Sometimes it's good to get wet
- By: John Gierach
It rained more or less steadily for five days. It was mostly somewhere between a drizzle and a sprinkle; the kind of thing you could stay out in almost comfortably with the right gear. Sometimes it came down hard enough to make you want to go hide for a while, and even when the rain tapered off momentarily, the trees continued to drip. It never rained quite hard enough to muddy the river or put the fish down. Still, it rained, and that became a central fact. Daytime temperatures were only in the low 40's, but at night the thick cloud cover held in what little warmth there was, so it stayed just above freezing.It was the ideal ambient temperature in which to age a side of beef. We wouldn't have minded if the nights had been colder because you can crack off ice and shake off snow, but rain soaks in and stays with you. Some mornings there was a skiff of snow dusting the ridges above camp, but down along the river it was just a soggy meat locker. Mike Clark and A.K. Best had already been there for a day by the time Ed Engle and I arrived, and they had the camp set up nicely. A.K.'s old kitchen box and wobbly folding table were under a rain fly stretched between two trees and propped up with an elaborate series of poles and tie-downs. It wasn't a huge tarp, but it made a dry space big enough for four fishermen to get in out of the rain-provided they were smart enough to do that. It did slow to a drizzle just long enough for Ed and me to get our tents set up, and that was a break. I've never been able to put a camp together in an outright rain without getting everything-sleeping bag, pad and the tent itself-good and wet. And in that kind of weather, whatever gets wet will stay that way for the duration. There were times when it would have been handy to build a fire to warm up and dry out a little, but we couldn't do that. It had been a dry summer with dozens of wild fires around the state-enough to get Colorado on the national news more than once as a disaster area-and an open fire ban had been in effect for months. The governor had finally lifted the ban a few weeks before, but some places, including the county we were camped in, had decided to leave it on. The woods were dripping wet, but the people behind the desks were spooked and didn't want to make a dumb mistake. But rain is what we'd been hoping for because this was one of those rivers that fishes best in foul weather. We'd gone for the mayfly hatches, and mayflies have a perverse love of chilly days, cloudy skies and at least light rain. So do trout, especially the big ones. The theory is that they feel more confident about feeding up at the surface under the relative cover of a cold, dark, drizzly day, but I'm not sure it isn't just pure cussedness. You're not supposed to anthropomorphize, but if fish hate fishermen you can't really blame them. Fishing and camping in these conditions are among the things that make fishermen seem crazy to the great mass of unimaginative people. You know who I mean: the ones who'll interrupt you while you're reading because they think reading a book amounts to doing nothing. Few fishermen care what they think. After breakfast most mornings-say, around nine or so-there'd be a sparse hatch of size 18 or 20 Blue Wing Olives and a few trout would rise. You could get some on a dry fly, which is how A.K. fished it, but I usually did better with an unweighted nymph fished an inch or so under the surface. A.K. and I have been arguing for 20 years about which method is better. The dry fly is prettier and often more unlikely, especially early in a thin hatch when there are a lot more nymphs under water than there are duns on the surface. But then detecting the take to a tiny, invisible nymph with no strike indicator is harder. Neither of us really cares all that much; it's just something to talk about. The real hatch would begin around two in the afternoon and last for at least a few hours. It would be all Blue Wing Olives, then Olives mixed with Pale Morning Duns, then those two mixed with a few bigger Sulphurs. The hatches would come in slow, overlapping waves, building to lots of steady rises, then slipping back to a few scattered, occasional rings, then gradually pulsing back just when you thought it was over. There'd be a wallowing dorsal fin as a trout took nymphs just under the surface. In faster water you'd see those quick rolls as fish took floating emergers or duns. The light was gray and flat, making it hard to see into the water, but now and then you'd catch the dull flash of a fish eating nymphs a foot or two under the surface. Down in the slower tails, a trout would wallow, then sip, then bulge, then show his head back to the gill covers, eating whatever came by. The easier trout would stay in a single spot where you could put one fly after another over him until you hit the right drift and pattern or he either spooked or revealed himself as uncatchable. The harder ones would slide around, working upstream, then fading down, then scooting to the side. Wherever you put your fly, the fish would be a foot away, facing the other direction. You could try to match your pattern to what a particular fish seemed to be eating or, in a different mood, just tie on a fly you liked and go looking for a trout that fancied it as much as you did. Either way, the drift had to be good: no drag and right to the fish. Trout on rich streams with heavy hatches get to be picky eaters; add the kind of fishing pressure this stream sometimes sees and they get paranoid on top of that. It was a nice struggle. Some fish were caught. One afternoon I spent a long time on a big brown. At least I think it was a brown. Squinting through