July 30th, 2001

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
This is where our readers tell their stories . . .

Until Then

By Thomas C. Duncan, Sr.

It was just late morning when the brush parted and the old man stepped through. The water lying before him was quiet, unaware that he was there, and too busy in its wandering to take notice of him. A grey felt hat was pulled down low to prevent his being noticed, and he quietly made his way to the bank. Well-worn leather soles moved slowly and steadily in the damp grass and soil. Quickly and efficiently a rod was assembled and a reel attached.

The practiced hand reached into a breast pocket where a small glass prescription bottle held the flies for the day - or any day for that matter. Picking the right fly was simple because the old man only fished with one fly. His friend tied the perfect pattern as far as he was concerned; just the right amounts of brilliant tinsel, straight, stiff hackles, and a healthy dose of thick, vibrant peacock herl that looked alive as he held it in the sunlight. These elements gave it the priority status, and for his money, there were none other. A thin tippet poked through the eye of his selection, and a simple, durable knot was quickly added, tightened, and tested.

Well, let's see what we have. The old man pulled the well-dressed dark green line from the waiting spool and wiggled it through the tip where it lay in disheveled state in the water before him. A couple quick snaps of the wrist laid the line out in a manageable series of curves where it was then picked up, flying in a graceful bow behind his head. A forward movement forced the line toward the water where the loop opened again and laid the tiny fly gently in the center of the current to be viewed by the stream's occupants.

Before the fly had moved two rod lengths a white flash appeared below it, and a small mouth burst through the surface. Instinctively the old man sent a tightening move to the tip of the rod, and as quickly as he did, the prospective pursuant showed its tail and headed for safer regions. With a laugh, the rebuked angler reminded himself to be slower on the reaction next time, and began the process again. The fly laid out perfectly, but drifted unharmed. Again he cast, but adding another few feet of line. His extension was rewarded immediately with the rise of another trout to the surface. This time it was a split second longer before the line was pulled taut, and the battle began.

A spray of water danced across the surface as the angered prey shot through the firm and landed broadside in an attempt to shake free of the offending hook. The futility of the effort was brought to evidence by continued pressure as the line was held in a steady retrieve toward the shore. Another leap provided no less freedom, and the fish was soon swept into the hand of the waiting angler.

The man gently lifted the trout, not much greater than the length of his hand. It would serve to feed him this evening, and after a quick and painless dispatch, was lain gently in the grass. The old man took no pleasure in killing the creature, but there was a war on, and he had a wife and two children to feed. This was not simply pleasure-fishing. There was a stark purpose to it, and it had to be done correctly!

The fly was pressed between folds of the man's cotton handkerchief, and now dry and clean, was cast to the water again. Soon a pair of trout not much longer than the other joined their resting companion. Their end, too, was noble. This was all that was required for the evening's meal, and the rod was set aside.

Before the task of preparing the fish was started, the old man dusted off a stream-side log and sat to simply appreciate the surroundings. The sound of the rushing water, the mottled lighting effected by sunlight through the tall trees, and the smell of sweet grass were too enjoyable to rush away without pause for simple enjoyment. The trout were currently engaging themselves in some form of feeding. There were no discernible bugs on the water, but mouths frequently poked up to sweep something from the water in quiet, swift motion.

As he soaked in the afternoon, from the other side of the not-too-wide channel, a gleam attracted his attention. It might not have been anything, but years of searching the water had taught him to give attention to his instincts, so he focused his eyes on the area. Within a few brief seconds his concentration was rewarded with the view of a trout, no smaller than his forearm rolling to snatch something from just under the surface of the water. The old man still couldn't see anything for it to eat, but he couldn't miss the fish, its back was a shimmering emerald gleam, and a belly the colour of freshly churned butter. The red cheek and jaw belied its identification. It continued to slip out from under the protection of a fallen Oak limb to sip whatever was slaking its appetite, then returning to the protection of the branches.

