Every time I go fly fishing, there seems to be some subtle variation in local conditions that reduces me to looking like the rank amateur that I really am. Here in Talkeetna, Alaska, about midway between Anchorage and Denali, I fished for rainbows with a guide for two days, prior to the photo workshop that starts tomorrow. The local rivers were full of spawning salmon, which meant that the trout were feeding on salmon eggs.
“Have you ever fished eggs?” asked the guide.
Well, of course, I thought. Who hasn’t? You get them at a bait store and stick them on hooks and drop them in trout ponds when you get tired of fishing with cheese squares.
This is not, I soon realized, what he meant. We are fly-fishing; the artificial egg is threaded onto the leader and slides between the barbless hook and a few split shot sinkers. Theoretically, it should not be that different from casting a dry fly. Except that it sinks to the riverbed, and when the trout hits the egg it is not inhaling something with a hook on it. So you have to read the subtle nub and then try and set the hook, and of course the guide sees every strike instantly while you feel hardly anything, and by the time he yells, “Hit it!” the fish is gone.
I do admit that fly-fishing with salmon eggs takes a little of the mystique out of it. Sure, the idea is to present the fish with a replica of what it is eating. And make no mistake, as we literally walk over spawning salmon, eggs are what the trout are feasting on. Still, I don’t conjure up thoughts of some guy in a vest, hunched over his workbench on a freezing January night, tying salmon eggs. (“What’s that, grandpa?” “It’s a Wulff #6 rounded peppermint jelly bean, little Timmy!)
So okay, it took me a while to get the hang of it. But once you get the trout to bite, it doesn’t matter how you did it. You are now into Phase II, landing the fish. For this, I was totally unprepared. The first day, we got into some rainbows exceeding even the healthy fish I had caught in Yellowstone. The one pictured went somewhere north of 3 lbs, and I lost at least four bigger ones. They were running down river, flipping around, dragging me across the stream and then back again. Every time I lost one, there was a different reason. I wasn’t facing the fish. I had my hand on the reel. I didn’t have the rod raised and angled downstream.
Well I don’t mean to say I was a total flop. The first day I landed as many as I lost, and managed not to break any equipment, wrap too many eggs around overhanging branches and only fell in the creek once. Today, fishing six hours in a steady rain, I was much improved at Phase II. The trout, sleek and strong, were more in the 12-18 inch range, good fighters but not the stuff of legend like yesterday. I landed most of them. Though I wrapped a few more eggs around overhangs and, if the guide was right, missed dozens of strikes, some of them huge, lurking rainbows.
Hey, it was raining. Joints were creaking. Who in his right mind would be out in this kind of weather, anyway?
Generally, when it comes to fishing, whatever the charge is, I am guilty on all counts.