By Ben Moyer
The COVID-19 pandemic has spawned a million stories, none of which were expected just a solstice ago. While I won’t pretend this story arose from heroic sacrifice or loss, like so many others, it’s a story nonetheless, and feels significant to me.
June 20 was to be my son and his fiancee’s wedding day in a faraway state where they live. But COVID-19 derailed their plans, backup date undetermined.
I resolved that if I could not celebrate my son’s marriage, I should do something else memorable on the day, as token acknowledgment of the disrupted union. I decided to fish the river.
I don’t fish the river often. It’s big, intimidating, and, looking across its brawling reach, it’s tough to know how to start. Small streams are a stronger draw; I like the intimacy and feeling confident in my tactics.
On the river, a broad flat is wadable in low water, like we’ve had, and I’d seen a party fishing there two days before. They were drifting flies and catching trout – rainbows; I saw them jumping – in the channel along the far eastern shore, which meant they’d waded nearly the entire breadth.
But the river had risen, and when I tried to reach that far goal, water lapping my chest-waders, I felt lifted toward rapids below. “Can’t make it,” I huffed. So, I trundled back across the flat and climbed out.
Deflated, I cast one last look across to the far bank and I saw a fish rise, but in the skinny water, halfway across, where I’d easily trod.
That rise felt like a gift, and I waded back out to casting distance. Word along the river was that an olive caddis was the fly, but the trout hadn’t heard. My caddis rode all over that flat without tempting a gulp.
I concluded to show them something they don’t see every day and tied on a leggy hopper with a deer hair head. My first cast with that big wind-sail was awkward. The bug splatted down about 12 feet upstream, and loops of errant line hung all around. I was trying to regroup when a big snout rolled over the hopper within reach of my rod.
A moment like that has few parallels. You’ve achieved what you came for, meaning a trout rose and ate your fly, but your gear is so disheveled, and your wits so jangled that you’re as capable and potent as a 4X4 post.
By the time I got my line corralled to lift the rod, I couldn’t believe my blind luck that the fish was on, and it was boring downriver like one of the freights that run the eastern bank. I surrendered almost all the slack, then apprehended a horror.
The last loop was coiled around the handle of my wading staff. If I couldn’t free it before the fish exhausted my slack, my 5X tippet would ping.
Somehow, I freed the loop and got the fish on the reel. In my style of fishing, there’s not much call for palming the reel and adjusting the drag mid-fight, but that’s what this fish needed. But it was wide-open water, with no snag-hazards and I started to believe my blind luck would hold.
When I finally eased the fish close and lifted it along the inside of my forearm, I admired a gorgeous big brown trout, coppery-gold, studded with jet-black spots.
Later, I saw another rise directly upstream in the narrow glint of sky between the hills’ reflections. This cast was more credible, and another big hook-snout rolled over the hopper. My lift that time was deft, and that fish, too, bulled downriver, right past me.
This is where it got good. Palming the reel and feeling the trout’s strength, I scanned around to soak it in. The crisp-green of early summer-cloaked rising hills, and the river tugged cool around my thighs.
As far up and down the river as I could see, only one other person was in sight – a yellow mound atop a kayak far upstream, just rounding the bend.
The fish was another brown, even bigger, with deeper, coppery-red dominating its hue. The black spots seemed to have no surface. They appeared as infinite deep holes.
Of course, I’d have preferred to be watching my son commit to his matrimonial vows. But deprived of that choice, I felt pleased at using the day well. I’d found a rare kind of success at something outdoors I rarely do. An unforeseeable miasma of worldwide contagion, a fortuitous trout rise, a second try, and random luck had brought two memorable fish to hand for release.
I’ll tell my son about all this in the spirit it was intended, my way of nodding to their disrupted day, yet unaltered love.