By David Anderson
We’d fished the entire day and caught nothing. Until that final cast.
Just a stone’s throw from where the Little Michelle River intersects the much bigger Nisqually, there’s a pool, deep and dark, a back-eddy created by a bend in the broad and otherwise very rapidly moving water.
Stream and river fishing is my favorite because at least if you don’t catch anything something’s moving if only the water.
It was late in the lazily sleepy afternoon and we’d expended some serious effort to use the small hand net hanging from the creel at my waist for something, anything, but we never had occasion to get it wet.
And it was time to go.
The yellow-and-black bumble-bee fly in the tackle box was worth a what-the-heck try so I gave it a shot, casting the line out into the swift water and gently pulling so it would drift back into the pool like I’d done numerous times before.
Immediately the line became taut, snagged for sure on the rocky bottom and I tugged back in an attempt to free the hook.
All hell broke loose.
Like a runaway locomotive, the biggest summer-run steelhead I’d ever seen rocketed from the black water with a brilliantly-contrasted flash of silver, a spray of droplets showering near our feet, and with that grand appearance the greatest battle ever waged in my entire fishing lifetime had begun.
Only four-pound-test mainline connected me to the monster maybe three times that in weight all of which had taken off — and up — mainstream, the rush of the roiling river no match against the incredible power stripping line from reel which screamed in protest, friction burning my thumb in an instinctive but feeble attempt at a brake. In only fractions of a second it had become way too late to set the mechanical drag which, in hindsight, would have snapped the line anyway had I done so along with my nerves.
Dragged is what I was, stumbling over the boulder-strewn shoreline, trying to keep up as horror-stricken I saw the end approaching: so few turns of line remained on the blurring and spinning reel.
Then for some reason they stopped – the fish and the reel.
Mystified but appreciative, I began retrieving line, still stumbling, still wending my way and winding my line until once again we were even. He wasn’t caught yet but at least I had caught up. A quarter-mile upriver from where we started we now engaged in a stand-off, him somewhere in yet another dark pool, I happily still attached but not knowing what to do about it.
That’s when all hell happened again.
The fish decided.
He took off downriver.
Maybe that’s why they call this game fishing. I got the feeling the fish liked this game of tag/tug-of-war.
And spinning reel. Because it was. Screaming too.
Absolutely everything we, the fish and I, had already done we did again. Streaking monster, burning thumb, stumbling over boulders until we returned to the very same pool where it seemed like an eternity before we had just left.
Keeping tension — meaning my line and me — I suggested to my wife that she unhook the now very-much-woefully, infinitesimally small net that had been wildly banging about my knees.
“Then what?” she asked.
She’d accompanied me up river, and down. She was aware, very much aware, of what we were dealing with, lurking there in the depths.
A little perturbed, given what I’d just been through, I said, with not much regard for her welfare since to me the next step was abundantly obvious, “Just keep the line over your shoulder and follow it down into the water and grab him,” never minding the fish-to-net size differential, nor for that matter the ratio of depth-of-pool to height-of-wife.
Dutifully she went.
If there were one picture I wish had been taken, as if that were a possibility even if I had had a camera, it was this one.
It was truly a Norman Rockwell comic moment. Hip-boots fisherman; fly-scattered hat; odds-and-ends vest; antique creel and maybe a corncob pipe; pole bent double, a silver sliver of a line stretching down and into a deep, dark pool.
And a wife, arms wide and eyes wider still, white-knuckling a tiny, tiny net, and up to her ankles wet.
It was inevitable really when you think about it. Which is what we did — thought about it — collapsed in exhaustion on the river bank.
The line went slack. Without a word but disappointed beyond words I knew in the flash of that instant — like the flash of streaking silver that had begun this adventure — the fish was gone.
He had spit the hook.
I kept that black-and-yellow bumble-bee fly as a memento until one day on another stream or maybe it was a lake — I forget now – I decided to give it another what-the-heck try. I lost it. Stuck somewhere on a rocky bottom I suppose.
We sat there in the late summer afternoon sun, neither of us saying anything, looking out over the river.
That’s how we saw him. One more time. Like a rocketing runaway train, the biggest summer-run steelhead I’d ever seen stood on his tail out in the middle of his watery world, his silvery-sides contrasting brilliantly against the darkness of the far river bank, a shower of droplets captured, frozen, forever etched in our memory as he waved good-bye.
Thankfully, we never did get an opportunity to use that net.
And thanks to Bob Deffinbaugh in adapting the title of something he wrote: “How to Hook a Fisherman.”