I Can Die Happy

I Can Die Happy…

By Daniel J Rice 

What is actually required for a man to speak those words and mean it?  Is it reaching the end of a long successful career?  Is it starting a family, continuing a heritage, prolonging your blood line, holding your great grandchild in your arms?  Is it seeing your favorite music band live in concert from the front row?  Is it making love to the woman of your dreams?  Is it experiencing some form of exhilarating thrill that makes your entire being pound with jubilation? 

These are all grandiose themes by which modern mortal men live by, but then there is also the simpler synaesthetic perfection of a day which only men of the anglers breed can ever achieve.  It is an achievement which occurs on the water, but is spawned by the way that man lives, what is in his heart and in his mind, it is the result of the lifestyle he pursues… 

I awoke this particular morning in our cabin, that is what my girlfriend and I call the least used room in our house.  The walls are decorated with angling art, both purchased paintings and framed photographs, complete with an old woven creel and bamboo rod topped by a worn out full brim fishing hat.  The shelves in the room are crowded with books written by both contemporary and classic authors of the anglers sport, some literary, some technical.  Fly fishing is both a sport and an art, for it does have a goal, a pursued idea of victory common to all sports, but it is also a method for quiet introspection, a place for discovery, a place where you can find yourself alone, where the matrix of your thoughts is silenced, and you hear nothing but the movement of the water and the soothing sound of a fly line cutting through the air.  It is a place where you can escape and be found at the same time.  Sometimes the victory is a state of mind, other times it is a manifestation in the physical format of a fish.

It was a good morning, we both woke up in time to see the sun rising through the window, and hear the birds of spring chirping their delightful vernal tunes.  Two hours later we emerged from the bedroom completely ready for a great day, (for details on those two hours I suggest reading the accompanying story found in Penthouse Magazine ;-).  I spent the rest of the morning fixing my lawn mower and cutting the grass while she went to the store to stock up on groceries for our first camping trip of the year.  The greatest pleasure of working with your hands is that it affords your mind time to roam freely, and mine was content with the thoughts that my Anglers Anxiety Syndrome was about to be cured.

Anglers Anxiety Syndrome is that feeling familiar to all anglers of northern climates.  It begins with the first snow, the first ice, and continues to marinate through the long cold months when all you have to get by on are memories from fishing seasons past.  Sure there is the temporary relief during the winter of finding an open stretch of river where we can wander out into the chilling water in frozen waders and spend most of our time blowing into our cold hands and scraping ice off the eyelets of our rods.  I can only speak for myself on this matter, but after those days I usually end it with an increased desire for warm weather and more productive fishing conditions.  The closer to spring we get the more intense the anxiety becomes as we start to consider all the new places to cast a line this year, and all the old favorites we can’t wait to revisit.

After my household chores were complete and my girlfriend returned home I promptly began assembling my camping and fishing gear which had been stored relatively unused for nearly six months.  Note to self, it is better to organize such things at the end of the season and save yourself the rushed attempt at putting everything in order the morning of your first trip.  After scratching my head and scrambling around gathering things up I was finally ready to go, so we got in my Jeep and headed west out of town. 

In less than an hour drive we arrived at our destination along the North Platte River in central Wyoming.  I’m not going to tell you the exact location for reasons any angler can understand.  I will offer hints for those who are familiar, or for those who are resourceful enough to find it.  It was still early spring, yesterday there was blowing sleet and snow, but even though today was a beautiful 60 degree sunny day we only saw two other anglers in five miles of public river.  We pulled up to the pay box and paid our camping fee, then continued on down the dirt road to scout out a camp site.  We found a nice quiet spot where the river broadened out to a pond-like stillness.  There was a meadow of tall brown grasses and sage brush, booby trapped with scattered cow pies; this is where we made our camp.

After camp was set and we were all settled in I cracked open a beer and sat along the shore watching for indicative insects and listening for a wind.  My girlfriend pulled out her folding chair and sat quietly reading from a book by Annie Proulx.  After I drank down the final suds of my beer I kissed my girlfriend on the forehead, told her I’d be back before dark, then put on my waders and fishing vest, grabbed my 9 ft. 6 wt. fly rod, and headed downstream.