There was no purpose in casting to this fish. Dinner had been caught, and work beckoned, but the appeal of deceiving this wary resident was becoming irresistible. Memories of his grandfather's stories of the Sea Trout in Scotland filled his mind. He could hear the brogue of his father's voice recalling the giants of the River Tay and nearby lochs. Time and imagination had surely caused both fish and the stories to grow incrementally, but this one was here! He began to rationalize himself closer to resuming his pursuit. Another rise brought the Cutthroat to his eyes, and the sheer temptation of the hunt was beyond his control. The rod was lifted from the bank and the plot was set.

The old man pulled his hat down low over his eyes and crept close to the edge of the water. He crouched low to the ground and held the long cane rod at a low angle. The trout rose again - it must not have seen me, he thought. The fly was rolled out cleanly on the water's surface at the perfect distance, and several feet upstream of the targeted lair. The leader straightened out as it neared the target, and as it reached the calm pocket of water, it carried a wide wake behind it. The trout turned its head and headed for the safety of the dark hideaway from which it had come. The old man furrowed his brow and retrieved the fly with a quick snap. He held the fly in his hand for a moment as he waited for the fugitive to return.

It seemed like an eternity, but in actuality took just a few moments until the eye barely peeked out from behind the fallen fortress. Wary and spooked now, the finned quarry carefully scanned the environs for the possibility of danger. The only peril present was a small, but obnoxious sculpin who had lurked into the larger fish's territory in search of any foods it might forage. In a second the bullheaded scavenger ceased its hunting to become the hunted. It could barely turn, though, before the big Cutthroat had snapped it up in its jaws and settled back from the more substantial meal. The fear had been assuaged or forgotten, and the old man began his quest again.

This time, be more subtle, he told himself. He cast the fly closer to the target with this presentation, and allowed a bit more slack to the line and leader. The gaze of the trout was elsewhere as the fly floated by, though, so another cast was required. This time, the fly was noticed, but snubbed. Evidently, this was not on the menu of acceptable foods! It was deemed to have been perhaps a bit large, so out came the pill bottle, and a smaller fly replaced its larger counterpart. The trout rose to observe this one, but turned again. Not to be defeated, another cast was dealt, but instead of reaching the water, the hook found itself deep within a twig of a tree not so far above the water's surface. This was no time for a snag. There was work to be done, and this trout was just not cooperating!

Flies were not terribly easy to come by during the war. At a nickel a piece locally, one could not afford to lose too many, and this created a choice. If the fly was tugged out of the tree all manner of dirt, leaves, and other debris would spray the water, and that would surely spook this fish even more than it already was. Nevertheless, a fly was a fly, and it would not do to waste it.

The line stretched slightly, exerted pressure on the hook, and with a slight snap, it popped out of the bark. It was all stripped in quickly as a light spray of the expected fragments hit the water. The fly was taken from the bank, coated with mud and dripping water, where the old man groaned upon seeing its condition. The mud could be rinsed and the water squeezed out, but the fine steel had snapped at the bend, and that could not be repaired! Sighing again, the old man took out his pocketknife and cut through the knot that held the damaged fly. He brushed off some of the dirt out of sheer habit, and just to see what would happen, he flicked the harmless, crippled fly into the current of water. In its still-soaked condition it was barely visible, with just a few fibres of hackle poking above the water. The meandering flow took it into the main stem where, to the surprise of the observing angler, a small rainbow trout bit it, then immediately spit it back into the water. It drifted a few more feet where it was again taken and rejected. As it faded from sight in the bright sun, an idea began to formulate in the old man's mind.

He watched the surface for more rise forms. Sparsely, but fairly regularly, they manifested themselves, which meant there was something to eat there! At first it had simply caused the old man to be inquisitive, but now he was possessed with the need to know what was happening there before him. His intrigue was partially sated by the shape of the rise forms. They were not terribly exciting, not even always breaking above the water, but they were precisely the same as those trout made when attacking the hookless fly. That meant that whatever was going on was right there under the surface, and to find that out, there was only one choice.

