Mayflies crawled, tickling, over my arms, legs, and face—something only a fly angler would be excited about. I couldn't get my rod together fast enough. This was my second lake of the day. I’d hiked five miles to the first lake, along a dusty trail, later through a stretch of my beloved ponderosas, and finally up to exposed rocky lookouts. While incredibly scenic, it was dotted with backpackers and way too windy to cast. I usually fish rivers or unnamed alpine lakes, but on this solo trip, I decided on a more well-trafficked spot yet unknown to me. After all, the trail was probably built for a reason. And it was - the lake was the kind of deep blue that looks more like the California Sierras than South Central Idaho. I took a couple of pictures and doubled back down the trail to the smaller lake I'd passed on the way up. Lake number two was protected by a steep granite cirque. The water was a bit choppy, but the sporadic wind was manageable. I moved to the downwind side of the lake, away from the kid throwing rocks in, giggling with each splash. Having excelled at the same pastime in my childhood, I couldn’t blame him even though it ruined my fishing options on that bank.
My backpack slung on the ground, I secured the reel, spinning the tightener up the rod hurriedly with one finger, and eagerly opened my fly box. My shoulders slumped; I had nothing that looked like the hatch. Although I've been fly fishing for four or five years now, the first three hardly counted. I've been pretty lax on entomology and fly ID the entire time—having barely moved past the pick-something-pretty-and-change-it-if-doesn't-work phase. Now I'm trying to pay attention to what I see and match it. That's a start, right? This hatch was so obvious, even I couldn't miss it. But of course, I didn't have the fly I needed. Dry fly season was finally here, but my cursed cheapness didn’t allow me to shell out the cash for a full quiver the last time I was at the shop. I told myself I’d learn how to tie a few. Yeah, right. That's a winter activity, not for high summer!
Figuring I'd at least match the color, I put on a bead head pheasant tail (I think) and tied it using the only knot I consistently remember - the improved clinch. Obviously, it sunk upon surface contact, as designed. I cast a few times, just in case some dumb fish thought one of these flies was ... reverse emerging? I dunno. No luck, though, so I clipped it off and examined my slim pickings again. Ok, a floater - how about this Adams? (I only know how to ID this one because I asked my friend, Adam.) Fish were rising in front of me and to my right amidst a nasty fallen snag and logjam. Anxious the frenzy would suddenly cease, I tried to sit back for a second and remind myself of the day's goals. Beautiful spot? Check. Fishing? Check.
A miscast plopped the Adams just beyond another semi-rotten tree in the middle of the sketchy minefield of branches and logs. Prediction: There would be many snags and lost flies in my future. I jerked the line with my left hand before the breeze floated it into a branch and pulled for a recast. Finally, a perfect cast and I watched a slender, tan figure double back, body pointed upward. I love the moment you know the fish is going to strike, your eyes fixed on the shiny shadow. Come on, baby, eat it! He did. I let out an audible Yesss! He thrashed a little, and I pulled in line quicker than normal to scoot him out of the danger zone. Because of the hike in, I hadn't brought my net, waders, or boots. Just the rod, fish pack, and trail runners. I set the rod on the bank and gently used the line to pull him close. A kind of muted rainbow, not the most stunning fish, but he was probably about nine inches, and you can bet I was gonna take picture proof! My last couple outings were fishless, and it's nice to have something to show, other than pretty landscapes, for my hours of cathartic meditation (occasionally interrupted by frustration). I swished my left hand in the water and reached for him. He slipped away, and I reached again. I’d almost closed my fingers around him when he thrashed and was gone. Shook the fly. *Sigh* Not quite a full "catch" by my book. Things were going well, though, the mayflies still drunkenly crashing into me at a constant rate. I snapped a picture of one so I could look them up in Pocketguide to Western Hatches later. I really need to learn this stuff.
As usually happens, the escapee broadcast the artificiality of my fly so none of the other fishies would bite. Time for a change. I reluctantly selected my only green drake. Not that I didn't think it was a good choice - other than the color, I thought it a pretty good match. I just figured I'd lose it immediately in this high-risk spot, and it’s such a good fly. Well, such things were bought for fishing, no? Second cast, boom! Fish on!
And then, abruptly, nothing. Like a snag. I tugged gently. Definitely snagged. I pulled again. Quite stuck. Was I crazy? Did I even have a fish in the first place? I put a little slack into the line and waited. Sure enough, faintly, I could feel a little tug, tug, as if the fish were really far away, yet my line went into the water about 15 feet in front of me. I had no idea what to do. The fish had obviously tangled itself in a submerged trap, invisible to me, despite the clear and almost unnerving green of the water that seemed both natural and vaguely radioactive.
