Jared pulled off the road, tight to the blackberries, and smiled to himself. Sure, this might be the most famous piece of steelhead water in the world, but you could always find your own corner of the river if you were willing to work a little harder than the guys who stood shoulder-to-shoulder and then bitched about it.
He looked both ways and then ducked quickly under the fence. He had to slide the rod ahead of him and crawl on his belly a bit, but then there was a little fold where the culvert came under the road, and he could stand up and walk pretty easily along it to the river, now that he had pruned a path out. The berries went all the way from the road to the water, so even the drift boaters didn’t pull up here, but Jared knew that once he got to the water there was a nice little slot tight to the near bank, and a riffle on the other side. There was something magical about this spot.
The sun was out and if he thought about it, he could just barely feel that snap in the air that let him know winter was creeping down out of the mountains. This was his favorite time of year. The bittersweet end of summer and lazy days, but it was easy to be outside, and all of the fish were starting to move into the river.
He sat on the bank for a second and thought a bit, then tied on a Skykomish Sunset. He always liked that fly and chose it more because it fit his mood than because he was targeting anything in particular. He hadn’t actually had much luck with it, but he always felt he should, especially here on the Sky.
The Winston flicked in his hand almost as if it had a mind of its own. The best of everything; that was his grandfather’s legacy. Grandfather used to say that his grandfather made so much money in the East that he had to come west to find room for it all. Jared reminisced about the old man and his stories for a while, but was taken out of it when a fish hit his fly almost as soon as the fly hit the water.
Jared flashed a big smile and played the fish artfully, not even bothering to put it on the reel. He had just brought it in and was looking down admiring it when a girl spoke from the bank.
“Wow, that’s a beauty.”
Jared was so surprised he almost dropped his rod. Just downstream from him was a beautiful girl about his age. The kind of woman who makes a pair of jeans and a man’s work shirt seem like an evening gown. She had strawberry blond hair and freckles across her nose, her eyes were blue and seemed almost to have no pupil. She was all air and water. Other than seeming a little flushed, there was no indication of how she got there.
“Yeah, it’s a sea-run cutthroat.”
“Are you going to keep it?”
“I could, they’re only protected in the ocean, but not the river. But, a fish this size is probably ten years old.” He held it up, and it was almost twenty inches long. “Look at how the light shines on them, I don’t know.” He shrugged.
“Like a phantom,” she almost whispered.
“Yeah,” he grinned. “That’s just what I was going to say, but I didn’t want to sound silly.”
She smiled back. “That’s not silly, it’s beautiful. So that’s like the nicest thing you could ever catch, huh?”
“Well, I’m partial to them, but they don’t fight like a rainbow. In this river the rainbows are actually even scarcer than the cutties.” The fish slid out of his hand and disappeared into the water like smoke.
He looked up but the girl was gone. He shrugged and cast back into the riffle. The fly danced through the current and just as it hit the end of its swing, a big ’bow took it right out of the water and started running downstream on him. This one he put on the reel. He had to chase it downstream a hundred yards or so, and then half that distance back. It was a real beauty. Fat as his forearm and longer. He’d just about forgotten the girl when she spoke up, startling him all over again.
“So is that a rainbow?” He looked up, there she was right across from him, standing on a rock. How did she do that, he wondered? She was breathing a little hard and it looked like she had a sheen on her brow, but her cuffs weren’t even wet. She was a vision in the late afternoon light. It was hard to be angry at someone stealing your solitude when she was as cute as that.
“Oh, yeah. And it’s a beauty. So big, I almost thought it was a steelie.”
“Short for steelhead. That’s actually what this river is famous for. See the rainbows run to sea and get real big, then they come back. There’s something, I don’t know…” For the second time today he found himself searching for words.
“Noble.” She said it just like that, a statement, not a question.
He looked her in the eye for a moment. But before he could speak there was a big splash behind him. He practically dropped the rainbow. There it was again, a steelhead tail-walking over by the slot! That was some pretty strange behavior for a steelhead. His heart was beating so quickly he fumbled the first cast, had to take a knot out of the second, and finally on the third cast put it right in front of the fish, if it was still there. The fly hit the dangle and he let it sit there, and then he felt the tug. He remembered what his grandfather had told him. “A salmon is a cat, it’s going to play with your fly like a ball of yarn. But a steelhead is a dog chasing a ball. You gotta let it catch the ball and start to run with it, then you set the hook.” True to form, the fish turned downstream and he lifted the rod. This wasn’t the biggest fish he’d ever caught, but it worked him the hardest. It was probably fifteen minutes before he beached it, wondering all the while if he would manage to keep it on. It seemed to spend as much time in the air as in the water.
“Wow.” There she was again, looking over his shoulder. This time she was in the water too, up to the top of her red canvas tennis shoes and sockless feet. Her hair was mussed and one strand fell in front of her eyes. She blew it out of her way in manner he could tell was a long habit. Something always fixed and never taken care of. “So that’s a steelhead?”
“Oh, yeah and a beauty. Never saw one jump like that before. See the silver in it? It’s like they bring the ocean home with them.”
“Are you going to keep this one?” she asked.
“No, they are too rare. Unlike salmon, they survive spawning and head back out to sea. Besides this is a wild fish, you can only keep the hatchery fish.”
She looked at him, one corner of her mouth pulled up, unsophisticated as a child, not at all like the girls he knew.
“So if you keep putting them back, what’s the point?”
He caressed the fish, holding it in the water to let oxygen into its gills.
He laughed a little. Everyone always asked that. He’d even asked his grandfather that. “My grandfather used to say that all fly fishermen are out here because they either have something to forget, or something to find. And ‘something’ is always a woman.” He laughed, remembering the old man with his mixture of wisdom and humor.
