In love with a river

Will you be my girlfriend? Check 'yes' or 'no'
Canadian Rocky Mountain trout stream
Photo: Chad Shmukler

Affinity for place is hardly an angler’s monopoly—everyone with a pulse has favorite destinations that require frequent visits, if for no other reason to ensure that all remains intact, both with the locations, and with the visitor.

My fishing soul possesses a handful of places I visit every so often, from the high-country trickles of my youth to rainforest salmon streams that feel my footprints just once every few years. I’m relieved, more often than not, when I find these places largely intact. These are the places where the fisherman in me was formed—the locations where everything from my reach cast to my angling ethic were shaped and molded into what essentially makes me tick to this day.

It’s not often that I add to this inventory of destinations. Very few places have such a profound impact as to ensure the need to return in order to refresh, recharge and relive. But now and then, a place reaches out and slides a barbed hook into the fabric of my being, ensuring that I must come back to slake some spiritual thirst.

Giggle if you like, but I bet I’m not alone. Even now, well into my 40s, I’m susceptible to the wiles of rivers and the fish in them. I give in to the initial attraction, the sex appeal, if you will, and like any worthwhile relationship, I fail to realize I’m in love until I’m long gone and the memories leave me yearning for more. Just one more cast into that deep, green pool. I want just one more chance to put a fat Green Drake behind that boulder where I know a wild and willing cutthroat lies in wait.

I fell in love again recently, with a wild Canadian river that has waited patiently for my first visit. It’s as if it knew all along that we were a match, but it played an enduring—and endearing—game of hard-to-get. It’s flowed for eons off the shoulders of the Rockies, and I’ve known its name for a good two decades. But it always seemed so far away, so hard to get to. And what if, when I visited, it turned a cold shoulder and rejected my sincere advances? What then?


I stepped into the river for the first time on a July afternoon, and it was a tough read. No evident hatches. No rises. But its beauty couldn’t be ignored—curves and soft edges. Tight corners. Deep green pools that oozed mystery and temptation. Tailouts where, in other rivers like it, a guy could spend a day casting without moving more than a few hundred yards. I’ll admit I was smitten at first, although I, too, can play hard to get. I wasn’t about to just cast a line and be immediately disappointed.

So I found a rock and plopped down on the bank and just watched. Upstream from where I sat, the river braids into a pair of channels, both of which are plenty fishy. They come back together after a short separation and collide in a mishmash of heavy water that flattens out over a deep, seemingly bottomless pool. On the far bank, a rock wall descends into the water and, over time, massive boulders have crumbled off that wall, creating a small eddy. And in that eddy is where I saw the first fish rise.

I watched for a bit, mostly to make sure my mind wasn’t just playing tricks on me, and that the fishy nose I saw break the surface wasn’t some aberration, some mind-meld being carried out by a river that seemed almost too good to be true. I watched as a huge green dun, wings upright and nearly ready to take flight, drifted through the fast water and then got sucked into that small eddy. And I watched as the nose lifted out of the water again and this time rolled over the bug, revealing a deep, bronze body that took my breath away.

“That’s a big fish,” I said out loud to absolutely nobody.

I reached for my rod and clipped the searching pattern—a perfectly good terrestrial ant that might have worked just fine—off the tippet and dug through my box for a freshly purchased Green Drake imitation. I remember buying the fly just an hour or so earlier from a curvy 20-something redhead in the little café-fly shop combo in the generally remote little Canadian town enroute to the river. She had a sweet smile and kind eyes, and she batted her eyelashes just enough to spur the purchase of some flies and a smoked ham panini, even though my box was bursting with drakes and I’d just had breakfast a short time before. I’m a sucker for a sweet smile. And curves.

“Thanks,” I said as she brought the sandwich out to me.

“You betcha,” she said, smiling. She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Good luck today.”

I’m sure I blushed.

I watched the eddy while I worked the knot and liberally slathered the floatant over the fly’s fur and feathers. It would be a tough cast and a tougher drift, but if I could get it just right and get just a few seconds of a drift, I could put my hands on that massive fish. As I tied the fly to the tippet, it rolled twice more, each time causing me to shake my head in awe.

“That’s a damn big fish.”

Finally ready, I waited some more. This was that moment. Smitten, I was about to make the ask that would determine the future of this relationship. Rejection would be hard to take, and I wanted to make sure the mood was just right. The fish rose again, and, for the first time, a second trout nosed the surface a few yards downstream. I had to get the fly into that eddy.

The first cast was predictably clumsy. I was nervous, as if I was about to deliver that first sixth-grade note to a real prospect—the tall blonde with the perfect teeth who smiled at me in the lunch line.

“Will you be my girlfriend? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

The drake landed about two feet short and sailed by the eddy without getting caught in its grip. I lifted the fly from the water lightly and watched the eddy for a bit longer. The fish rose again. Good. I hadn’t spooked anything.

My next cast was better, right up against the rock wall, and I was certain it would drift perfectly into the eddy. I threw in a mend to make sure it didn’t drag, but the fly got caught prematurely in the eddy’s watery vacuum and disappeared under the dark water. I’d cast just a few inches too long.

I let the fly swing through the eddy underwater, knowing that even this could spook a fish if I was particularly unlucky. As the lined pulled tight with the current downstream, and I lifted the fly out of the water, the big trout rolled again over yet another hatching mayfly. It was still there. It was still eating.

I false cast over the eddy to dry the fly, spraying a mist of cold river water over my target, and then I let it go. The fly landed upright, it’s white calf-tail wings floated proudly and it worked its way toward where it should drift into the eddy. I tossed in a quick mend, and the fly drifted right over the sweet spot.

Everything slowed down. I knew the imitation was right where it should be. Where it needed to be. The note had been delivered. I waited. The fish rolled over the fly, and my line went tight, vibrating slightly and shedding water as the tension between me and the river launched a love affair.

The river said yes.


Great story, Chris. Please also update us on how your summer RV adventure is working out.