It was back to the river this afternoon. Conditions were identical to yesterday: overcast, 40 degrees and--miraculously--no wind. I have to keep reminding myself that it's still January and not March. The last remnants of the ice are disappearing.
The river is running low, cold, and clear.
With the low water I can once again cover different sections. I hiked upstream from the bridge this afternoon to this stretch. It's a long glide, even now too deep to wade comfortably, although I could get across if I needed to--if I didn't step in one of the Volkswagen-sized potholes along its length. It was the depths of those potholes I was interested in plumbing.
I still had the black bugger on and began covering the glide with long, slow swings. When the fly reached about the center of that picture I felt three heavy pulls. I waited to see what would happen, and the fish let go.
I pondered my options. There are theories--oh, there are theories--about what to do in just such a situation. I chose to change flies and go back for him, although another theory says don't change flies and go right back for him (and yet another says rest the run for ten minutes, then go back for him--with whichever fly you please, I assume.)
I tied on an old Girdle Bug, of all things, because a) I came across it in the box first, 2) it had a red butt, and c) it had a bead head. I figured a little more color and depth couldn't hurt. I tied it so long ago that when I tried to straighten the rubber legs I broke three off. Oh well, go with a three-legged Girdle Bug.
I shortened line a bit and began casting my way back to the magic spot. This time I used the steelhead loop. My theory was that he had felt too much resistance. The steelhead loop is a loop of loose line held in front of the reel that acts as a kind of "shock absorber" allowing the fish to take line before the hook is set, and preventing jumpy fishers--excitable people, every one--from yanking the fly out of their mouths with a premature hookset.
The belief is--or the empirical data states--that a steelhead takes the fly in its mouth and carries it for a short distance--sometimes laterally, sometimes right toward you--before turning back down to its lie. If you try a hookset too soon you pull the fly out of its mouth. If you let him take it (with the loop) and turn with it, he'll hook himself.
I got another heavy pull. This fish never hit the fly; he just took hold of it and slowly but heavily pulled on it. What a cold water fish does, I presume. I found it every bit as electrifying as the smashing hit of a "hot" fish. So I just stood there and let the loop run out and--what the hell--I set the hook. I must have panicked. Pulled the hook right out of his mouth. I felt it scrape out. Add that to the proof data.
So I went right back, same fly. (See how much fun theories are?) Another long, heavy pull. I let him go...the loop was gone...he was taking line off the reel...and he turned, I raised the rod, and had him on. No more theory; real fish, real time, real good.
Then for awhile it was just me and him, the river and the sky.
I knew the heavy tippet would hold, but there's always the question of knots, and especially of where and how firmly the hook is set. But the Three-Legged Girdle Bug did itself proud, biting deep and hanging on like a three-legged bulldog.
It was a beautiful hatchery buck. I fervently hope that our rivers will be full of wild steelhead again some day, and I fervently hope to catch some of them still in the rivers. But today I was more than happy with this one. The whole day had been sepia-toned, and suddenly in the middle of it a little eruption of technicolor.
I worked over that glide again without moving anything. I hiked back down under the bridge as daylight was fading and worked that run without moving anything either. Now, there's a good chance that there were other fish there. But it feels to me that the one fisher and the one steelhead on the river today converged in some miraculous cosmic coincidence.
That's not a theory, by the way. It's something much more. Yesterday I wrote, after finally getting back on the water but not catching anything, that I felt like the moon when it's almost full. Well, there's a full moon risin' tonight.