Whip Finish


Ralph Long - Mar 24, 2014

Standing on the bank of the pond offered an elevated perch from which to observe the body of water which was laid out in full display. The late August sun was but a short distance from the horizon and the air, heavily laden with moisture, hung on my shoulders like a blanket. The air was filled with the metallic blues and greens of dozens of damsel flies, who along with their larger cousins the dragon fly, coursed over the water's surface creating an ever-moving tapestry. Easing my way along the bank, I kept my eye on a small pocket of lily pads towards the shallow end of the pond where the springs filtered into the small depression. I spotted a painted turtle just seconds before my presence was discovered and it slipped off a branch disappearing beneath the surface algae. A bullfrog set a solid cadence from within the cattails as I approached and I startled a dozen or so red-winged black-birds which noisily took flight. The bullfrog's cadence was silenced with the departure of the birds, but quickly resumed in a few minutes. What had remained a constant however, were the small rings on the surface that were rhythmically appearing among the lily pads. They were the object of my attention.

It was one of those lazy summer days, and it just felt right to punctuate the end of such a day with an ending that included a fly rod. This small body of water was but a hop-skip-and-a-jump from my home, so armed with a small box of #10 hair poppers and a spool of 5x tippet I was in pursuit of what lay below those rings upon the water. Easing into position to start working the outer edge of the lily pads, the customary "plop, plop" of small leopard frogs signaled that I had indeed "arrived". The rings were such that they could be a result of anything from a 3 inch bluegill on up to a big slab of a gill. The latter is what I had my hopes on since about every dozen rings one would be accompanied with a "snick" of a noise which told me that something of substantial size was feeding among them. The click-pawl of my single action reel announced the start of the games as my first half dozen false casts shook the dust off my shoulder. The small popper lit on the surface just shy of the pads and was greeted instantly with the pop of a fish. My immediate reflex was to set the hook much too quickly and in effect ripped the fly away from the hungry fish; much to my frustration. The fish had however, revealed itself as a palm sized bluegill. Still laughing at myself for the rookie mistake, I dropped another cast in about the same spot and watched as the rings of its impact dissipated. It only took seconds for it to disappear as it was sucked in leaving a small ½ inch bubble of air in its place on the surface.

With the initial lift of the rod my first thought was that it had already wrapped my leader in the stalks of the vegetation, but as I held pressure high the telltale sign of life came with a deep pulsing of a heavier fish than expected. Putting pressure on it to keep my line out of the lilies as much as possible, I worked the fish down the bank into deeper water and turned to wearing it out. My 7 foot - 4-weight rod was getting a workout as I fought through 3 or 4 good solid pulsing runs. Then as suddenly as the fight had begun it was over. The fish let me glide it to the bank with only a half-hearted half-circle of a run as its last gasp of effort. Lifting the fish, its weight was apparent immediately. A full 1-inch thick at the back and nearly 7-inches back-to-belly, it was an impressive bluegill. The back was solid black, fading to near silver on the flanks, and then exploding into a dark copper breast. And in stark contrast to the copper breast lay an almost jet-black gill spot glistening in the sun. A beautiful male that rivaled any bluegill I had hooked to date. The fish lay in my hand perfectly still as I admired it, never so much as even moving a gill plate. But as I placed it back into the shallow water of the bank it instantly exploded with energy, splashing water and disappearing in the blink of an eye.

I rinsed my hands and gathered my rod together, then walked back up to sit on the bank for a bit and take in the moment. Looking back out over the pond again I tended to the battered little popper that had just done its duty so well. Blowing on the hackle-tip tailing I quickly had the little fly back in working order and ready for more. Recalling the patch of caribou hair that had spawned its existence in the jaws of my vise only the day prior, it seemed almost poetic that a bit of natural material such as caribou hair and rooster feathers had brought to hand such a beautiful fish. Having fished this pond a number of times in the past I had seldom landed anything much larger than palm-sized fish in my efforts. This fish had been a huge surprise, and a welcome one. On the water, the small rings on the surface had begun again. I smiled thinking how such a small nearly insignificant disturbance on the surface of the water had kept hidden such an impressive fish. I sat there watching the water, deciding not to wet my line again, as the last rays of the sun dipped below the horizon and the sounds of the birds and cicadas were replaced by peepers and crickets. What I had come looking for I had already been found, and I chose to end the night without clouding the memory of an exceptional fish among those little rings.

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