The dogwoods’ stark white blooms peeked out from behind pines as unfamiliar water teased with promise. A slight breeze carried mayflies upstream. Spring was winding its way higher and higher up the Sierra Nevada range, bringing renewal. It arrived with a beautiful recklessness.
Wildflowers popped up randomly, seeking purchase in the cracks of granite boulders. The river, though somewhat tamed by a mild winter, flowed high with snowmelt. If the warmth of the day suggested that this trout season would peak early, it was the mayflies that served notice that the spring runoff had already begun to recede.A decision to devote this year to exploration of the many streams and rivers surrounding The Cabin led me to this upper stretch of the Tuolumne River; a widely known section, until now, unvisited. Upstream, pocket water was edged by sedges, willows and horsetails, while downstream plunge pools hugged outcroppings of granite. It’s just shy of a month since the start of the season yet it was only my eyes that scanned the water that morning for any hint of fish.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that all of the time spent and distance traveled to this and similar waters is devoted to casting practice, or perfecting my presentation. It’s the fish that I’m after. Thus far this season, however, I’ve fallen under the spell of ‘the turn.’ Fly fishermen more commonly will speak fervently about ‘the take,’ and it can be exciting, but for me it’s the anticipation that builds with that telltale flash, or if sight fishing, the shift of an eye or opening of the mouth that comes before the strike or refusal. It’s the amount of this turn, lack thereof, or ultimately the take that offers the most accurate appraisal of a fly’s presentation.
It was upstream that I half kneeled behind a boulder, tossing more than casting a dry/dropper combination into a likely pocket. Almost imperceptibly the dry fly, a yellow humpy this time, skipped a beat and the hook was set. The reward was eight inches of a brilliantly painted wild rainbow trout. The fish had struck a small, size 18 red-butt Zebra midge I tied on a whim last fall, not knowing or caring if it was an actual pattern. After a quick look at the little fish, I slipped it back into the water.
My casting went unanswered for a while and I headed downstream, purposely ignoring the pool just below where I had parked the car. With the new trout season came the stocking of fish, and it really wasn’t speculation to think they’d still be there later.
It was more bushwhacking than fishing on the way downstream. Any fish that might have been there remained unseen. The same gradient that allowed for a stairway of likely pools also funneled this part of the river into a canyon. With the passing of years I have come to understand a need to balance the distance traveled in the search for fish with the consideration that an equivalent distance must be retraced to my starting point. I turned around when venturing further downstream meant following a trail too far away from the water. Less attractive was the slippery bed of pine needles and the leaves of California black oaks.
On a piece of lichen-dotted granite — not a boulder, more of an exposed part of the mountain — I sat, watched and listened. Thought not silent, there was peace in the sounds of the river washing over rocks, the breeze rocking the tip tops of the trees and chirping birds unmindful of my presence. Heading upstream meant hiking uphill and arriving at the pool previously disregarded, my excuse was taking time to watch the water while the truth was I needed to catch my breath.
This was one of those long, wide pools that suggest fish and are often quickly fished out. Grabbing my attention on the opposite bank, however, was what looked to be the tip top of a pine tree, out of which sprung gnarled branches extending into the water and above its surface. It was prime shelter just off the fastest seam. Not fishing means not catching, but in my few short years of fly fishing I’ve learned from my quarry to maximize reward with efficiency, so I waited and watched. First it was only a nose prodding the water’s surface inches away from the branch, then a small splash. A fish finally crashed through the surface. Though its prey was unseen, I tied on a black-bodied caddis and stripped line for a cast.
A simple quartering upstream cast put my flies just out of sight of the fish but in a current that would pull them just past the ripples of another rise form. The first look at the dry fly was only a tentative bump. Readjusting and allowing my back cast to go high over the willows behind me, I would cast a few more times before appetite overwhelmed caution, and a decent rainbow came to the net.
This was the game played over the next hour or so. I’d periodically examine my knots and flies, taking my time and only casting again when the trout’s feeding fell back into a natural rhythm. Half a dozen more fish were fooled and more than a few of those netted.
I’m not a great caster, and often label my casting skill as ‘simply adequate.’ Normally a difficult-to-reach fish would be ignored. That wouldn’t be the case today.
What caught my attention was a couple of regular rises, slightly downstream and on the other side of the tree, underneath a branch extending about three feet above the surface. The tree top seemed to end somewhere below that branch, allowing for another couple of feet of clear water before a boulder diverted the river back into the main part of the pool. In hindsight it’s hard to tell why I tried the cast, though in the moment there wasn’t much thinking involved, only action. The fly fell right where intended and travelled no more than six inches before it was inhaled.
This was one of those rare moments, and a sense of wonderment washed over me. A decent rainbow trout and I exchanged looks. I released it, but it lingered between my boots before slowly disappearing upstream. More casts were made, most on target. Hook sets were missed, but some connected and I would be eyeball-to-eyeball with three more fish.
There was an unusual contentedness within when I left about noon, happy to have found fish, and happy they were willing.
Twas an imployment for his idle time, which was not idly spent; for angling was after tedious study, a rest to his mind, a cheerer of his spirits, a divertion of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a Moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness, and that it begot habits of peace and patience in those that professed and practice’d it.”
— Izaac Walton, The Complete Angler, or Contemplative Man’s Recreation: Being a Discourse on Rivers, Fish-Ponds, Fish and Fishing (1653, 8th ed.)