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river fishing

Check Your Fly


Check Your Fly

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!"  



The Grind


Sometimes things get tough.  Work, parenting, marriage, finances.  We have all been there in one facet or another throughout our lives.  The unfortunate side effect is that sometimes when life gets tough fishing gets hard to come by.  Sometimes when your fishing, the fish get hard to come by.  My good buddy Rich and I had decided that we had, had enough of life and it was time to set things right by baptizing my new drift boat, and putting some fish in it.  Rich's dog Tucker joined us, as he has for many years now, to oversee the operation.  

We pushed out into the current and I pulled on the oars.  This was my first drift boat and my first time venturing out into moving water.  Moving water with lots of big rocks.  I back rowed along the bank to a nice shade line and Rich began picking apart boulder piles and logs in the crystal clear water.  

Several hours later, we had not even moved a fish.  I could tell by the current flow and low water things were going to be tough.  In my mind I began to doubt why I was even there.  My intent had been to show a good friend some good fishing and give him a new experience on the water.  Sure enough, it seemed this trip was shaping up to be the same as the life we were attempting to briefly leave behind.  A grind.

Rich is one of my best friends, and an experienced saltwater and freshwater fly angler.  He knew how the day was shaping up.  We both knew it.  However, instead of giving up and cursing the river god's, we set our jaws against the day.  We cracked a cold one, leaned on each others resolve and went to work.  We pounded rock piles, drifted ledges, and peppered deeper holes.  Nothing.  Not a follow, not a swipe, nothing.

We made the halfway point in our float, and with a thunder shower looming in the distance, I dropped anchor and we had lunch.  BLT's made with fresh tomatoes from the garden.  Tuckers ears perked from his command position on the deck as I opened a bag of chips.  My shoulder was throbbing and still weak from an injury months ago.  I silently cursed getting older.  With the first bite of my homegrown maters I forgot all about my shoulder as the taste of summer sun flooded my mouth.  We talked and ate and enjoyed the breeze.

Refreshed, we made our way around a big bend in the river where I had caught fish before.  I slid the boat across the swift current and smiled to myself at my improved rowing.  I came alongside the slower deeper boulder water at the edge of the main current and dropped the anchor.  Rich made a few casts and I surveyed the water.  I spoke up and told him to cast to the far ledge and just let the fly swing through.  Just as the black bunny leech passed over the the rock into a dark hole behind his line came tight. 

High fives and fist bumps didn't cover it.  The fish was so much more than either of us could express.  It wasn't just the first of the day, or the first smallmouth in my new rig, it was the culmination of months of hard work and never giving in.  It was our deep rooted resolve to never give up.  Never.  


We rolled down the river through a short thunderstorm.  Rain poured over us but nothing could extinguish the fire that had been stoked inside of us.  We knew we could do it.  We knew that no matter how tough it got, we would simply embrace the suck and find a way.  After the rain cleared out we were running short on time.  Life was calling, begging my return to keep my boys while my wife enjoyed a much needed girls night out.  I had one more spot in mind as we neared the final push to the take out.  

I handed Rich a 6wt with an airflo sink tip and a big rubber legged bugger I call the "Fat Albert".  He had figured out the game and began drifting that fly like a seasoned veteran.  I gave my advice on a likely spot and once again called my shot Babe Ruth style.  A small bartrams redeye bass had inhaled the fly.  

The light had come on for Rich.  He fully understood that drifting wasn't just for trout.  Moments later another smallmouth came to hand.  Small in stature but fierce for his size he never gave up, even managing wriggle away as I was taking a quick photo.  We shook hands knowing that was the end of the day.  We both remarked at the tenacity of that little bass.  Life doesn't give them a thing.  They work for every bit of their existence twenty-four hours a day.  It seems for all of us, life is a grind.