Whip Finish


Ralph Long - Dec 02, 2013

The first bug left the water and took off like a lumbering Huey as it bounced and rotated upwards toward the awaiting safe haven of branches. The yellow glow of the fading light gave a brilliant contrast to the mahogany body as it appeared that the sanctuary of the trees was in reach. But obviously I was not the only thing in the ecosystem that was admiring the big mayfly as a swallow suddenly hit it with an agility only nature can provide, ending the small bugs flight and hopes of procreation. I stood there contemplating what had just happened, and in that short span of time the air became filled with swallows that were chasing more rising mayflies. The hatch was on. 

Quickly I turned to my tippet, and swapped patterns to match the current activity knowing there would be no time to lose in the brief moments ahead. The hatch did not let me down as fish after fish slammed my fly with gusto on nearly every cast over the course of the next 30 minutes. These were fish that I knew to be in the pool but I had not seen them until suddenly they materialized to join in the frenzy. It was fly fishing nirvana for a span of time in my trout seeking life and then it was over. The 16 inch cutthroat slipped from my hand with a tail-slap of gratitude and I was suddenly aware that the swallows were gone. Looking up across the pool the rings of rising fish were gone as well. Yet the feeling of exhilaration was still there, along with a memory that would be tucked away unknowingly in my piscatorial memory bank to be relived countless times.

That evening, on the Lewis River in Western Washington between the upper falls and Swift Reservoir, remains in my mind to this day even after 20-plus years of chasing fish from one coast to the other. Something about that day caused my mind to save it as a special nugget of gold-plated memory. There are others from countless waters and amazing hatches. Some include large fish, yet others are as simple and uneventful as could be imagined. All of which, for some reason, have been retained above the remaining countless hours spent on the water. I have often thought back exactly why that hatch was chosen? What triggered the permanent burn onto my mental hard drive? Putting my finger on the reason has remained elusive however, which at times haunts me, though it should just be accepted and remembered for what it was.

Oddly enough I fished that entire stretch of water dozens of times since that hatch, yet never saw that mayfly ever again. To the best of my knowledge it was a mahogany dun. But that is purely guess work since I'm pulling from memory and pictures only. I never really paused long enough to examine the fly. At the time, I pulled a like-sized dark bodied haystack pattern from my box, and began catching fish. Maybe it was the fact that it went so perfect. From the realization of the first bug I saw to the end of the hatch, everything went perfectly. In fact I would be lying if I tried to guess just how many fish I caught in that 30 minutes. It would be more than 10, and some were well over 16 inches, but beyond that I do not remember. I guess in the grand scheme of things it doesn't really matter.

It seems odd when we try to apply our own "values-at-a-glance" to our time on the water, since quite often we fall short in what really matters. Since only time will tell us what was really important, it is all speculation until we wade back from downstream in life. Surprisingly to us our minds fail to even twinkle at the memory of a big hook-nosed brown we caught back in 2005 along some spectacular water, yet we stand in awe when a particular sunset, a rise of a trout, or stream setting causes us to glaze over about a day when you remember catching a single beautifully spotted fish on some non-descript creek. Or when your child catching a fish puts you right back to the smell of a jar of salmon eggs and your own father's voice carried on the sounds of rushing water. Your subconscious knows what matters, even when your mind in the present does not. I doubt that we are supposed to know. It is for us to live our lives on the water in hopes that at some point along the way we can understand what it all means, and what it is that we will need downstream.

So it is now as I stand in the water under an overcast golden fall sunset. The swallows are swooping overhead and what looks like a Slate Drake hatch is coming off. My mind has already begun working in the present, telling my hands to tie on a size 12 Slate Drake Haystack. Yet as the wonderfully cold waters of the Pennsylvania mountain stream swirls around my waders I am no longer there. I am transported back to the shadows of Mount Saint Helens on the Lewis River and another obviously special moment in time.

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