This part of the river is a stretch less than ten miles long between two reservoirs, maintained at a fishable flow of less than 100 cubic feet per second, with an average width of 30-40 feet.  It was only my second visit to this section of river, so I decided I would head down to a hole I had attempted to fish last time.  On that previous excursion the fishing was not in my favor, but I knew there were fish in this hole, so I thought I’d give it another try.  That is one result of not catching fish which I appreciate, the fact that it instills in me a greater ambition to come back and achieve victory on the next visit. 

I walked along the shoreline, downstream with the current, losing my thoughts somewhere beneath the transient surface in that underwater realm of mystery.  I began to see crickets hopping through the grasses, this frustrated me because just the previous day I had reorganized my fly boxes, (finally!), and designated a small box strictly for terrestrials.  However, thinking it was too early in the season for grasshoppers, I left that box at home somewhere in the mess that surrounds my fly tying desk.  I began to doubt all my reasoning, telling myself I should be prepared for whatever conditions I may encounter on the river.  But conditions create such a myriad of possibilities that I could never be prepared for them all, so I will have to work with what I’ve got.  Is the ultimate goal of a seasoned angler refined methods and equipment suitable to the unpredictable conditions of any given river on any given day?

When I came within view of the hole I intended to fish I cringed at the site of the two anglers we had passed downstream standing along the shoreline, one with a line in the water, the other standing to his side apparently offering advice.  I shook it off, made a wide courteous loop around them, and continued downstream.  I continued walking over the cobble stones of the flood plain for about another quarter mile when I came upon a slow deep stretch of water which I would normally pass, but presently had several large trout rising to the surface.  I crouched down, looped around downstream, and then walked back up slowly and silently until I was within casting range.  I knelt on one knee behind the sparse cover of willow branches still bare from winter, and I observed the water.  There were small snow flies, size 22 or smaller, in great abundance, and there were also scattered Mayflies, dun colored in about a size 18.  Being that I didn’t have any small dries in a size 22 or smaller I opted with a pattern I had tied which almost identically matched the larger Mayflies present. 

Once I was rigged up I waded cautiously into the stream.  I could only get about two feet from shore before the substrate turned from shallow water with solid slimy cobble, to chest deep or greater with a soft silty bottom.  I had to be careful not to slip and slide on the rocks and cause too much disturbance.  There were still several fish rising in this run, often with fierce eruptions through the surface, momentarily breaking nature’s law which binds man to land and fish to water. Of the three fish I could identify, two of them appeared to be medium sized rainbows, and the third seemed incredibly large and also appeared to be a rainbow.   I watched for several more minutes before making my first cast, patience will bring prosperity; so I hoped, so I attempted to convince myself. 

I calmed my nerves, attempted to put things into perspective, then made my first cast at an angle across the river, dropping my fly about five feet above where I had last seen the larger of the three fish rise.  Once my fly landed on the water I couldn’t distinguish it from the natural  ones floating by, so I continued through my first drift and then attached a small strike indicator about four feet up the leader from my fly.  I cast out again, in approximately the same location, now I had a better idea which fly was mine. 

The fish continued to rise, I watched their heads poke through the surface, then saw their large colorful bodies roll through the water followed by a splash of their spotted tails.  It appeared to me that they were eating every fly except mine.  I stripped my line in, then I held my palm in the water and waited for one of the naturals riding the current to cling to my skin.  I compared it to my imitation, seemed pretty damn close, even to my eyes which were aware of the scheme.  The problem with dry flies in slow or still water is that the fish have longer to view them, more time to watch for natural (or unnatural) movements, more time to see the wiggle of a tippet or the sparkle of a hook point.  Also the artificial fly will absorb more water per foot of river travelled than in swifter currents, thus decreasing its distance of floatability. 

Another issue I was facing was that this occurrence of insects on the surface was due to an emergence, not an oviposit, so the fish had time to watch the naturals swim up from the bottom and rest their legs on the surface tension as they dried their wings.  My fly came from above, as if in an ovipositing action.  Still, I thought, if I get my fly to land upstream far enough from a feeding trout, but not too far that it will be drowned by the time it reaches the feeding lane, then the fish shouldn’t know whether it had landed five feet upstream or emerged there.  It appeared the fish knew more than I thought.