“And whom are you trying to forget?” They made eye contact again. He meant to laugh it off, but for some reason, it died in his throat. She had a way of pulling things out of him. “Oh, I’m not like that. Nothing serious for me yet. I just like being out here, the thrill of the hunt, I guess. The chase.”
“So, it’s somebody to find.” Now she was twirling that lock around a finger and chewing her lip. He couldn’t take his eyes off of her. “You do seem more like the heart-breaker type than the heart-breakee type. A girl would probably have to try pretty hard to keep your attention.”
He was mulling that over when he saw a flash behind her. The steelhead was recovered, so he let it go, then made a little roll cast with the line still at his feet. A couple of casts got him nothing, so he changed up to a little chartreuse fly and drifted it down as if he were nymphing. At first he thought he had hit a log, but when he lifted it to free it, it fought back. This one was more of a battle of strength than tactics and in a few minutes, he had a chum salmon at his feet.
“Holy cow, that is huge!” Her hair was definitely more mussed and her blush disappeared into the top of her button-down shirt. Can you keep that one?”
“It is big, but it’s a chum. People call them ‘dog salmon.’ See how ugly it is? They don’t taste very good either.”
She made a little moue. “Oh.” She seemed kind of disappointed.
“It’s my first salmon of the year, though. The pinks should be in right behind them. Those are more fun to catch.” He wasn’t as careful with the salmon as he was with the trout.
“So, now you are fishing for pinks?”
“Well, sure that would be great, I mean, what a day!” He started working the slot again. Every pass he got a couple of tantalizing bumps but no hook ups. That was okay, though, to have a little challenge, he thought. He methodically began casting, taking three steps, casting. He looked over to say something to the girl, but she was gone again. Where did she keep going? Finally, a hook up. This one fought more than the chum. At first he thought he might have another steelie, but as it got closer he saw it was a female pink. Now that he was in the shade, he could see the male humpies in formation around the hens.
“A pink?” She was wet to the knees now, and definitely breathing harder, which made him feel better somehow.
“Yup. It looks like I flossed it though.” He held up the fish. “See how it took the hook through the outside of the face?”
“Well, I didn’t really catch this fish fair. That is, I didn’t fool her with my fly and get her to take it. She was just sitting there and the hook hit her. Makes me feel kind of bad.”
“This is such a weird sport!”
He laughed a little. “My grandfather used to say, ‘If fishing was a sport, there would be trout with people mounted over their mantles.’”
She laughed with him. “I think I like your grandfather. Keeper?”
“Nah. Besides flossing her, this is a hen. She’s full of eggs. I’ll put her back and let her finish her job. Besides, the pinks are kind of a nuisance. If I can get through them, there should be some silvers underneath, though. Now that is a sweet fighting fish, and good to eat, too.”
He switched to a sinking tip with a hot pink fly. When he looked up she was gone again. He made a mental note to look in the bushes. Perhaps there was a fishing trail there after all and he could save himself having to wade back upstream.
Bump, bump, bump again. He couldn’t tell if he was hitting fish or the bottom. The pinks were definitely thick now, but he was sure he was seeing silvers in there with them. Right at the tail out, he picked one up. This one was a devil. It sought every snag and undercut on the river. It ran him through all of the other fish, and he could feel them like running through sheets on a clothesline. Eventually his luck prevailed, right up to the end, when the fish jumped not a rod length way and shook the hook.
“I think that one was laughing at you. Playing hard to get, but she never intended to be yours anyway.” There she was again, now her hair was wet, like she had been working hard or running. She wasn’t holding herself so easily now either, like she was getting tired.
“Dammit. That one was a keeper for sure.”
She was laughing at him; it sounded like water in a brook. “That sounds like you, the only one you wanted so far was the one you couldn’t have!”
“Well, it’s not all about landing them, it’s enough just to have hooked it. That was a good fight. Almost as good as a king.”
“King salmon. Those are the biggest fish in the river. Best tasting, too. And, pretty rare here. I’ve never even hooked one of those.”
“Hmm,” she said, twisting her hair again. The trees were throwing long blue shadows over the water. He tied on a classic hairwing Highlander Atlantic salmon pattern his grandfather was fond of. One of his “courtship flies” he called it. It was so beautiful Jared rarely took it out of his wallet, but tonight it seemed right.
Like clockwork, when he looked up, his sprite was gone. He fished through the run, enjoying how the fly cast and its action in the water. Somehow it connected him to the past and all of the men who plied solitary waters. He thought of the girl, who had been gone so long he assumed she must’ve left. The shadows had gone from blue to purple and he knew that time was running out.
One last cast, he thought, and the fly sailed out on a beautiful tight loop. The kind of cast you can’t make when you are fresh and full of vigor, but only late, when you have gone past effort and thought. He felt as if he was flying through the air with the little feathered device. A cast this perfect, if there is any justice, must end with a fish on it. He couldn’t really see the fly on the water, but he was sure he felt the fish coming before he actually got the hit. The line cut back upstream through the whitewater, throwing its own wake behind it. The line sung off the reel. It was full dark when he finally had the fish at his feet in the shallows. It must’ve been over twenty-five pounds! He reached down to grab it by the tail, wondering how he was going to kill it and get it back to the car in the dark.
“Some day, huh?’ The voice came out of the dark, he couldn’t tell from where. By some trick it seemed to come from the river.
“So, did you catch every fish in the river?”
“It sure seems it.”
“Must be perfect then. How could you ever top this?”
In the dark he had worked his way to the fish and the end of the line.
“Well,” he said, “it would’ve been absolutely perfect if I had taken a Dolly Varden on a dry fly. Man, that would be some story to tell!”
With a dismissive splash that soaked him, the fish was gone, and he was alone in the dark.