Let's get right to it ...
The four most under-appreciated sensations in fly fishing ... so sayeth The Rusty Spinner
#4. The distinctive "Thunk, Thunk, Thunk" of a newbie's knuckles beating against the handle of his reel's backward spinning spool - while the steelhead he's inadvertently hooked does its best to run back to the mouth of the river.
A steelhead is a special animal: streamlined, strong, fast, ridiculously fast in fact, and almost wholly unpredictable. I've been led to believe that the only other fly rod quarry that comes close to eclipsing the steelhead's athleticism are albies and tarpon, but I haven't chased either so I'm left to wade my little freshwater corner of the world relatively certain that steelhead are the most dynamic fish that bug chuckers like myself are ever likely to chase.
| Photo: Benjamin Jose|
And because few fish compare to the steelhead for its strength and tenacity, little can be done to prepare the uninitiated for his or her first hookup with a chromer. Mine came nearly 15 years ago on the Salmon River in New York. My friend and guide for the day, Shawn Brillon, had taken me to one of the spots on the river notorious for being a petting zoo. I was assured that the fish would be stacked one atop another like strippers on a banker's lap. If a newb
(stealing the term from my video game playing students) was going to hook a fish anywhere in the river then that spot was as good a bet as any and a better bet than most.
Five or six hours after having first stepped into the water my arm was growing sore from the repetition of casting, and my mind was drifting off to warmer and more prolific fishing trips. Naturally, it was in that moment - a moment in which my cold addled brain had finally shuffled off its mortal coil and began to travel the astral plane - when the first steelhead I had ever hooked (and the largest I've hooked in the fifteen years since) decided to swallow my ridiculously gaudy fly. Everything happened so quickly that my synapses were overloaded and simply ceased to function. In that moment, I wasn't an angler; I was a spectator witnessing an angler's demise. I had as much hope of setting the hook, adjusting my drag, and fighting that fish as I did of being named Playmate of the Year. As a consequence, I was left with little more than broken images of a tail as wide as both my hands when splayed side by side, a short and frayed length of tippet, and three sore knuckles on my left hand.
Such is the case with most bug chuckers who opt to chase winter chrome. They read about steelhead for years before finally stepping into the river. They tie dozens of flies, and invest thousands of dollars in gear. They almost always go sleepless the night before that first trip (sometimes that insomnia follows them throughout their steelheading lifetimes), and when the day finally arrives they usually finish out with little more than tired eyes and raw knuckles.
#3. The penetrating stench of thousands of putrefying salmon carcasses.
How do I describe the aroma that descends on a king salmon river in the weeks after the annual spawning run has begun? Hmmm ...
Imagine a piece of road kill; a piece of day-old road kill. Perhaps it's a raccoon or an o'possum. Perhaps the dearly departed is a porcupine or your neighbor's cat. Whatever your choice, put the image foremost in your mind. Now imagine you've discovered the animal as it stews and boils in the blistering August sun. The coon - or perhaps the cat - is bloated near bursting. Maggots crawl from all of its orifices - ALL of its orifices, and fat green-bodied flies swarm about its head.
Now consider that immediately prior to its death, the animal crawled out of a fetid bog. The fen and our festering friend both stink of mud and decay. There's a damp sourness that hangs in the air. You feel soiled, as if you're somehow infected by the bitterness.
And we would be remiss if we forgot the Amish. Yes, the Amish. As it happens our friend has died in Amish country. The devout frequently ride this particular stretch of highway in their small black buggies, beards and bonnets blowing in the wind. Their horses - straining against the leather rigging - have made the trip from farmstead to farmstead so many times that the animals run on instinct. They hardly notice the trail of dung that marks their route. As it happens, our friend's slowly disintegrating body has come to rest upon an especially generous pile of Mennonite manure.
Such is the penetrating aroma of a salmon river during the height of the run. The stink lingers for weeks, but that stench ... that gloriously putrid stench ... is certainly a harbinger of better things to come. Steelhead.
As long as there's death on the wind we know there's steelhead on the way.
#2. The don't-so-much-as-breathe anticipation you feel when a carp considers your fly.
You're seventeen years old. You and your girl are sitting on the bench seat of your father's brand new, 1990 Nissan hard body pickup. It's late, very late; on any other night you could expect an earful from the old man as soon as you walked through the door.
"You have any idea what time it is? ... not a word ... shut it. Not ... a ... word. Say good night to your mother. She's been worried sick. You and I will speak tomorrow. I would cancel any plans you might have, and there'd better not be so much as a scratch on that truck."
But tonight isn't just any night. Tonight is prom night. You've a pass from your mother and your father's reluctant blessing. Pop let you take his truck because he'd be damned if he was going to pay for a limo, and you've discovered that the truck works just fine. More than anything else, it is the truck that allows you this moment.
The festivities have been over for an hour or so. You, your bevy of friends, and their respective dates had been dancing vigorously and awkwardly for four hours. All the while your girl took your breath away. Never in your wildest pubescent imaginings had you seen such a beautiful creature. She was an angel on Earth, and she was there with you.
And then the two of you were alone in Dad's pickup; parked on some nameless, unpaved, backroad - music playing quietly on the radio. Your lips were close enough to share a breath, and her eyes - oh, the look in her eyes. Your hand slid slowly up her stockinged thigh, and she did not protest. Instead, she moved still closer ...
To this day you vividly remember your hand shaking. You remember the bead of sweat on your brow, and you remember thinking, "Is this really happening? Is this REALLY happening?"
Such is carp fishing. Every time a carp inspects a fly, the bug chucker connected to that fly holds his breath. He wonders if this will be the one. Will the fish eat? Usually, the answer is a resounding "No!" but every so often the answer is, "Yes!" Our hands shake, and maybe we even sweat a little. That's the joy of carp fishing. Nothing is certain, and every time is like the first time.
Yes, I just compared carp fishing to sex ... don't knock it until you've tried it (both carp fishing and sex).
#1. The gut wrenching agony we experience after losing what may have been the best fish of the year.
You can fast forward the video to about the 48 second mark, and then watch the hysterics ensue. My reaction kind of says it all.
That's the funny thing about disappointment though; it is disappointment - and perhaps an equal dose of hopeful anticipation - that keeps us coming back to the river. All of us know loss, but regardless of that loss we're always back on the water at the first opportunity. Losing fuels us. Losing shapes our memories. Losing drives us to pursue the ephemeral and chase the intangible. In many ways, losing may be the best part of the game.