These were big fish, old fish, meaning to me they had probably encountered a hook or two in their life.  I’m not sure what a fishes’ memory is, but it seems safe to assume that the more times a fish has been hooked the more skeptical of its next meal that fish becomes.  Maybe this isn’t the case at all, maybe the fish are naturally more intelligent than we give them credit for.  Whatever the reasons for my fly being ignored, I gave this hole another twenty casts or so before deciding to move on upstream.  

I passed around the shallow side of the hole, muttering frustrations under my breath.  Battle number one was lost, but there were still a couple hours of daylight left for the war to march on.  At the upstream side of this deep hole was a shallower riffle, with extruding boulders scattered around the cross section creating nice pockets of slower water for the fish to relax in while they waited for a meal to pass bye.  I planted my feet along the right edge of water, about three feet from shore, took a look behind me for obstructions, there were several bare willows and tall dead grasses, so I planned my casting lane around the willows and over the grasses. 

There were still some emerging insects visible in this riffle, but I decided to change my rig to a nymph tandem.  I tied a size 16 Prince Nymph to my 9 foot 5X leader, then I placed a #4 split shot about 2.5 feet up from the fly, and then a small orange foam indicator another three feet up from there.  I removed my spool of 6X 3 lb. tippet from my vest pocket, cut off a 3 foot section, then attached that to the bend in the hook of my Prince Nymph by use of a complete cinch not.  To the other end of the tippet I used a twist and slip knot to attach a size 18 fly I designed, but had never yet fished, which closely resembles a hybrid between a Hare’s Ear and a Prince Nymph, except I use ostrich herl for the abdomen. 

I placed my first cast about thirty feet upstream in the center of the river, just above and to my side of a large boulder.  I watched my indicator drift perfectly around the boulder along the edge of where the current meets the eddy, and continue to drift unmolested downstream.  I let my line continue until it was tight, then used the tension to sling-shot my line back up in one motion and land in approximately the same spot.  I knew there had to be a fish in this pocket, just figured maybe she wasn’t ready for the first cast so I’d give her another try.  My fly drifted uninterrupted through the run once more, so I placed my next cast on the far side of the same boulder; nothing.  I took several steps towards the center of the channel so I could reach a boulder on the far side, placed a cast several feet upstream of it so my fly had time to settle before reaching the pocket behind the boulder, let it drift along the crease in the current all the way to the tail end of the run, but there were no takers.  

After fishing through that run for several more casts I moved upstream to the next section of boulders.  I fished them all the same way, the way I believed they were supposed to be fished, to no prevail.  I decided to make one last cast through this riffle before moving upstream to see if those other two anglers had left my hole.  My flies landed three feet upstream of a boulder near the center of the channel, drifted down and slowed as they neared the crease of the pocket water, then as the indicator caught the main current they sped back up and continued to drift downstream towards the end of the run which was marked by another boulder that was the same distance from me as the amount of line I had out.  My indicator approached the downstream boulder, I was done, the fish had won this battle as well.  I raised up the tip of my rod to cast upstream and reel in my line, but my line wouldn’t budge, I had snagged the upstream side of the boulder. 

I turned towards the boulder, keeping my line tight, and attempted to pull it out from under the rock.  Just as I did so I saw a good sized trout go racing upstream from that location.  “Shit!” I thought but maybe said out loud, as I decided that I must have hooked that fish but then let him get wrapped around a rock and freed, still thinking that I had only snagged a rock.  Then that same fish circled back downstream in a frantic motion, crossing right over where my line appeared to be snagged.  It was then I noticed an even larger fish holding to the bottom, at the end of my line!  I took a deep breath, was I ready for this fish?

I held my rod firmly in my right hand, and gave the line a light tug to test the strength of my hook set, seemed solid, so I took a couple steps downstream in the direction of the fish, keeping my line tight and the tip of my rod towards the center of the stream so I would pull the fish up before it made its way downstream and got wrapped up in the boulder directly behind it.  As soon as I had made a couple steps in the direction of the fish it bolted upstream along the far shore.  I raised up my rod tip to allow my line to pass over the boulders between us.  I hadn’t yet been able to discern the species of this fish, all I knew is that it was big, well over twenty inches, and that I was going to land her.

