It happened too quickly, and when it was over I was reminded of what those grizzled, old vets at the VFW would say - almost universally - when asked of their war experiences: "long moments of boredom, interrupted by glimpses of pure, unadulterated terror." Was I terrified? Perhaps. The shaking of my hands would suggest as much, but I was experiencing something else too, something much more than fear.
I was awestruck. I was exhilarated, and I knew from that moment forward I would never be quite the same. My thoughts would reinvent and realign themselves with this new passion I had only moments before discovered. Beyond all probability and in spite of doing everything the wrong way, I had hooked my first steelhead.
That first hook-up came some twelve or fifteen years ago. Regardless of the distance of time and memory I can still relive with perfect clarity, every second of my attachment - through rod and fly - to that first fish. I can see my pale yellow line drifting slowly from right to left, carried on currents I had yet to fully explore or understand. I feel pursed lips turn to a grin as my fly - an unthinkably small thing given the stories I had heard of the river's fish - finally found its way into the slot. The pause - what must be a take - almost imperceptible, but there nonetheless. A strip-set and a lift of the rod, which is met in kind by head shaking and an explosion of violence unlike anything I had ever before experienced.
And now, fifteen years after the fact I am reminded of the way the light shone on that steelhead's broad back as she somersaulted some three or four feet above the water. I can see the breadth of the animal's tail, perhaps as wide as both my hands when placed side by side, fingers splayed (at 6' 3" tall and near three hundred pounds I am a big man with big hands). My stomach clenches in an all-too-familiar way as I revisit the moment when she turned downstream into the rapids, forever severing our connection with a burst of speed that was as remarkable for its suddeness as it was its ferocity.
I'll never know how big she truly was. I'll never know just what she would have felt like had I held her in my trembling hands. I'll never know how my life might be different had I caught that first fish rather than merely watched with mouth agape as she ran for the lake. Perhaps the only thing I've learned in the years between that first fish and the last, is that losing is sometimes the best thing that happens to us. Losing keeps us hungry. Losing keeps us looking forward, gives us hope, and teaches us a genuine appreciation for winning.
As summer turns to autumn and leaves begin to fall from the trees, I find my nights are not spent dreaming of the fish I've brought to hand. Instead, I go forward into this steelhead season filled with imaginings of what might have been and what could be. I go forward into the season armed only with a few boxes of poorly tied flies and a question.