Walt scanned the water intently as he walked. I followed behind, stumbling on a bank side rock and almost falling down trying to keep up. The creek in this spot was about 100 feet wide and the water was around 5 feet deep out in the middle. Walt went up to the top of the run in front of the shallow riffle and sat down on a fallen log and pulled the worn fly box from his vest pocket.
“This is a perfect night to try and fool one up to the surface Anders,” he said as he withdrew a heavily hackled dry fly from the clip inside.
“This is my own creation here. An elk hair tail, simple natural dubbed body and some spun deer hair up front. I’ve been playing with these materials for a while now and I like how they float. I make a few changes to it every now and again and it fishes pretty well.”
“I call it the Meadow Muffin” Walt continued.
“You name your flies Walt? I said inquisitively.
Well yeah, a flies gotta have a name don’t it kid?
“There are plenty of famous flies out there by lot’s of famous guys and I fish a lot of those flies. I also like to create my own. That’s the fun of fly tying son, there are no rules and you know what? The fish don’t care most of the time if it has the right profile and is sized right for the situation.”
He grabbed the leader from the fly line on the already strung rod and clipped the wet fly off and stuck it in his hat, quickly threading on the new dry fly in it’s place. He tied the fly on in an interesting way. After tying a simple clinch knot, he took the line and put a half hitch in it and slipped it over the eye of the fly and secured the hitch directly under the center of the eye.
“That there is what ya call a riffle hitch, it keeps the fly riding up at the surface when you have tension on the line and its quartered down stream swinging through the run.”
All of this was new to me, fly rods, steelhead, bushy dry flies, riffle hitching, tension on the line; Walt may have just as well been speaking Chinese. I just wanted to watch him cast the fly line and see what this was all about.
He then greased the dry fly with something out of a small jar and walked to a small rock outcropping that allowed him to be slightly above the water without getting wet.
Wordlessly he pulled line slowly from the reel, the gears and pawl growling low. After he had a little line off the reel he cast the line slightly down stream and the fly landed lightly and came under tension and waked across the surface of the fast, upper part of the run. When it got down stream of him he pulled a bit more line off and repeated the cast. Soon he was casting around 50 feet of line, and it was a sight to behold. There was no wasted motion as he pulled the line off the water at the end of the cast and flipped the whole thing behind him in a smooth fluid motion. Once the line was straight behind him he brought the rod forward, pulling down on the line in his left hand and sending the line out over the water in a tight loop, the fly neatly turning over at the end of the cast, line and fly landing straight and coming under tension immediately. It was a mesmerizing dance of man and fly rod; it was a beautiful thing to watch.
Walt had now made his way to the middle of the run, the water had slowed and there was more depth to the water. Rather than the fast, tumultuous water of the head of the run, the water now was flatter, glass like and swirly at times. The surface water shimmered with the influence of the many boulders just under the surface.
Walt’s fly skittered and danced across the water like a water skeeter, pausing slightly at times only to be torn away by a puff of water to continue it’s down and across arc. Again and again he cast as he slowly moved down the piece of rock he was standing on.
“Ah, it feels good to get out here again and cast” he said after some time.
“I don’t think I fished down here at all the last few years.”
After the wife passed I just never……..” his voice trailed off without finishing.
Then he began again, his voice noticeably breaking with emotion ”I was in a really bad place there for awhile Anders.”
I didn’t really know what to say, but could relate to what he was feeling for sure, what with my Dad being gone too. I started to think of my Dad again as I watched Walt cast. I fought with my own emotions in that moment, trying to keep it together but I just wanted to cry.
Luckily Walt broke the tension with an excited yell.
“Did you see that?” Walt squealed in a voice I had not expected from a 70 year old.
I had to admit I had no idea what he was talking about, my mind had drifted to thoughts of my father, the river and what was happening in front of me went out of focus briefly. Snapped back to reality with Walt’s exclamation, I turned and looked to see where he was pointing.
“I just rose a steelhead right over there, right off that break on the far side where that log is laid in the water. I had a feeling he would be there!” Walt then started to pull in his line but did not recast.
“Whatcha gonna do now Walt?” I said, having no clue what had actually happened, or what raising a steelhead even was. My thought was it was a good thing as that’s the fish he was chasing. I expected to see him send the fly back over to the lie and catch the fish.
I’m gonna have a smoke is what I’m gonna do.” Walt said suddenly very calmly.”
