A short story dedicated to a friend, Jonathan
The fly was an olive green color, and in the grey cloudlight you could see the shimmer from the tinsel which wrapped around its fat inch-long body as it danced feet above the clear blue waters of the Watauga River.
The fisherman stood waist deep in the ripples whipping the woolly bugger above him four, five, six times. With every forward motion he shot out a little more of the heavy orange line with his left hand. His right forearm moved in sync with his torso. He brought the line behind his body one final time, and when it laid out flat he cast it forward and released. The line shot through the guides of his rod and fell nearly 30 yards upstream, just above a deep pool.
After the fly settled to the bottom, the man stripped in line a few inches at a time until it was close enough that he could pick it up and go directly into a back cast. The dance continued every time he brought in the line.
“There’s a hundred things that can go wrong when you’re fly fishing,” the fisherman told his two companions outside his truck that morning while they assembled their rods beside the river. “Trout are damn smart.”
The sky had darkened since morning and the wind grown stronger, but the water was calm enough. The run to his right slowed and deepened into the pool he fished now, certain that in it waited one of the hungry 20-plus inch browns the river was known for holding. His eyes hidden behind black polarized sunglasses, the fisherman tracked the changes in the conditions. In his left breast pocket, he kept a box of large nymphs—size-12 rainbow warriors, frenchies, stone flies—to throw under an indicator if the conditions called for it. Not yet, he thought. A big fish sitting in a pool isn’t going out of his way for what isn’t a full meal. He stuck with the streamer.
Time passed unnoticeably as dying leaves rustled in the trees and fell to the river’s edges. Braced in the faster-moving water, the fisherman cast until he felt a sudden strike pull the fly away. Instinctively, he lifted the rod tip to the sky. The line tightened, bending the top half of the rod as the fish tugged heavy on the line.
“Fish on!” he yelled. His friends, fanned out along the river, turned and watched the ensuing fight.
The fish was furious in its resistance, turning the fisherman left and right. The tension in the line was the same as in his body; his jaw clenched, eyes focused on the fight beneath the water. He stripped in what he could, trying to bring the fish closer to net him. The trout gave little, bending the rod tip further downward. The fisherman had no choice but to release the line slightly so the tippet wouldn’t snap.
“Don’t break off,” he repeated under his breath, his drag clicking.
Minutes passed. Five. Ten. The tugging relentless. The fish endured like a boxer in the late rounds of a championship bout. The odds favored neither. The fisherman had lost many trout like this before. “It’s got to be a 20-incher,” he shouted to his friends. Very slowly, the trout relented. When he was at an arm’s length, the fisherman brought down the net hanging from his vest and scooped it inside.
Releasing a breath, he shut his eyes then opened them to admire the fish. A brown, nearly two feet long. The trout was tawny green in some places, in others more like the olive green of the fly hanging from the side of its upper jaw. Its belly was fat and yellowish. Along its sides were brown, black, and dark red spots with pale blue halos encircling them. A heavenly fish.
He kept its body partly in the water and watched it breathing.
“You sure put up a fight,” the fisherman said to the fish. He wet his hands, grabbed it, and removed the hook. One of his companions had come up river during the fight and stood beside him with his phone out to snap a picture.
The fish was too heavy to hold with one hand, so the fisherman let his net drop into the water, then raised the fish, water sliding off its body, up above his waist.
“This one’s a beauty,” he said.
They two examined the fish together for a moment. The sun was setting, and the wind struck their chests through their shirts.
Holding the fish by its tail, the fisherman faced it upstream and moved it back and forth to let the water into its gills. “This one’s tired,” he said.
After a few moments, he removed his hand. The fish moved slowly, swimming toward the bottom of the river, its colors camouflaging it until moments later it was gone.
“Well, I’m satisfied,” he said. He shouted downstream. “You finished over there?” The third friend gave a thumbs up.
They all walked to the car, broke down their rods and packed up. They got in the car and drove home.