The cool water pressed against my hip boots, creating a feeling that can only be understood by someone who has waded in a fast-flowing stream or river. There is something about stepping into the water, entering the liquid world where fish live, that is strange and foreign, yet somehow refreshingly familiar and not at all unfriendly.
(Courtesy of King Montgomery)
Some years later, the water again licked at my boots. I planted my feet firmly and reminded myself not to wade deeper. I had already survived one water encounter of the near-death kind, and I didn't want history to repeat itself, particularly since there was no one around to pull me out this time.
The in-line spinner was a cheap knock-off of a Mepps and it swung in the current while I slowly turned the reel handle. The flashing lure stopped abruptly and I set the hook. A silver torpedo broke the water and headed skyward.
The waning sun journeyed slowly over the rocky, fir-covered mountains and casually threw broken shafts of light across the water. Dark soon, I thought, and I'll have to hike out of the steep river gorge in the blackness, but first there is this magnificent steelhead to contend with.
More leaps and powerful up- and downstream runs, and the fish tires. I lead her to the shore and beach her in a few inches of water. The brilliant radiance of the sea run rainbow trout was not lost in the twilight.
One more cast, I thought. I knew the game trail up the steep cliff, and in the exuberance of youth, the combination of dark, cold and steep did not seem to matter much. The spinner stopped at about the same spot as on the previous cast, and I hooked another beautiful steelhead.
I still had time for one more cast. It is always good to end an angling day with a fish. School tomorrow and it seems like I can't shake those miserable 8 a.m. classes.
More than 40 years later and I'm still getting a kick out of standing in cold running water. Neoprene waders, a warm synthetic cocoon, replaced the old rubber hip boots, but the sensation of the pulsing water is the same, only now it's much more familiar. It is getting close to sunset and I gaze through the bare trees at the modest embankment that leads to the road and my fishing truck. Momentary thoughts of a time long ago and miles away flow gently through my mind like a stream of reflection and I smile at the exuberance of age.
What the hell, one more cast!
The fly rod is now my instrument of choice, replacing the fiberglass spinning rods of my high school and college days. It sends the beadhead Prince Nymph to the head of the eddying current along the far bank. The nymph stops on its course, and the rainbow shakes its head as it jumps in the failing light.
It is not the wild steelhead of my youth, but rather a distant cousin born and raised in a hatchery and stocked several years ago. As I lead it to the net, I can't help but think that this fish, though spirited and vaguely pretty, is the price we pay for progress, and that our quest for a better, easier, and more comfortable life, has all but destroyed the places where wild, native trout live. But this little fish, more than better than nothing, is almost all we have left.
Just as the hatchery rainbow is to the wild steelhead, I am not who I was when I climbed out of the gorge of the Trinity River in the dark those many years ago. But even with a bullet-riddled leg, and despite the lingering effects of numerous recent major cancer surgeries, I knew I could make it up the modest embankment to the road in the dark.
I guess I haven't changed that much. My past carries along on its journey through time, and it still lives in me in the present. And I know it will extend to the future, however long that might be. I check the fly in the grayness, thankful for bifocals, and for trout. One more cast.
King Montgomery recently had ankle fusion surgery and he's not scrambling up any streamside banks for awhile. But he can still write about it.
Issue 1.27: October 26, 2006