In the life of the outdoorsman, there are days spent afield or in the stream that are epic. The ducks pour into the marsh right in front of your blind; a buck steps from behind the oak exactly where you expected him to, offering a perfect broadside shot. You hit the river just as the hatch begins and you have the right fly to offer as trout boil the water, taking your imitation time and again. Such days are long remembered, for they are quite rare.
More often, the days outdoors are middling, offering just enough adventure and reward to justify the continued anticipation of the next trip. Some days are better than others, but most are…average.
On the average days, if you are in my company, you may hear me utter such sage phrases as “well, that’s why they call it fishing, not catching”, or “it’s just great to be out here even if the deer aren’t moving”. Sometimes it’s true, but mostly we want results. We are not very patient when it comes to the pursuit of game.
Perhaps it is tied to our performance oriented society, where everything is measured, analyzed and optimized for efficiency. But I suspect the real reason is deeper in our psyche, tied to our need to demonstrate value and the ability to provide.
Regardless of the cause, I don’t like to spend a day fishing and not catching, though I have done it quite a bit. I joke with friends that I am a conservationist, taking up room on the river that a real fisherman might be using to wreak havoc on the local piscatorial population. But the joke is a weak attempt to cover a strong competitive streak I loathe to reveal.
Recently, two friends and I planned to spend some time trout fishing our local river over a three day weekend. I didn’t hold out much hope for the trip, as I knew the river would be crowded with beer soaked and sun burned tubers. But I knew the water would be cool and the fish would be there. Perhaps we could catch a few early before the tubers began their weekend migration downstream.
Our initial plan was to fish Sunday afternoon after church, and then come back for a second try at dawn on Monday. Gear was readied and placed by the front door to allow an early egress from the house.
Adding to my anticipation was that I was getting to baptize a new fly rod, one that I hoped would be full of trout mojo. Indeed its first cast yielded my first fish of the day; a fitting baptism indeed. I had to thread my trout through a few tubers, but we were able to get her in the net after a dash downstream about fifty yards. I added three more fish that day, and was satisfied with the average day we had on the water. I looked forward to the following day.
Sunday morning we were on the road at an un-human hour, but the effort was rewarded with the river all to ourselves. My companions began catching trout in rapid succession, and I expected that this was to be an epic day. And so it was.
Our river is a tailwater, and conventional wisdom is to fish nymphs, sub-surface flies that imitate immature life stages of aquatic insects. Dry fly fishing is almost unheard of, due to the lack of regular hatches on our river. But this day was epic. When a trout came up and hit my strike indicator, I yelled at my companion across the river to try a dry fly, and I pointed to where I had seen the fish. He already had a dry fly on, as he had just caught and released a fish he had seen rising; also a rare event on our river.
He hooked the trout I pointed out, and I helped net and photograph that fish…then several others. But none of them mine. In fact I hooked and lost four trout that day, two on dry flies. But not a single fish found my net that day.
Ordinarily I would have been slightly disturbed by the lack of success, and would have shrugged it off. Except this was an epic day; just not for me. My companions landed in excess of thirty trout, the smallest of which was sixteen inches, the largest twenty three. One of my friends caught eight or nine on dry flies, a feat which had the trout community here buzzing.
To add insult to injury, my friends were catching fish in spots I vacated moments before. I had no idea why. I tried to be happy for my friends, and I was. But my lack of success made it pretty hard for me to truly enjoy their epic day. I had not performed well.
I went home and went to the tying vise. I tied a few dozen flies of a pattern I had not tried before, in a size larger than normal. I also modified one of the other patterns to make it more attractive by adding some flash to the materials.
A month passed before I had the chance to get back to the river. My companions could not come, so I went alone. Doubts that had dogged my subconscious in the previous weeks followed me. Maybe I really didn’t know how to catch trout. Maybe I had lost some critical skill, or perhaps I had never possessed the skill in the first place. I was ready to get the skunk off me.
When I arrived at the river, a serpentine mist hung over the water. Not another person was to be found. It was quiet, and endeavoring to keep the peace I was careful to close the truck door with as little noise as possible. I heard the rush of clear cool water over the weir, and the call of a wood duck just over the cypress trees. It was beautiful.
Quickly I moved to the spot where I last faced defeat by these trout. I had to unlock the mystery of my failure; and I cast. Once, twice, thrice. On the fifth cast the strike indicator twitched and I struck; the electricity of life at the other end of the line jump started my heart’s lethargy. I fought the fish for a minute and lost it. Not a good omen.
I resume my cast, mend, and drift. Now a second fish was fast to my fly; this one finds my net. The barbless hook slips out with little effort. Without touching the fish, I release it into the slower water of an eddy to recover. The fish is beautifully colored; fat and healthy. Five others follow, and in the next hour I never went more than ten minutes without being hooked up.
I reeled in. I had barely been in the river equal to the time it had taken me to drive there. But I was satisfied. The skunk was off. Redemption had come.
It was epic.