As the fish on my line bolted upstream like a torpedo, I noticed the other fish I had identified as a rainbow trout following it full speed.  I had never seen this before, usually any other fish in a hole go the opposite direction of a hooked and frenzied trout.  Maybe the fish on my line was a carp, had to be a carp I thought for that size.  Maybe the trout was chasing it, taunting it, saying things in fish language like, “You silly carp getting hooked by an artificial fly, that’s what you get for invading our river!”

My fly line was buzzing out of my reel, making a screeching sound which is probably similar to a fish as the sound of a hovering pterodactyl coming in for a kill was to the prehistoric cave man.  I tightened up my drag a little, then attempted to follow the fish upstream as I slipped and tripped over the large slick cobbles in the bottom of the river.  The fish had stopped to rest in a pocket along the other side of the river, I walked along the opposite shore until I was above it, I figured if I was pulling it against the current it would tire quicker. 

As I passed by the fish I saw it turn in the water, I saw its large rainbow silhouette glimmer in the reflection of the sunlight, and I likely had a minor heart attack in that moment of elation.  This was it, this was going to be my catch, the one I would remember, the one I had fished a lifetime to achieve.  That’s the funny thing about achievement, I thought while gripping my rod firmly in my right hand, your achievement isn’t always directly correlated to your ability.  I had been able, or so I boasted myself into believing, to catch a fish like this for quite some time, I just had yet to achieve it.  That’s when I decided that fishing is a game of chance, combined with skill.  You need the developed skill and know-how to even hook into a fish like this with an artificial fly, but it takes the chance encounter with cards in your favor for your fly to be placed at the right moment in front of the right fish, and for that fish to decide it chooses to attack your hook.  I realized I was getting ahead of myself as the fish went rushing downstream, sending my fly line chasing after it with the screaming of my reel; the fish wasn’t landed yet!

I crossed over the river to the side that the fish was on as I followed it downstream.  I was approaching that deep hole I had been fishing earlier when it occurred to me that this was likely the same large fish I had seen rising there, and that after the hatch had receded it decided to swim upstream where it encountered my fly.  Had it already been full from the emerging nymphs and adults it had consumed, and as it passed my fly just randomly thought one more couldn’t hurt? 

I continued downstream along the left edge of water, the fish was now deep beneath the surface, dragging the bottom of a hole that had to be seven feet deep.  My rod was arced up over my head.  I glanced around behind me at the desolate landscape, wondering if anyone was witnessing my battle, but there were no eyes to be seen, no eyes to impress, no eyes to distract.  I pulled my wooden net, which has a sixteen inch span, out of my belt and let it dangle from its rope while floating in the river behind me.  I walked slightly downstream from where my leader plunged into the depths and gave it some pressure.  It occurred to me that I hadn’t yet identified which fly the fish had taken.  I hoped it was the Prince, as this was the most secure being tied directly to the leader, and not the Ostrich Hare, as this had two additional knots between the fish and myself, not to mention that it was only a 3 lb. test and this fish was well over that by itself, plus the force of the current.  I gave my line another pull to reinforce my confidence, it still felt solid as the fish responded.  She started to rise up towards the surface, I gripped my net in my left hand as I raised the rod in my right, but she wasn’t done.  She peeled off downstream with such strength that my reel had a hard time keeping up, so I loosened the drag and started to follow.  Then I noticed a large clump of debris in the river downstream, and the fish was heading right for it.  I tightened my drag, couldn’t let the fish get tangled up in that mess, it would be lost for sure.  I planted my feet, this is where the fish would be landed.  Win or lose this was my last stand.

I tightened up my drag, knowing it was risky, and held the fish firmly against the weight of the water between us.  Slowly I began to retrieve line, slowly the fish responded by moving towards me.  Once there was only about six inches of fly line plus the length of my leader between us I began to raise my rod, net in hand once more, and pull the fish towards me.  I watched her rise from the darkness like a giant chest of sunken treasure.  I couldn’t believe this was happening, trout aren’t supposed to get this big in rivers this size.  I was standing in water up to my knees as I pulled the fish towards me again.  As soon as she was within reach I knelt down and swooped at her with my net.  I took a sigh of relief as my net made contact.  I began to lift her up out of the water, her wet slimy tail was flapping against my left hand on the butt end of my net, and her head was extended well out past the far end of the net as her body lay across the opening.  I pulled her up to the surface thinking she would fold over and slide into the netting, but she wasn’t going to fit easily.  It was then I saw that she had taken the lower fly, the one I had designed and tied myself, the one attached to the weaker link, and I felt a moment of satisfaction.  She shook off from the frame of the net just as her body made contact with the air, and down she went back into the depths, taking a gasp of my breath with her.

