Whip Finish


Ralph Long - Mar 07, 2016

The sky was a steel grey as light snowflakes drifted in the windless air as I stepped out of the truck. Off-loading my gear into the camp, the months that separated this day from the last time on the water carried a small amount of urgency. I would be fishing alone for the first half of the day, being the latest arrival to the gathering. But ahead of me was a crystal clear stream although a bit heavy on flow, and not a soul wading its banks. Such are the rewards of the winter fly fisherman, if willing to deal with the lack of feeling in your fingers and ice in your guides.

Wading across and down I was in search of a long slow glide that was deep enough to be winter holding water. Moving slowly into position I was pleasantly surprised to see a large fish move sideways just ahead of me, then turn towards the head of the pool. Opening my box with optimism I looked down at the offerings I had tied in preparation of this trip. Fly fishing, for the fly tyer, is the cream that naturally rises to the top of the milk can. The substance leading up to that rising cream is the hours at the vise. A lineage of romance and art surround the tying of flies, from the tweed of English chalk streams to the hackle of the Catskills. Yet on this day I looked down upon a box of slit-foam which held rows of Apricot and Steelhead Orange McFly Foam egg flies, alongside of some heavily weighted Green Skittle nymphs. The combination is the proverbial "Steak and Eggs" of fly fishing. Just as we yearn for that plate of scrapple and eggs with mounds of home fries on a cold morning, winter trout are looking for substance. They are not willing to move far to intercept your offering. The delicacy of casting that size 18 Sulfur Dun dry fly to sipping trout on a muggy summer evening is reserved for a future date. Today it would be drifting sucker spawn patterns to large trout willing only to expend enough energy for something worth their while.

The casting came a little tight and rusty as I worked to stretch the kinks from my shoulder and adjust to the casting stroke of the new 7½ foot 6weight glass rod being christened on this trip. But after a few casts and mends the little rod and I were well acquainted, and having adjusted for drift I was feeling the bottom in the area I was targeting. Half the battle won already, all that remained was to get my offering on the nose of a fish. As luck would have it this didn't take long, as midway through a few drifts later the rod was raised to the dance of heavy head shakes. It was a fat brown of 19 inches that used the entire run to escape, yet in the end found the net. A beautiful fish, which unbeknownst to it, set my trip on a course to success whether I caught another fish at all through the rest of the trip. While not my biggest fish of the year, it wore the colors of mid-winter and fought with an attitude one expects of a large brown. Then, as winter fishing often does, things got real slow. The next two toe-numbing hours offered up a single take, which lasted all of about a couple head shakes and a long distance release.

These are the times while wading ice-rimmed streams under snowy skies that one wonders what they were thinking. Yet one more cast, one more step, one more drift and you keep on fishing. You keep on clearing your eyes of ice and blowing on cold fingers. And then when you are least expecting it, the indicator dips slightly beneath the surface. But it didn't turn upstream once the drag of the current grabbed it?  The indicator jumped slightly toward the far bank and I knew instantly, my mind registering the unnatural movement as reflex lifted the rod to another large fish.

Putting pressure on the fish for the first time I was shocked as the fish left the water. A huge rainbow more resembling a steelhead hit the surface with a tail-walking splash. Then after a short bull-dogging session in the heart of the pool it shot downstream almost the length of my line as I applied pressure to the side of the Heddon 320 spool to slow him down. Three times he ran to the bottom, and three times I was able to work it back up without breaking off my 5X tippet. A 20 inch plus fish with a lot of girth, I was able to get two attempts of netting him before finally seeming to tire the fish enough to bring it to hand. Holding the fish with steady pressure at my side I turned to grab my net now floating to my left when the hook came loose. My head snapped around in time to see the big bow seemingly unaware that it was free, holding water a foot from my thigh. And then it was gone. Looking down at my gear I expected to see a broken tippet. But instead found that I had simply pulled the little size 16 egg pattern loose. I had played everything perfectly, yet in the end the last fatal act was mine. It was the most amazing battle of recent memory, with both an exciting and a beautiful fish. As the adrenaline of the fight faded, I was suddenly cold, signaling it was time to head back to camp and check in with the rest of the crew. Looking out over the pool I smiled "you win" I said out loud. Acknowledging a fish that possessed everything we search for with fly rod in hand. Crossing the shallows upstream of the pool to the opposite bank, I fought for footing with feet completely numb. I was cold; yes I was very cold. Coffee sure would hit the spot. And maybe I would hit the diner in town and have some steak and eggs? That sure would hit the spot.

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