A short story dedicated to a friend, Jonathan
The fly was an olive green color, and in the grey cloudlight you could see a golden shimmer from the tinsel-like thread that 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 fly above him four, five, six times. With every entrancing 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 15 yards in front of him into a deep pool where a big brown trout surely awaited its breakfast.
The woolly bugger sank to the bottom. After three seconds, 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 companions that morning while assembling his rods—a 7-weight for heavy streamers and a lighter rod for nymphing. “Trout aren’t just any other fish. They’re damn smart.”
His eyes hidden behind black polarized sunglasses, the fisherman tracked the changing weather. The sky had darkened since morning. The wind was strong, but the water was calm enough in the pool. The fly he threw was heavy, unlike the smaller nymphs and scuds he kept in the fly box in the left breast pocket of his fishing vest.
“Big flies catch big fish,” he said. “A big fish sitting in a hole ain’t gonna swim out for what ain’t a full meal.”
Time passed unnoticeably as dying leaves rustled in the trees and fell to the river’s edges. Braced in the fast-moving water, the fisherman cast until he felt a strike. His reaction was sudden and instinctive. 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 other end of the line.
“Fish on!” he yelled. His two friends, who had fanned out along the river, turned and watched.
The fish fought furiously, 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 line a wrist’s length at a time, trying to bring the fish closer to him so he could bring down his net. It gave little, bending the rod tip downward. The fisherman had no choice but to release the line slightly so it wouldn’t snap.
“Don’t break off,” he repeated under his breath, his drag clicking. “Steady, boy. Steady.”
Minutes passed: five, ten. The tugging was relentless. The fish endured like a boxer in the late rounds of a championship bout. The fisherman was patient like a painter careful not to smudge the colors and ruin the entire canvas. Very slowly, the trout relented. When the fish was at an arm’s length, the fisherman brought down the net hanging from his vest and scooped it inside.
Releasing a big breath, he shut his eyes then opened them to admire the fish, nearly two feet long. He kept its body partly in the water and watched its breathing. The trout was tawny green in some places, in others more like the olive green of the woolly bugger 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.
“Well, you sure put up a fight,” the fisherman said. He wet his hands, then grabbed the trout and took out the hook. One of his companions had come up river watching the fight. He stood beside him with his phone out to snap a picture.
The fish was too heavy to hold with one hand. The fisherman let his net drop into the water, then brought the fish up near his chest.
“This one’s a beauty,” he said, kneeling in the river while his friend took his picture. “Man, I thought I was gonna lose him.”
They examined the fish together for a moment. The sun was setting, and the wind struck their chests through their shirts.
“Now this is how you release a fish,” the fisherman said, holding the fish in the water by its tail. “This one put up a strong fight, so he’s tired. You move him back and forth, and you’ll feel when he’s ready to go.”
After a few months, the fisherman removed his hand and the fish slowly disappeared underneath the water into the ripples beyond him.
“Well, I’m satisfied,” he said, then 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.