rain and gray light, I thought I saw the butter color, but maybe not. He was rising on the far side of the current in a little notch in the bank: the kind of divot that would be left when a rock the size of a wash tub finally let go and plopped into the river. He was behind a screen of overhanging willow limbs low enough that, wading thigh-deep, you had to crouch a little to see his head break the surface. It looked like a head that would be attached to a trout no less then 20 inches long, but it would be there and gone so quickly that, again, I couldn't be sure. I struggled with the cast. It had to be sidearm, slightly downstream and across with a little air mend that looped the leader upstream, but still let the fly miss the overhanging limb by an inch or two. It took me several tries to snake one in there, and when I did, I slapped the water too hard with the fly and put the fish down. I tensed and crouched as if just the right body English could rewind it and make it right, but the mistake was already history. I waded downstream, cast the same Blue Wing Olive parachute to a small trout rising amid the rain drops in open water and caught him. When I looked back upstream, I could see the quiet rings coming out from under the willow that meant my fish was rising again. I waded back into position, made the cast well enough, and although the drift was six inches off, he turned and took the fly anyway. I set too fast and pulled the hook out of his mouth before he even had it. He was big, he was my fish; I flubbed it. Twenty minutes later when he started feeding again, I hooked the bush right above his head, tried to gently tug the fly loose and spooked him with a shower of willow leaves. It took the fish forever to start rising again, but this time I made the right cast and drift with a Pale Morning Dun. He calmly ate the fly. I calmly hesitated for half a heartbeat and set the hook. It was beautiful. There was a loud splash and I could feel the fly just tick his lip as it came loose. This is when you remind yourself that no fish anywhere owes you a damned thing, but it was still a trout I'd dream about. In the dream he'd be much, much bigger and he'd somehow be more than just a trout. I could wake up sweating to wander the house at three in the morning, bumping into walls and stepping on cats. (I do dream about fish regularly; also sex and firewood. I don't get it either.) I'd spent well over an hour on the same trout-most of it waiting for him to start rising again after I'd put him down and watching rain drip from the hood of my raincoat. I'd screwed it up four times and the last time was permanent. A trout that feels the hook is gone for good. And this was a big, dumb fish that was willing to be caught by a fisherman who was up to it. I wondered if I was losing my touch. I wondered if I ever really had the touch. But then you have to get over that kind of thing quickly. I mean, if temporarily losing your chops meant the game was up, I'd have been done for long ago. I gave up (the moment does come when you simply give up), waded down to the next pool and promptly hooked and landed a big, fat 20-inch brown in bright fall colors. The fish hadn't been rising, but it was an easy first cast to an obvious spot where I thought one might be. He ran for a snag, but I turned him, wore him down in the tail of the pool and netted him on the first try. So is this like childhood, where every little tragedy is somehow pulled out in the end? You know, lose your balloon, get an ice cream cone to show that fairness prevails? This late in the game, I can't be sure if I'm recalling my own childhood, or just re-running old episodes of Leave it to Beaver. It was going on supper time. I was badly chilled from standing in cold water in the rain all afternoon. I walked back to camp-having decided to quit while ahead-and found A.K. under the shelter of the tarp making a fresh pot of coffee and looking ripe for a long story. Perfect. That night we sat around my little propane lantern under the rain fly and talked, as four old fishing friends will do. It was the latest installment in a conversation that's been going on since about 1975, but beyond that I couldn't tell you much of what was said. Someone did mention that a fire would feel good. Someone else said it was too damned wet to get a fire going. Someone else said it was raining too hard to stand out next to a fire anyway. That's all I remember. We took turns warming our hands around the lantern's single mantle, then retired to our pickups where we sat with the heaters running to get warm before crawling into the sleeping bags. Mike and Ed pulled out the next day, loosely packing their soggy gear because it would all have to be hauled out and dried later. A.K. and I hung around camp for a while and then did some slow-paced fishing-the kind you can get into several days and many fish into a trip. I didn't go back to the trout under the bush because that whole episode seemed perfectly self-contained as it was. The last evening in camp, the sky cleared and we saw stars and a nearly full waxing moon before we turned in. With the lid of clouds off, we imagined we could feel a breeze coming straight up from the ground as the last of the meager warmth rose into the sky. We decided to leave in the morning. It would be a lovely, warm, sunny day and the fishing would stink. I was comfortable enough in my sleeping bag that night, but it was deathly cold inside the tent and the moonlight made a green, liquid glow through the nylon walls. I woke up once during the night with the distinct impression that I was submerged in cold water, but wasn't drowning. I wondered what the hell that could mean, and went back to sleep.