by Don Shulka
It has been said that there is something of truth to be learned from early morning along a trout stream. That may indeed be true, but I would offer that there is nothing but pure honesty, stark and harsh, on the same water after the sun begins to resign itself to nights embrace.
I am on the river as the sun begins to set on a late June afternoon. I share my reverie with trees full of hungry birds awaiting the appearance of hexagenia limbata., the largest of mayflies. The birds themselves lend an eerie feeling to the gloaming. They are hopeful that some happenstance will bring the rising duns from the waters surface while there is yet light to swoop down and pluck a meal from the sky,
The air is heavy and musky with the smells of grass pollen and river mud Eventually there will be the sound of whip-poor-wills serenading the rising moon. I have roughly twenty five feet of line hanging in loose coils from my left hand. I have never seen a mayfly before the trout do. Perhaps it is the emergers that make them break the curtain between their world and mine, or perhaps my eyes are still struggling to adapt to the growing darkness when the first splashy rises alert me to their presence.
Whatever the case, I am always one step behind the fish. Tonight is not different. It is still light enough for me to mark the progress of my vaguely discernable fly but already too late for the birds. I make a cast adding just a bit of reach to the right side of a riser 15 feet in front of my boots. He rises and takes a natural that is drifting so close to my fly that I raise my rod at his take. My missed strike becomes a pick-up and I make the same cast again. Now there are trout rising noisily below me in the outside bend at the bottom of the hole. It is becoming extremely difficult to keep fishing upstream, I have a hard time concentrating on the risers above my position.
I have been told by others that I need to focus, to force these noisy splashing rises from my mind and to listen for the steady rhythmic slurp of a big fish . This, unfortunately is beyond my ability. I cast again and again never using the full length of line I have pulled from my reel.
There are times in the nearly total darkness at the edge of my visual limit that a fish takes I don’t know how it is that I know this, occasionally though I just “know” my fly has been taken. For a moment it is as though I am tapped into some greater consciousness, some feeling that transcends vision. Perhaps this is why I am here thigh deep in this water, perhaps it is some greater connection to the real truth of the universe. Whatever it is I know it is beyond the simple act of fishing for or catching a trout.
I’m straining hard to see the fly drifting back toward me when I simply am aware that a fish is there. I lift the rod and am rewarded with the stubborn pull of a good fish. He is no more than a fourteen inches in length but uses the rivers’ strength and the cloak of darkness to his advantage. For a brief moment I think perhaps I am hooked into one of the storied giants that occasionally bless fishers of the hex hatch, but as he tires and I lead him to the net I learn that I am fooled by my lack of vision. I smile to myself knowing that seeing is not always believing as some would insist.
Now, there are spinners on the water just as suddenly as the duns appeared and their numbers are greater than the duns, the fish are keyed on them. I only know this because I have managed to tangle my leader hopelessly around my rod. I begin clipping leader and fly, it is faster to re-rig than to untangle in darkness with trembling hands.
The beam of my headlamp reveals the spread wings of a giant mayfly as it drifts past me, its life is over, another generation will rise from the death of this, the cycle will continue another year. It will go on long after I am gone as it did long before I was. That is the truth the birds know, it is the truth that generations of trout have understood, It is lauded in the voices of the whip-poor-wills, and carried to all who will listen by the river. I replace the Wullf style fly with a foam spinner that was tied by a friend who has spent many seasons chasing this hatch. It was he who first introduced me to this maddening addiction.
I lift my rod again when I see the vague silhouette of my fly disappear in a take and feel it arch under the weight of a good fish. I allow him his head as he sprints upriver. Oblivious to the scream of my reel. He bores deep pulsing back his protest with violent headshakes. I know at once that this is the fish I have come for. There is no surface breaking thrash, only the stubborn sure strength of a big fish. I tighten up on him in an effort to keep him away from the undercut that I can not make out in the dark praying that the 2X tippet is indeed strong enough to brake his run. For once fate is on my side, sensing the heavy pressure he turns back midriver and turns directly for me. He runs back downriver and passes so close that I can honestly feel the water being displaced as he darts by me. I am winding like mad now trying to regain line on my reel and hoping the barbless hook will hold long enough for me to catch up. As he reaches the outside bend where there were rises minutes ago my line finally grows tight again and we are locked once more in combat. I stumble downriver in the dark gaining precious line as I go, hoping that he won’t be able to wrap me around some unseen stick. I emerge from the water at the bend and gain more line on him by cutting across the spit of land that marks the sharp corner. I can finally sense a bit of growing fatigue on his end of the line. Using this against him I apply pressure sideways against his flank, controlling his head now and with left palm on reel I turn him toward the right bank. I can see and hear him thrashing as he runs out of water deep enough to dive. He is frenzied, and boring against me with the last of his strength .He charges back to the center of the river, but it is all but done. He has nothing left and finally I am certain that I will net this great trout.
