Whip Finish


Ralph Long - May 6, 2013

Closing the back hatch on the Xterra, I turned in clumsy wader boots fighting the loose gravel and headed for the water. It was an early spring morning and today I would be hunting trout. That's what I call streamer fishing when eventual meat for the table is the intended goal. To me it's back to the basics, tying on a traditional Bucktail streamer and pounding water in the places that experience had shown me the trout should be. It goes all the way back to my first days with a spinning rod, flicking CP Swings and Colorado spinners in their silver and gold hammered regalia. All it took was a decent amount of skill at placing your spinner where it needed to go and the trout would respond. Later it would turn to a minnow bucket or Salt minnows on minnow rigs. I can still hear my Dad wading next to me and pointing out where to cast and how to get the best drift. He was first-and-foremost a minnow fisherman and always seemed able to pull big fish out of the most unlikely places. I would stumble along beside him and emulate him to the best of my ability, casting in the same manner and standing "just so". Back then I never thought he could see me copying him, but now that I have kids of my own I realize he certainly did. I hope it made him smile as well, just as I do now with my children.

Today I would be carrying a fly rod however, as I have pretty much exclusively for many years. I have not lost the love of drifting minnows as a practice, but seldom ever do; fnding it simpler and just as effective with my bucktails. I choose the grace of my 6 weight these days. I began the morning with a Northwest Jack. It's a pattern of my own on the same lines as a Black-nosed Dace, and my streamer of choice for northeast stocked fish. It began life as a larger steelhead streamer, hence the name, but seemed to perform the best over the years as a smaller trout streamer as it doubles nicely for both a salmon smolt and a shiner imitation. The mini sink-tip line flipped the short 6 foot fluorocarbon leader with perfection as I worked the first run and on my 10th or 12th cast the fly came to a jolting stop. Not a big fish, but a perfectly minted 12 inch rainbow came to hand and placed the day in the books as the first fish. While catching a fish is not necessary to have a successful day on the water, not getting skunked is a good thing in my book and the first fish is always a welcomed event. I admired the fish which was still in its winter colors, with reds more of a burnt orange and the dark olive back blending into the light gray and lacking that summer silver. Or maybe it was just the overcast day and no sun to dance on its flank that caused it to look as such? Nevertheless it was beautiful all the same and it brought a smile as the last thrust of its tail took it from my hand. And now with a taste of victory on my tongue the mood sung back to the hunt.

No leisurely stroll along the creek today. This was all purpose, stalking the holes and runs, casting at targets, putting my fly where I wanted it instead of drifting by the current all in a much more aggressive tone of fishing than a day of dry fly fishing. I was looking for a brace of fish in the 14 inch range, preferably browns, but any would do. The hunt took me upstream at a fairly rapid pace as I released several more smallish fish and examined my fly as it took a beating. Then, on the third pool upstream I set the hook on a much nicer fish and soon brought to hand a fat 15 inch holdover brown. The weight of the fish in my creel was comforting as I pressed upstream. I had identified that the fish were looking for a "strip-pause" retrieve, and a much slower action. It continued to work as I moved further along, bringing several more fish to hand.

It wasn't until I was nearly a mile from the truck that I set the hook on another heavy fish. This one took my buck tail as it dead-drifted down and across through a knee-deep rapid. It was a rainbow! A fact confirmed in the 1st of several spectacular jumps it put on display before finally tiring to my hand. I placed the 2nd fish in my creel and looked up for the first time with something other than where my next cast would be on my mind. That's when I knew it was time to turn around. For nearly two hours I had remained "in the moment", which had left me tired yet extremely satisfied.

My walk back to the truck did not include fishing. I walked and reflected. I had fished this exact place many times with my Dad. And though much of the stream itself had changed over the many years of storms and floods, it still felt the same as when I barely filled a heavy pair of rubber hip-boots. It was a good walk, and one that was as satisfying as the day of fishing itself. I reached the bridge where I had parked and turned to climb up the slight grade to the parking area. Just as I reached the gravel of the parking lot, I was approached by another fisherman heading back down the same path. He carried a spinning rod and across his chest was slung an old worn Heddon minnow bucket. The bucket looked exactly like the one that sits on my shelf in my tying room today.

"Any luck" he asked?

"Yep" I responded with a smile, "More than I had expected."

"Great news" he exclaimed! "I've been waiting for this day all winter."

"Good luck and enjoy the water" I replied as we both nodded to each other in passing and he dropped down the bank to the stream.

Continuing on to the back of my truck, I was removing my creel when it hit me. "Good luck and enjoy the water" was the very same response in passing that my Dad said each and every time he greeted another fisherman in passing. And you could tell when he said it that he truly meant it. Could it be that I was still stumbling along, emulating the man after so many years past? The thought brought a smile to my face in memory. It had indeed been a good day on the water, and I would round it out with a brace of fresh trout and black coffee. Thanks Dad.

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