“Have a smoke?” “Why? I thought you were trying to catch a steelhead”
“I’m just letting the fish settle down a bit Anders, there’s no need to rush this thing. I know right where he is now, he showed himself to me.”
“What did he do, I was daydreaming and missed it.” I said awkwardly, kicking myself for not watching the whole drift of the fly.
Walt pulled out his pipe and stuffed it full, lighting it with the flick of a match across the leg of his jeans. He took several long draws on it before he continued.
“Pay attention here son, I’m trying to teach ya something. Ya can’t go drifting off into Candy Land and expect to learn anything about fishing. This is important stuff I’m trying to show ya!” He said gruffly.
“Now, raising a steelhead is a big deal Anders. It’s when you get a fish to move to the fly, almost commit and then for whatever reason, miss the fly, or decide he doesn’t want to eat it. The main thing is, we fooled him into showing us a few of his cards. These cards he showed will tell me a few things. We know he liked the fly. I now know where he lives, and by the type of rise I have a good idea he’s aggressive and will take another whack at this thing.”
Walt sat down on a corner of the out cropping he was walking down and leaned back against the smooth stone, worn and weathered from a thousand storms. The sun dropped on the horizon and the last rays disappeared behind a big sugar pine tree. I looked over in the field next to the creek and noticed the big mule hadn’t wandered far. The waist high grass kept him plenty busy eating to his hearts contentment.
Walt puffed on the pipe a few more times and then knocked it out on the heel of his boot, the embers fairly glowing in the fading light. He stood again and regained his position on the rock. The line was coiled up on the rock in a pile, waiting to be recast. The length was the exact distance where the fish rose.
“Imma gonna give it right back to him, same distance as before and see if I can get him to chase it” Walt said, excitedly.
“Oh boy this is fun, I almost forgot how it gets my heart a racing when these fish start to playing with me!”
I wasn’t gonna miss a thing this time. I watched intently as Walt gathered the line from the rock in his left hand and made one false cast backward then forward adding about half the line. In one more move backwards he added the rest of the line and sent it out over the water in a perfect arc. Before the line hit the water he reached upstream and flipped the line straight, the fly then landed light as a feather and started to wake.
My eye was tracking the fly as it neared the soft inside seam below the log, the water was glassy and flat and quite clear. I saw a large shadow moving quickly toward the fly, it was the steelhead for sure. The fish slowed as it got nearer and then came behind the fly, rising to the surface slowly then refusing the fly again in with a flash of its body. A slight bulge of water was all that was left on the surface. The fish returned back to it’s lie and the fly continued to swing.
“Oh he’s gonna eat something for sure!” Walt said with confidence. “It just may not be this fly”
He stripped the fly line in through his weathered hands again dropping it in loose coils at his feet. He grabbed the end of the leader and with his teeth he nipped off the deer hair fly and placed it in his hat. He pulled the small wet fly that he had attached to his hat earlier and tied it on.
“This is the comeback fly. I almost feel bad putting it on cause he’s gonna whack it this time. I could keep playing with the dry fly but he’s toying with me. This will seal the deal you watch.“
Walt wound up about 10 feet of line off the rock with a few turns of the reel.
“Whatcha doing that for Walt, wont you be way short of him now?”
“That’s right son, I’ll be a bit short but I want to slip it down to him a couple feet at a time now. I’m gonna re-cover the water a little above him and let him settle again. When he sees this little Coachman, he’s done.
Walt started in casting again and even a little shorter still, holding some line back in his left hand on the first drift. The fly was so small I could not see it and I followed the fly line as it swung, imagining about where the fly would be. Another cast and drift still 10 feet short of the lie. The next cast fell about 7 or 8 feet short of the lie and started to swing, suddenly there was a large boil and Walt’s line went tight, snapping against the guides, the old Hardy paying out line in short staccato bursts.
“There he is Anders! I knew the Coachman would get him!”
The fish was taking line fast and jumped several times. It was a steelhead of 6-7lbs and it was beautiful. Walt played the fish wonderfully but he had gotten to the end of the rock outcropping and could not chase him without getting wet.
The fish jumped two more times and spit the hook, the once taught line now laying limp in the slack water on the edge of the creek.
Walt threw his head back and was yelling and hooting like a crazy man. I had no idea a fish could make a man act like that.
Yahoooooooooooo! His big voice boomed of the canyon walls with pure joy.
I too was caught up in the moment. I had just witnessed a fish that would change my life.