I was like a kid in a candy store, frantically looking about at all the delicious varieties and flavors that surrounded me. Longing to taste every single one, and knowing, at least on this trip, that it was impossible. Yet my heart just wouldn't accept what my head already new. I was going have to make some tough choices, and leave some of those delicious treats behind for another time. There was just simply no way we could taste every current seam, sample every pool, or partake of all of the tempting piles of boulders strewn throughout the river. My companion for this adventure, my long time fishing partner of some 30 years now, Nate, was equally distracted. We had about 6 miles of river neither of us had ever seen before. Our hopes were further elevated by the knowledge that it contained both smallmouth and striped bass. Nate had never caught either of these on fly, and he was determined to get one or the other, or maybe both.
After the first 100 yards or so, we began to settle into a rhythm. My focus narrowed as I picked a line that put Nate in casting range of where I thought the fish should be. It was on a backhand cast behind a small pile of rocks that the first fish struck. I saw him move from behind the rocks in the broken current and inhale the black sculpin streamer. Nate set the hook and the fish went wild with end over end jumps and spit the fly back at the boat. We laughed loudly. The day held nothing but promise, and we had miles to go.
On the next fish, Nate stayed connected and he landed his first ever smallmouth on fly. He commented that he couldn't believe how strong they were for there size. We shook hands and smiled. Those smiles reflected years of crawdad fishing with hotdogs, lazy days floating creeks for redbreasts, and late evenings on too many ponds to remember. Over the last 30 years, I had been there for his first redfish on fly, his first snook in the everglades, and now his first smallmouth bass. I was so busy basking in the glow of our success, that I failed to check the fly before we continued down the river.
The sink tip, although rather horrible to cast, was doing well at keeping the rabbit and deer hair sculpin down in the water column. Occasionally we would snag a boulder or submerged log, but that only told me the fly was in the zone. As Nate erratically stripped the fly along a current seam next to a swirling eddy, a nice chunky fish rolled on the fly and with a single jump came unhooked. I stood and announced that it was my turn to show him how its done. We swapped places and floated on down a small piece of good looking water. I fished on a bit without any luck when suddenly a fish darted from cover in some push water above a ledge in the river. I set the hook and after a brief fight he was off.
We swapped again as we were approaching a little more technical water that Nate wasn't yet comfortable rowing. I dropped the boat down throw a small chute and then began ferrying us across the shoal as Nate stripped and swung the fly through likely haunts. I looked away for a moment downstream to assess our drift, and suddenly heard a large splash. I snapped my head around just in time to see the bass, a solid chunk of bronze in the 3 to 4 pound class, breach the waters surface again. The fish turned and tried to go under the boat, but Nate held her off. She then drove herself back towards the boulders from where she had come. Nate was holding on tight and trying his best to put just enough pressure on her to keep her out of there. Suddenly the fly snapped out of the water and his rod went straight. Nate sunk into his seat shoulders slumped. After a quiet moment, and without looking at me he said, "That was a big girl." It was only then that I asked to see the fly, and as I looked the hook over my heart sunk. The hook tip was bent and mashed, and about as sharp as a spoon.
I changed the fly to something similar, but tied with lead eyes in more of a slider pattern. This allowed the hook to ride up, and would hopefully help keep the hook point nice and sticky. I tried to encourage Nate, but I could tell it had little effect. He was crushed, and I felt like I had failed him. We passed under a bridge and before I could speak my thoughts out loud Nate was already dropping the fly into the swirly water below the bridge piling. Nate stripped hard as he snatched the rod to his side. It was a nice 15 inch fish, and he quickly came to the net. He picked the fly up and rolled it right back along the same line. This time the fish hooked itself as it turned hard on the fly when it swung downstream. I lost count of how many times the fish jumped. We never said a word during the entire fight. Nate just kept tight to the fish and let the rod do the work. As the fish slid into the net we erupted with excitement. Fist pumps and high fives all around. The fish wasn't the monster we had lost, but she was certainly a fine representation. After a few photos we released her. I surveyed ahead for our next drift, and as I reached for the anchor I paused and said, "Lemme see that fly!"