The rod was laid safely by as the old man crawled down to the water's very edge on hands and knees. He removed his trusty hat and held his head down low, parallel with the water and looking intently into it. He dropped to his elbows, and allowed the water to brush his cheek as he peered even more closely at what it held. Soon, not too far from his face, he noticed the bedraggled little bugs floating by. Greenish-brown in colour, and absolutely minute in size, they hung just below the surface, and seemed to be struggling with themselves. It was not clear to the old man what they were doing, but they looked remarkably vulnerable.

So much had happened in the last few minutes, he desperately wanted to just sit and figure it out. Time continued to march on, though, and that Cutthroat still sipped away at those flies. With one last attempt in his quest, the old man compiled the information he gleaned from this situation, and opened the pill bottle for another fly.

The ones on the top were too good and new. The hackles were stiff, and would ride high on the surface. They would be good on another day, perhaps, but that is not what this fish wants. All the flies were dumped into his right hand as his left sorted through them. First the large ones were put back, then the newer ones. The one from the very bottom of the bottle looked like it would be the best with its hackles crushed and torn by the teeth of unfortunate fish and time spent beneath a dozen other flies. This hideously malformed fly would be the one.

The former reject was promptly tied onto the ever shortening tippet, and dipped into the water. Fingers which ordinarily held these flies gingerly now firmly grasped this one and ensured its full saturation. It was ready to go, and with a surge of adrenaline, the old man faced the cutthroat once again and with a steady hand, cast the strange bug into the feeding lane.

The first cast was a little bit too short. That was alright, though. It was better to not quite make it than to frighten the already suspicious cutt. The next cast was a bit longer, and just upstream far enough to be out of view. Extra line fell to the water in a serpentine path pointing to the nearly drowned fly. With each inch the fly traveled it seemed like the line advanced at least double that distance. The old man had not noticed that he was holding his breath and he could not feel the tension in his eyes as he furrowed his brow tighter and tighter, matching the increasing tautness of the line spanning from him to his end goal. Surely any second now the fly would realize the effect of the straightening line and send a profile no less disturbing to that wily devil than a Mallard drake hitting the hole at full speed.

A glimpse of movement was evidence of that the old cutthroat had seen the fly. The veteran eyes were now wincing - open just barely enough to see the fly as they waited for it to either drag ahead of the current or be snatched up by the deceived one. He could not hope that it would be the latter although the fish was clearly aware of the fly. Lungs which held in would-be breaths burned from lack of oxygen and the steady old heart beat as though it would burst when a flash shot up from beneath the prostrate Oak and the line tightened once and for all.

In a moment the old man raised his rod to set the hook to be followed by a flash of bright green, crimson and silvery white shooting above the water's surface and landing in a spectacular spray of clear, cold water. The river felt the fish's anger as the nearly still water was scattered with it's own droplets beneath the weight of the betrayed one. Furious, the river's resident shot for the bottom in an act of self-preservation and rage. The brilliant cheeks, belying the colour of ire, shook from side to side, seeking relief from this evil.

Then - as suddenly as all that - it was over.

With the sight of a broad tail flicking beneath it, the line relaxed and the fly dropped downstream away from sight. A strong shake had freed the captive from his bonds and he realized his freedom. The old man thought he should have been disappointed, but strangely enough he was not. The lips which had been so tightly pursed turned at their corners and formed a smile. The eyes so firmly intent on their goal relaxed and reflected the sparkle of the water below. The cunning cutt was long gone, but that was not the point. He had fooled the fish, and succeeded none the less. He had fulfilled his purpose and was happy.

The fly was clipped, the line re-spooled and the rod taken down. With delicate touch, the old man picked up his family's evening meal, and left the river to its calm progression through the valley. His goal for the day was reached, and satisfaction was heightened by the fact that he would have this chance again.

With face to the calmed water beneath the Oak, the old man put his hand to his hat and tipped it toward the no longer visible challenger. Then, a turn from the hour's excitement to the day's activity as he plodded toward the brush and stepped back through to return to the waiting world with an expectant heart. He would return to this spot as he had many times, and when he did, that trout would be there waiting and watching.

Until then. ~ Thomas C. Duncan, Sr.



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