The Gift

  • By: Maximilian Werner
big bow.jpg

Three years ago this December, I woke up to a Nor’easter that had settled over the Wasatch Mountains and dropped one-to-several feet of snow from the valleys to the mountains. Metcalf and I were both suffering from cabin fever, so although we had heard rumors of the storm and knew it was coming, we agreed we would fish no matter what. We followed the snow plows all the way up Parley’s Canyon. It was slow going, but it was also the sensible thing to do since the road was mired in slush and ice. Besides, we weren’t in any hurry.

We could see the snow storm drifting east of us and I thought about the people out that way and what they were in for. The sky was still thick with clouds, though, and I was struck by their vastness and how they changed the feel of the place. I have lived in Utah for most of my life, but it still shows me things I haven’t seen before, like new skies and familiar land made strange by a certain light. Or maybe I am more sensitive to and appreciative of changes. Whatever the case, the clouds were black and bright and expanded in all directions the clouds will.

Most of the time, Metcalf and I will head out with a certain destination in mind, and this is usually because the fishing was good the last time we were there or Metcalf stopped by the fly shop and got wind of a hatch. On this day our only plan was to get the hell out of Dodge and go wherever the road lead us. I don’t think either of us was expecting a stellar day of fishing, or at least one that involved catching a lot of fish. In the days leading up to the storm, the temperature had been in the 30s, but once the storm had arrived, it got even colder and everything, including me and Metcalf, was unsettled. No, this was not going to be a great day for fishing. Not that it mattered. What did matter is that we were outside, breathing hard and our blood pumping as we tromped through the deep, white-blue snow that lay beside the river.

Metcalf went his way and I went mine, but we were never far from each other and we would often meet up to share a thermos of coffee and discuss what wasn’t working. Metcalf had tried nymphs and small drys, and I had stuck with an olive, sparkle-back leech, but neither of us had so much as seen a fish. The week before I had fished alone up river from where we now stood and I had done quite well. In one place, a nice band of water broke off the main river and tumbled down and along a steep bank of vegetation. Perhaps it was because it reminded me of water I fished as a kid that I mustered the energy to cross the river and go have a look. The band turned out to be shallow in most places and the brush covered the holes that were deep enough to hide fish. Luckily, when one door closes, another door opens:

What I could not see from across the river was a sleepy little channel of water that fed the unfishable band I had seen initially. The water was black and barely moving and I could tell it was deep. Perfect streamer water. My reel had gotten wet earlier when I was releasing a fish and now I was having a hell of a time freeing the frozen line. I tapped my reel on a rock and that seemed to break the ice’s hold. With some effort, I peeled off enough line to cover the run. Then I false casted twice to find my rhythm and on the third cast I let the leech fly. The trees and brush were heavy on either side and formed a two-foot wide slot that had to be negotiated. Rather than casting straight through the slot, I cast at an angle and put my fly against the bank without a splash. I was pleased. Then I began to strip. A few feet into it, I got a strike…a big, hard strike, the kind that makes the rod bow down to the water before I could even think to set the hook. I had the fish on for about three seconds, which was two seconds more than I needed to tell he was a seriously big fish. And chances were, he wasn’t going anywhere. So on that winter day when Metcalf and I were staring a skunk in the face, I said “Come on, Metcalf; there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

We walked up river along the bank. The snow there was deep and unbroken, and each time I sank three feet down, I remembered why it was called post holing. Despite the fact, I found myself well ahead of Metcalf. I was so excited, you’d think I was going to fish for the big trout. When we finally reached the confluence where the big trout lived, I told Metcalf what I knew and stepped aside. He had been using small dries, but rather than wait for him to tie on a streamer with his numb sausage fingers, I gave him my rod. Metcalf false casted once and on his second cast he placed the fly fifteen feet up the run and against the bank.

On several occasions I have guided friends to the whereabouts of big trout, only to find that the big trout I thought was there wasn’t home. When that happens, I shrug and say “I swear he was here last week.” As I stood beside Metcalf and tried to see his fly swimming beneath the water, I started to devise my apology. But then he got a strike. Then another. Metcalf set the hook, pinched off the line, and reeled in the surplus. “This is a big fish, Max.” The rod had a nice bend in it and I knew he had caught the trout I had lost last week. The trout made a half-hearted run for it, but he did not go far. The water was extremely cold and I’m guessing the trout was a tad lethargic.

When Metcalf brought the trout to hand, I saw something I hadn’t seen on the Middle Provo for a long time: A large, healthy rainbow shining in the winter sunlight. After he released fish, Metcalf patted me on the back and thanked me for the gift. I was happy for Metcalf, but I also felt silly taking the credit because I knew that old trout had done all the work.

Maximilian Werner is the author of Black River Dreams and can be reached at [email protected]