I click on my headlamp then reach back and pull my net from its magnetic release while holding fly line against rod blank with my index finger and guide him back toward me. I realize when I see him first that he is even bigger than I thought. Certainly more than twenty inches, perhaps as many as twenty two. For a moment I’m afraid he won’t fit in the net at all but as he slides against the current and over my waiting net I lift and have him captured. His mighty tail sticks well beyond the confines of my net and once again he is struggling for freedom.
I kneel on the sandy spit of the corner while holding the net under my knee to keep him wet as I remove the fly from his jaw and briefly hold his tail as he regains his strength in the life giving flow. His gills are pumping mightily and he is recharging muscle tissues with oxygen. In a few moments he is ready and I watch him slide from my grasp and fin slowly out toward deeper water. Then with a kick of his tail he is gone.
Too soon I notice the silence and it takes me a moment to realize what is missing. There are no more splashing rises. I stand in the void of their absence trembling.
There is still the river, it seems she and I are alone but for the ever constant calls of the night birds and the slight rustle of grass in the now late breeze. I am hopeful that the slight gusts will maybe somehow blow a few flies from this evenings hatch onto the water and there will be a curtain call. I’m not surprised when none appear. I entertain the thought of replacing my mayfly with a mouserat, or perhaps a frog, and nearly convince myself to make the switch but the thought of a beer back at the truck is just enough persuasion to make me decide to pull the pin.
It is late, I’m not sure how late because I was wise enough to “forget” my cell back at the truck. Something I’ve learned to do these past few years, ever since Shannon convinced me to carry one while hunting or fishing, “Just in case of emergency.”
I still have a long walk back in the dark in an area I only know slightly in daylight.
I remember to keep the moon over my right shoulder on my way out this time. A well remembered oversight from a previous outing that nearly had me overnighting among the tamaracks. That was the one time that I almost wished I hadn’t “forgotten” the damned thing. Funny how hard it is to track a straight line out from the river in pitch black. I must have turned around 180 degrees four times that night, each time I’d crest a rise that I was sure would bring me to the clearing only to see the shining silver band of the river snaking along below me in the dim moonlight.
I know that I have nothing to fear as I make my way back to the parking area yet I feel a bit spooked walking out through the woods. My headlamp plays tricks on me by moving shadows as I walk making the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It’s a feeling I should have left with my childhood that never-the-less
Still clings to my subconscious, a holdover perhaps from times when man was just another link in the food chain.
I’m not altogether certain there are no bear here. I have a friend who captured black sinister images on his trail cam not comfortably far enough from this river. Is it too much to believe that there might be a sow with cubs traipsing along this very route tonight? I push the thought aside but don’t stop making as much noise as I can while walking through the woods. Cheap insurance.
Coming to the clearing that marks the beginning of the trail I fumble for my keys and unlock the truck while still a hundred yards distant. It is comfort to me to see the amber glow of my tail lights though I would never admit to it. I know that If I were not alone I would need no such solace. I am leaving the bogeyman back in the trees.
At the truck I open the hatch and sit to remove wading boots and waders and unstring my rod before placing it back in the tube. I have a six pack of now hot beers stored in the back. I sit for a while nursing one of them in the glow of the dome light listening to the fading songs of the whip-poor-wills, not ready to make the drive home.
About the Auther: Don Shulka
What can I say, I am a part-time fly fishing guide in Iowa’s driftless area, I am owned by and occasionally hunt under the supervision of a pair of Labradors. I married the girl of my dreams and my favorite fishing buddy is my two-and-a-half year old son. I learned to read thanks to guys like Gene Hill, Patrick McManus, Jack O’Connor, Robert Ruark and Papa Hemingway. I’m blessed to remember and strive to hold onto the wonder of youth. Guess that’s me.
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