I carefully set my rod against a bush and stripped down, hoping the family with the little rock-thrower didn’t decide to take this moment to circumnavigate the lake. Then again, sports bras are more modest than any bikini top out there, so I figured it wouldn’t be that bad if they did. I pulled my Salomons back on, sans socks (so I would have something dry to put on partway down the two-thousand-foot descent back to camp, thereby avoiding major blistering) and waded in.
Effff! The water was glacial. Even in late July, there were some picturesque snowbanks in the shadows and couloirs of the opposing peak that slowly melted their wintry remnants into the pool I was now braving. And braving for what? To save the fish? Attempt to retrieve my fly? Both, if I’m honest. Angler qualms. Unless I’m backpacking and eating my fish for dinner, I want to release them unharmed. And of course, it had my single, precious, green drake lodged in its translucent, cartilaginous lip.
About chest-deep, and still probably four feet away from where my line descended into the log, I realized my next conundrum: even if I could wade the rest of the way to the log (it was quickly getting deeper), I still wouldn't be able to reach below me to untangle anything. There I'd be, up to my neck like the thwarted child in Silverstein’s Boa Constrictor poem, and still five vertical feet from the problem. I'd have to actually dive under, and then blindly flail about with my hands, or open my eyes and hope I didn't lose the contact from my myopic right eye. I wondered if anyone was watching me with amused confusion as I held my line up high and stood, mostly naked, in the icy water. I was at an impasse. I reached down as far as I could, which conveniently was past the leader—the one saving grace of this farcical tangle. The line stretched, and something seemed to give. Maybe it was just a branch, not a whole log, and I could pull the whole thing to the surface? The water was still frigid. I sucked in my breath, and pulled some more, gaining a few inches of tippet. Everything stretched. Snap! And that was it: Game over.
Slogging back to the bank, I didn't know what to make of the experience. Despite all too thoroughly "catching" this guy, I still hadn't really caught a fish. I hadn't broken my rod again (that's another story), but I lost my fly, and worst of all, the fish was probably going to die there. Given the magnitude of the mess he'd swum himself into, I doubted that one free end was going to allow him to swim away and lose the fly later. (As if my intent to deceive him with an artificial fly with a size 16 or 18 hook attached was somehow his bad decision-making now.) I quickly decided the feeling was of general defeat.
My fish karma was officially in the negative at this point, and I pathetically pleaded to the fish gods to just let me fully catch one fish before I left the poor souls in peace. Unfairly (or fairly?) robbed of my best matching fly, I tied on a ridiculous hopper and figuratively crossed my fingers. A few casts in, the tiniest little fry rose for it. I don't know how it opened its mouth big enough to take the huge foam piece. I sighed and, as delicately as possible, brought him in knowing this was my last fish—and probably more than I deserved. The fish gods must have suspected I'd hassle the population until I got something, and this was what they were willing to give. I snapped a pathetic picture in the shallows, his head and tail barely sticking out past my fingers and let him go. Keeping my promise, I packed up.
Fishing operates under an alternative rule of time in which hours pass in the rest of the world, while you barely even warm up casting. I’d already spent an hour longer at the lake than I intended, and besides, I knew there was a cold beer waiting for me down below to be enjoyed at the edge of a third lake. I’d had my fun today, soaked in the natural splendor (figuratively and literally), and fished. As a bonus, I caught a fish—or three, depending on how you’re counting—and had a few specific things to look up and learn from my day in the wilderness. I also learned I needed to add a snorkel, mask, and wetsuit to the fishing kit. Ha! A bad day fishing is still a good day, and a good day fishing—like today—was a darn good day. I still felt bad about the fish, and glanced back one more time, hoping to glimpse him in the act of glorious escape.
Before leaving, I balled up a bunch of line some other angler had lost to a scrubby brush and then saw another more tangled mess nearby. I yanked that one free, as well, and stuffed the disorder into my pack. Like a scout, leaving the spot a little better than I found it—or maybe just trying to tip my karma back toward neutral, and a better lot next time. As I set out, I tripped on a root. My shirt dripped, and my soggy shorts were wet in the crotch like I'd peed myself. I probably deserved it.
But heck, I’d do it again. No question.