowing what was coming next.
He’d then say, in his most stern and serious-sounding voice, “Kid! I mean business here. You’ll need to be serious about fishing. If you’re not, you’re always going to be ‘fish-busted’ and never get the chance to ‘best the fish’.”
Each time Uncle Deni would give her his mock scolding, he’d always end with his tell-tale wisp of a grin, building in the left corner of his mouth. Barely discernible, but she’d see it. Then he’d say, “Alright. You’ve got it. Now let’s go ‘best that fish’, Eh?”
It was in these moments she most missed Uncle Deni. How could it be 10-years since he’d been gone? Yet, each time she stepped into the pulse of the stream, she knew he was there, standing beside her. Often, she’d turn to her left and look for him. Never doubting she’d just heard, “Let’s best-that-fish, kid!” But all she saw was water, moving, swirling, running pell-mell to the sea. She’d then shoot line into the air to dance it on the molecules of inert gases. Two, three, four times it would dance to her direction. Before laying it ever so gently into the slip and the waiting maw of a fish, she’d so precisely targeted, besting yet another.
Then she’d hear Uncle Deni singing a lusty refrain, in a graveled whisky voice, the melody of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” converted into his version…
I’ve heard there was a secret cast,
The Kid played out ‘n it held me fast,
Cause I cared what it all meant to ‘ya,
It went like this: the scene, the cast,
The line in fall, the rod in lift,
The wondrous composition Hallelujah
Fishin’for’ya, Hallelujah, hmmm
Then she’d hear the water again. In the music, life branded deep into her psyche. Fish and fishing changed her. Claire fell in love with the creature, its form, its environment. All of it formed in water.
Claire’s seduction was complete, and she reciprocated.
Praise the Rainbow Hallelujah.
** Story inspired by #184/365 a painting by Diane Michelin from her 365 Days of Painting series