My net was too small!  I decided that I would have to land her head first into the netting, which I knew was risky because the frame of my net could graze the line and pull the hook from her mouth.  I had to approach her downstream, in deeper water, and get her to swim into it.  The water was cold as it slid over the top of my waders and poured down my body to my toes.  I was standing ten feet below her.  I raised my rod once more and pulled her towards me.  She pulled back, but upon realizing she could only go so far she turned and headed towards me.  I detached the net from its tether and held it as far beneath the surface as I could.  I directed her with my rod and she swam head first directly into my netting. 

My heart was thumping as I walked back to shore, pulling my fish-full net alongside me just beneath the surface.  I knelt down along the shore and placed the net in several inches of water to keep her wet and alive.  I was euphoric as I reached inside my waders, into my wet pants pocket, and pulled out my cell phone to take a picture.  I lifted her up, placed her on the rocky shore, and took one photo.  I lay my rod along the shore as I removed the hook easily from her jaw.  I lay my net on shore beside my rod and carried the fish beneath the surface back out into the center of the channel.  I held her face first into the current, left hand gently under her belly, right hand gripped firmly around her tail.  I gave her a slow rejuvenating back and forth motion, allowing the dissolved oxygen in the water to pass through her pulsating gills.  Several times she gave a weak effort to pull away, but she wasn’t ready yet so I held on tightly.  I considered keeping her, I imagined the look on my girlfriends face as I showed her what I brought back for dinner.  Or I could mount this fish on the wall above the fireplace and have bragging rights for years. 

I continued to hold her beneath the surface as I felt her strength returning, then I released my grip from her tail and watched her swim down into the depths and disappear into the darkness.  I whispered, “Thank you,” as I walked back to shore with a dizzy feeling in my head.  As my feet stepped back onto dry land I took off my hat and gave a loud, “Woohoo!” into the empty air.  I reached into the back pouch of my vest, pulled out a beer can, then sat on a boulder along the shore to bask in my glory.  I took a look 200 feet upstream to where I had first hooked the fish about 30 minutes ago, and thought the distance of river and time it took to land the fish will never compare to the distance this memory will last in my mind.

About halfway through my beer I saw a large fish rise up to an insect near the front end of this deep pool, and was pleased at the thought that this was possibly the fish I had just released, already healthy enough to start feeding again.  After finishing the beer I removed the flies from my line and began to walk back to camp.  I passed the same two anglers still fishing the same hole as when I had passed them coming down.  This time I passed a little closer to them.  The one who appeared to be a guide still standing over the shoulder of the other whispering advice turned to me and asked, “How’s the fishing down there?”  I replied, “There’s been some light action on the river today.”  Though I tried to maintain a modest sound in my voice I wonder if he noticed the illumination in my steps and knew that I was keeping something from him.  I walked back towards camp, with my head high into the setting sun.           

When I came over the final hill I could see our camp, swamped in a fading light.  Cliff swallows were swooping low over the water gathering emerging insects, there were large migrating Pelicans swimming lazily in the pond, and a giant beaver scurrying up the far shore.  My girlfriend already had a small fire started getting ready to prepare dinner.  As I approached I tried to hide the smile inside me, and when I was within speaking distance my girlfriend said to me with her own joyous smile, “I just had the most amazing walk, I crossed over the footbridge dangling between the canyon walls and climbed all the way up the other side to look down into the river, then when I returned there was a bald eagle soaring right over my head through the canyon.”  I glanced upstream towards the canyon, that deep scar in the face of a landscape which had been weathered away by the river of time, I saw the shadows creeping up the eastern wall as the sun descended to the west.  She asked me how my day was.  I replied, “I can die happy.”

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