Just Great Days on the River

Late February, like it always seems to do, ushers in the bitter cold of arctic winter with snow all over. I don’t really recall wrestling with any “decision” this go ’round – I had a gathering to attend and the river happened to be on the way, along with snow, more winter, and the barest hint of spring given away by longer days and the buds of streamside willows. Dropping down into the valley, the horizon is sprawled with black clouds, streaking virga, and the intimate play of morning light across everything: somehow, the nastiest of the weather is not here, only suggested in the vistas of snowclad lowlands and restless looking skies.

The only decision is where. And I replay the fantasy of the long, slow bottom half of the Anderson run where the conditions seem set up for surface feeding fish, easy wading and the good promise of solitude. If not this fantasy then the riffle at the bottom is ever dependable. This is the piece of water that might take me five years to catch a fish in the way that I dream about on long, rainy coast-bound nights. I can always catch fish here, but there’s something about the “situation” that you find yourself catching fish in that makes it somehow intensely, cerebrally satisfying.

Let me jump to the punch line: it was on the minute I approached the water. But wait – even this takes some understanding. You see, these fish don’t give themselves away so easily. Oh sure, you’ll see a fish rise here, maybe there. But just stop. Stop, breathe, listen, look. Then it comes alive. The fish sip in emerging baetis or some other small, olive mayfly with gentle, purposeful, ultra-efficient movements. The biggest fish give themselves away with the flick of a very large tail barely slicing through the surface. Some fish work the edge of the moving water where the flow is easy. More fish delicately nose through the calf-deep shallows of the margins picking off bugs that wash into this forgotten realm. A few caddis take flight, the water is colored pewter with the black clouds painting an electric energy across everything. The fish, the bugs all seem to agree. There is a loud, urgent and anxious rhythm established when the bugs are emerging heavily, the fish are feeding and the weather is vibrating.

So it’s dream fishing – knee deep water, big, spooky trout, but not overly selective. Colorful, rotund rainbows that pull line from reels and make you want to talk in whispers like they might hear your cries of delight. One after the other. Later on, in early afternoon, the caddis emergence kicks in following a brief snow squall. A bald eagle watches from the top of a snag across the river – wondering who this curious critter is, on knees, hunched over in inches of water, casting to snouts and tails with intense abandon. Swaths of sun, rainbow, silver and gold color the scene. The baetis alternate with the caddis and at one point I just step back and watch the parade of bugs littering the water, floating silently down. Tails, snouts, splashes all add to the ongoing rhythm, uninterrupted by a flash of lightning and thunderclap.

I can’t say the “bar has been set” or “this is as good as it gets,” rather, this is the culmination of five years of work, patience and observation. I’ll be back soon, to find myself in an entirely new situation and reveling in the simple fact that it is bound to be different. It’s why I fish – if it were the same every time… well, that would be a different story, I suppose.

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