Fresh, Never Frozen

Gray’s Sporting Journal, March/April 2016, by Julie Lue

We parked in a pullout halfway between the high school and the grocery store, where the previous day I had bought a three-day non-resident fishing license and a glazed donut.

“This is embarrassing,” I told my husband.

“Worth trying,” Tony said.  He would fish any water that hadn’t recently come from a faucet, just to check.

I did that thing with my eyes but didn’t argue. It was spring. Maybe he was right.

We had left the Skwala hatch back home in Montana to visit family in western Colorado, and all the places we wanted to fish were either covered with snow or flowing as fast and dirty-looking as a convenience-store cappuccino.

But it still felt desperate to me, fishing that little creek running through town past the golf course, not half a mile from where I’d gathered up an armful of poufy white skirts, some years back, and teetered down the street to our wedding, stepping around the potholes in my satin shoes. I’d always viewed the creek as more of a pretty irrigation ditch. Locals used the stream to water their hayfields and orchards, and they walked the trail along its banks for exercise. It was the kind of place where, if you chose to get fancy and fly fish, you might snag a poodle with your back-cast.

Tony got out of the car and I made a deal with myself: The kids and I would try it. At least they could practice casting. But if Tony pulled out his waders—which looked altogether too serious, never mind the smell—we were heading back to my mom’s.

I slipped my fly rod in my pack and slunk down to the creek with the boys, who immediately got busy with their stick boats. At 9 and 12, they already knew their way around a creek (which, unlike me, they could call a crick with authority), and had hauled in plenty of fine fish on their barbless hooks. But fly fishing was something they took for granted, kind of like eating cereal or watching television. Sometimes they were in the mood for it; sometimes they weren’t. In our family, they would always have another chance.

Tony quickly strung his fly rod and disappeared upstream, essentially lost to us, I knew, until he forced at least one fish to give itself up. I kept my pack zipped and my hands in my pockets as I looked around.

Leaves hadn’t yet popped out on the trees, and I could see through a gray tangle of branches into the neighborhood on the opposite bank. Each year the area grew a little more developed, with some houses built, clearly by optimists, tight up against the water. One had a walkout basement that looked as if it would be a great place, during high-water years, to launch a kayak. But they had no worries at the moment. Snowpack was low, and most of the creek was running shallow. The chatter of the stream barely muted the bang and clatter of a garbage truck unloading a dumpster somewhere. As far as I could tell, the only serious water lay below a diversion, where it backed up dark and deep behind a small irrigation dam.

On a sunny, shirtsleeves day in late March, sure, it was worth trying.

While I was fitting together my three-piece rod, a grizzled old guy wearing a red T-shirt and a baseball cap limped into my peripheral vision. An ancient Lab with a salt-and-pepper muzzle walked by his side, placing each paw carefully, wagging its tail slowly.

I leaned down to greet the dog, and its wag speed increased. Another friendly local.

“Some big fish in here,” the man told me. I decided to humor him, and we contemplated the murky pool together. On past visits I’d seen a kingfisher or two parked in the trees above, but that day the limbs were bare. The man turned to look me in the eye. “Caught a seventeen-and-a-half-incher down by the dam.”

Hmm. Specific measurements don’t constitute proof. Still, maybe I should work out the kinks a little before passing my fly rod to the kids. I finished tying on my dry fly and gave the clinch knot an extra tug. Big fish or not, I hate finding that little curlicue at the end of the tippet when my knot fails.

The man drifted away, and I tossed my fly toward the head of the pool. When I looked back, another old man, all gray and khaki, stood on the trail just upstream, patiently waiting for me to notice him. I stopped casting so he could pass. Instead, he stepped forward to talk, smiling a little, as if he bore news of a small but pleasant surprise.

We chatted for a few minutes about the usual stuff—no, I hadn’t caught anything; yes, the rivers were still a mess; and by the way, did he know anything about the fish in that little creek? He said the high school biology teacher had gotten together with one of the wildlife agencies and shocked the area by the dam, and they had found some surprisingly large trout. I felt my eyes widen a bit. Two confirmations.

I probably should have let the boys fish then, but they were still content, performing a tightrope walk on the boulders lining the trail. Didn’t Oprah tell me I should put myself first? And where was Tony, anyway?

Nothing was feeding on the surface, so I tied a beadhead below my useless dry fly and dropped it near the opposite bank. Almost immediately the whole thing was sucked down into a vortex and my lightweight rod bent double. Something surged out of the water and flopped back in with a splash, immediately transforming the pool’s glassy surface into a frothy, heaving mess. Clearly, that creek was growing more than alfalfa and amazing peaches. I let out my customary big-fish shriek, and Tony came trotting down the trail.

I managed to tow the fish close enough to see it was a big rainbow. Bigger than, ahem, the rainbow I’d caught on the Bitterroot River the week before. Bigger, in fact, than any rainbow I’d ever caught. But I couldn’t bring it in. When it was nearly within reach, my rod took a funny turn, and the fish disappeared into deep water. In less than a minute, the pool once again shimmered like a dirty mirror, dark and quiet. No signs of life.

When I handed off my rod to the kids—I know, mother of the year—I found the rainbow had gotten its revenge. My three-piece had become a four-piece, well beyond the restorative powers of duct tape. The boys had to borrow Tony’s gear, which they used to catch a few nice trout in some highly improbably shallows.

With a twinge, I tucked my splintered fly rod in its little case so I wouldn’t have to look at it. Every broken road deserves a period of mourning, but there’s no point in dwelling on tiny tragedies.

After all, it was a cheap rod. I had an extra in the car. And I had almost caught a really big rainbow.

Tony and I gathered the kids and walked back to the parking area. Just uphill was the grocery store; we could be there in a minute. Another donut and I’d probably feel okay.