Essay by Sam Larson
I’m staring at a brown trout. It’s hovering near the front of the pool, tipped upwards and watching the surface. The water is so clear I can watch the trout’s fins swirl, holding it off to one side of a seam. I haven’t moved in a minute or so, doing my best to imitate the rip-rap and tumbled brush that lines the side of the river. I’m rubbing the cork grip of my tenkara rod with my left thumb, letting the line drift in the current and thinking about how I need to present the fly at the top of the seam. How I’m going to have to cast almost straight up to avoid the bramble behind me, and how I need to keep my arm high so the line doesn’t land on the water.
This stretch of the canyon is steep. Getting from pool to pool means scrambling over water-smoothed granite boulders, kicking the toes of my wading boots into crevices between the stones. The fish have gotten spookier the higher I move up the drainage. More than once I’ve pulled myself over the top of a rock and seen a half dozen fish scatter as my silhouette looms against the sky. Each netted fish, and sometimes each strike, is enough to put down the rest of the pool.
The canyon walls have closed in on either side and the sky overhead has diminished to a narrow strip of deep blue. Errant cumulus clouds pilot overhead, the prelude to this afternoon’s coming thunderstorm. As each cloud crosses the canyon the light dims and the water darkens. I cast when the clouds have passed, thinking that the glassy water and bright sunshine help my fly stand out in sharp relief, a slow-drifting temptation for trout eager to embrace another season of plentiful hatches and bountiful food.
I drag my line out of the current, and give it a few false casts to shake the water out of the fly. I’ve used the same yellow elk hair emerger all day and have had good luck with it, though the hair wing is starting to look ragged. This is the first dry fly day of the year and my back cast is light and fast, freed from the heavy clunk of weighted nymphs. I realize how much I’ve missed the swish and flex of my tenkara rod. In the months to come I won’t have to foul my cast with anything heavier than a foam hopper and that thought makes me ridiculously happy. In less than a month I’ll be able to wet wade. Shortly after that the alpine lakes and streams will ice out, opening up backpacking season and the chance to fish for high-altitude cutthroat.
A soft flick and the fly lands at the top of the pool, right where I had visualized it. I freeze and stare hard at the fly as it starts to drift. The brown trout is still holding to one side of the seam and as I watch he rises to my fly and turns to follow it, hovering just below the surface. At the end of the seam the trout turns, sinks, and swims back to his holding position. I let the current sweep the fly well below the trout before I pick it up out of the water. I go back to watching the trout and rocking slightly in my wading boots.
Deciding to rest the fish for a few minutes, I bring in my line and blow hard at the elk hair wing on my fly, trying to get it to fan out and dry quickly. More clouds scud overhead and the canyon dims and dapples, with sunlight poking down through holes in the clouds. When I look up I can see the trailing edge of the clouds closing in on the blurred disc of the sun. I shake the line out and get ready to cast.
The sunlight hits the water again and everything turns to tea-stained glass. The pebbled river bottom, the algae swaying in the current, and the trout all snap into sharp relief.
I cast the fly back up to the top of the pool and the fish surges forward, gulping the fly with a smack and a splash. He sets the hook himself when he dives back to the bottom and I feel him kicking and lunging at the end of the line. If there were any more unseen trout lurking in this shallow pool, no more than a slow eddy between tumbled rocks, they’ve all scattered by now. I grab the line with my right hand as the trout dashes in front of me and guide him in towards the shore. Kneeling in the sand, I tuck the handle of my tenkara rod behind my chest pack and start to pull the line in.
When I have the trout in hand I reach down and twist the hook from the corner of his mouth. Under the water’s surface I hold the trout in my palm, watching his eyes whirl and gill plates flex. I can feel the motion of his fins against my fingers and I can’t help but run my thumb gently down the top of his back, reveling in the intricate mottling on his flanks, the gold and black, the red spots ringed in pale cyan. It reminds me of river bottoms, of current-tossed gravel and stone flecked with mica.
My touch awakens something in him and he kicks his tail softly against my fingers. I lay my palm flat and he swims slowly out of my hand, settling behind a rock less than a foot in front of me. I stay kneeling there for a minute more, watching him rock back and forth in the current. When I rise the trout darts from behind his rock into the deepest part of the pool, vanishing beneath a whorl of foam.
Overhead, the clouds continue their march to the east and beams of sunlight flash on the water’s surface. I bring in my line and wrap it loosely around my hand, hooking the fly into the top of the cork grip on my tenkara rod. Upstream, over the next tumble of grey, river-washed granite, is another small pool topped with yet another careless-seeming pile of rock over which clear water splashes, and then another glass-topped pool. And so it goes up the canyon, the river wandering back and forth across its stone bed, tumbling down granite-floored steps towards the plains of the Front Range to join the heavy currents of the Platte on their way to the ocean.
I marvel that the water I’ve touched will rejoin all other waters and rise again into clouds over unknown terrain, then fall on mountain slopes and flow downstream to nourish yet unborn trout. The sun-warmed granite is smooth under my hand as I clamber along the river bank, gazing into each pool, searching for a flashing fin or a swirling plunge of freckled scales.
Sam Larson lives, works, writes, and fishes in Colorado’s Front Range. Given half a chance he’ll shirk responsibility and disappear into the woods for days at a time with his tenkara rod and a selection of largely disreputable fellow anglers.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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