One fly

Our columnist Rob Brown finds inspiration in a moment of forgetfulness

A rod, a reel, a floating line, a leader, a spool of tippet, a box of flies containing two or three patterns (though you probably need only one), waders, a raincoat, and a hat, are all the gear required for summer steelhead fishing. For summer trout fishing the list is much longer. Trout fishing requires hatch matching; it demands fussing; it’s finicky to the point of irritation at times, but even at those moments, its rewards exceed its annoyances.

As I sit, waiting for the light to change at the old bridge while watching the line of sockeye snaggers standing waist deep in turbid water off the uppermost tip of Ferry Island, I riffle through my mental list of trout paraphernalia, making sure I haven’t forgotten a vital bit.

I always have three rods on board. I’ve forgotten wading boots and waders before, but no more. Now neither leaves the truck. There is always a raincoat, usually two, so that’s not a concern. My trout vest, with net attached, and a wading staff are kept aboard too, but it’s the minutiae, the stuff that an angler carries in his vest that must be replenished, and stuff that gets infrequent use that is easily forgotten. Stuff like fly floatant. Hugh gave me a new tube of makeup remover (the best fly floatant ever) which I recall sticking in a vest pocket. I put a caver’s lamp in the back pocket last week. Good there. I tied half a dozen midges on #18 hooks, put them in a peppermint tin, which I then stuck in my pocket. That base is covered. I refilled the spool of three pound test monofilament before my last trip, so I’m fine on that count. I’m wearing my shades, so, I’m good to go, as they say.

As usual, there is nobody on the river. The sun flickers through the trees on an oblique angle, lighting up the wings of mayflies engaged in a frenetic vertical mating dance above the path. Spider webs break against my face telling me that there has been nobody this way for at least a day.

I sit on the bench at Finlay’s memorial, put my rod together and then reach into my shirt pocket for my reading glasses.

They are not there. I’ve left them at home. I have a serious problem. Tying dinky flies on the end of three pound test nylon is not an easy task in the brightest light. Tying them on in the slanted, fading light of evening is harder still. Tying one on without glasses in those conditions is impossible.

I have a parachute dry fly on the end of the tippet. This reminds me of the one fly derbies held, probably still, in Montana, where each contestant was allowed a single fly of his or her choice, the eventual winner being the contestant who netted the most trout. An abrupt end to the derby came to those competitors who lost their fly to a trout or a snag.

In such a competition, I would have chosen a small muddler minnow. It may not catch as many fish as a fly that resembles whatever is hatching, but it will always catch fish. The parachute mayfly I have on would be farther down my list, but I have to go with it. I wade out and begin lengthening my line with false casts. The fly catches the leader. I wiggle the rod, thinking the fly will free itself. It doesn’t. Instead it balls up. I hold it up to the sky. The paramayfly looks like a fly caught in a spider’s web. I let the rod dangle in the current and attempt to sort out the mess. After five minutes of this nonsense, I wade to shore and snap the line then snip off the excess mess. Do I go or do I stay and attempt the daunting tasks of rebuilding the leader then tying on the fly?

I stay. Knotting three feet of three pound test to the leader proves relatively easy since I can do it mostly by feel. Getting the spidery nylon through the eye of a #14 muddler is another matter. I’m at it for ten minutes, holding the fly at arm’s length, poking, missing, while fighting off frustration. Then, miraculously, it’s through.

I got it! I crow to the dog. I tie the knot gingerly. I wade out far enough to ensure my back cast won’t catch the bankside vegetation then I pay out line slowly and send the muddler out for a swim. Minutes later a small fish grabs it. Don’t you swallow that thing, I think. It doesn’t. I grab the fly and twist it free. A few more six inch cutthroat, and a few more anxious moments; later a fish over twice that size nails the muddler. Knowing the chance of tying on another fly in the failing light of dusk is somewhere between slim and none, infuses the struggle with more excitement than it would have had under normal circumstances. I net the fish with great care and pluck the hook from its jaw. By nightfall four nice trout and somewhere around a dozen tads have mugged the little muddler. Enough fish to win my personal one-fly derby.