Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Per Angusta Ad Augusta

We should have known. When we pulled off the exit and the first flakes started to fall, we should have known. On this trip to the river - a November ritual that unites our small group of friends in the pursuit of piscatorial perfection - the river gods would be exacting their dues, but we were hopefully giddy and otherwise oblivious. We ignored the omens, and paid heed to no portents. We continued off the highway, and spent the next two and a half hours crawling along blizzard blackened back roads.

Midnight ... somewhere west of Rome, New York ... Notice the rod rack installed on the hood of the man-van.
Day one had us crawling out of Brenda's bunk beds, bleary eyed, exhausted, and cursing our decision ever to pick up a fly rod. We fumbled through the process of donning our gear, slid into the car at 4:30 a.m., and were stumbling down the trail that leads to the river by 4:40. We set up our day camp and drank our first Jetboiled coffee more than an hour before sunup; we drank our first beer an hour after daylight.
Mad Elf ... hoppy, tasty, and 11% ABV ... that's the sweet stuff.

Years had passed since I last fished the run, and she changed substantially in the time since our last dalliance. The roaring rapid at the head had been replaced by a gentle glide that slid into a long riffle. That heavy riffle then split into two distinct seams - steelhead would surely hold in either lie. The tailout was much the same as ever, aside from the three current breaks that divided the water into thirds; the confluence of these three eddies looked to be the perfect place to swing a fly.

As is often the case on the Salmon River, we hooked up with hot fish shortly after first light. Ben was first to bring a steelhead to hand, and shortly after Shawn followed suit with a corker of his own. Both were good, solid fish that tore the hell out of the water, and reminded us of why we chase steelhead.

Shawn's first fish of the trip was arguably one of the best fish of the trip.

Darkened by days in the river, but no less acrobatic than its chromed up brothers and sisters.

As for me ... well ... the river gods deigned that I was to pay penance for the group's continued success. I hooked fish that first day, quite a few fish by anyone's standard, but there's many a slip twixt a cup and the lip. The fish I hooked were slippery indeed. Each made a fool of me in short order.

What I felt after those steelhead came loose - either by throwing the hook or splitting my tippet - was akin to what a pugilist experiences when he's on the receiving end of a low blow. Nausea burned in my gut; my mind was a flood of frustration with my piscatorial impotence and anger at my deplorable luck. By the end of the day, I reeked of negative energy, and was ready to forever forgo November steelhead.

But that's the thing about steelhead. Chasing these fish is simultaneously one of the most frustrating and singularly gratifying experiences a bug chucker might have. All it takes is one fish. One fish and you're suddenly impervious to the cold. One fish and you don't mind snagging dozens of painstakingly-tied flies or losing yards of over-priced tippet. One fish and all the fish you've lost become so much background noise. All it takes is one fish.

They're all so fast ... oftentimes it is impossible to keep up.

And after 12 hours in and out of the water on that first day, cast after fruitless cast, I finally hooked that one fish. When Ben slipped the net under his snout I was exhausted. My hands shook, my legs trembled, I was effectively snow-blind, but none of that mattered. I had a fish in the net. I could touch it. It was real, not a ghost.

One fish ... even a gnarly, river darkened buck ... that's all it takes
Fly fishing - fly fishing for steelhead in particular - is a sport of small victories, and the hopeful anticipation that precedes those few, fleeting moments of triumph. Likewise, fly fishing for steelhead is a sport of frustration, irritation, vexation, and the particular anguish that accompanies complete and total defeat. Even the best amongst us know the bite of such defeat. It is these moments, however (times when we curse our fascination with water and with woods), that make sweeter those too few moments of victory.

Per Angusta Ad Augusta.

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