by Scott Sadil
You know it will happen eventually. Stand on the bank at the bottom of the Long Eddy, launching casts that swing to heavy fish rising against a rock ledge, where the current bends and slowly accelerates and finally dumps back into the gut of the upper Columbia—all just below the Canadian border—and you can’t help but imagine the worst.
It’s drake season, and the fish takes a Black Quill emerger, size 8, swung on a taut line.
You have a much better chance from the downstream reach of the ledge. But as luck would have it, a guy and a gal showed up, the two of them spread apart along the spiky outcropping, a spot that suggests a
station from which better to target inshore bonita. Or calico bass. The rumble of upwelling currents, plus the sudden reversals of tens of thousands of cfs, stretched out in undulating patterns the size of football
fields, does nothing to quell the sensation of surf-fishing for misplaced rainbow trout. The guy can throw a long line. He wishes he could throw it longer.
“Anglers who happen upon these unruly waters, the largest trout river you’ll likely ever fish, invariably ask themselves about the nature of these remarkable fish.”
I realize the odds as the fish backs out of the bend and is gulped down the chute by the main current. I’m already rock-hopping. A two-foot-long trout has a lot of sail area; if they push five or six pounds or more, surface area alone allows them, in current, to empty a reel—even if they don’t turn around and race downstream. The current here, pressed against the end of the ledge, looks like the bow wake coming off the stem of a racing sloop. My line creases the far corner, dark and jagged as a rusty hull.
What are these upper Columbia trout? Where do they come from? How do they get so big? Anglers who happen upon these unruly waters, the largest trout river you’ll likely ever fish, invariably ask themselves about the nature of these remarkable fish. Are they native redbands? Vestigial steelhead from a time before the great salmonid vasectomy executed by the construction of Grand Coulee Dam? Can they really grow to such impressive dimensions eating just insects—even if the black quill and various caddisfly hatches can seem, nightly, on the order of dangerous infestations? Just 20 years ago, there were still state fisheries biologists who argued that there were no resident rainbows living in this section of the river—while at the same time, a handful of savvy anglers concocted size 6 and 8 dry flies to imitate the dark summer mayfly that was first called, mistakenly, a Hexegenia. Much else has been learned about this fishery—although nobody with a fly rod in his or her hand still knows exactly what to do when a 30-inch-plus trout, running with the roiled currents of the biggest river in the West, threatens to empty a reel of every inch of line.
Somehow I’m still tight to the fish when I come up alongside the gal casting from the downstream ledge.
“You may have to swim after it now.” She’s blond, of course, all smiles, half my age. We stand there, staring into the boiling blue river. Colliding currents swirl, swell, roar. Every time I lean on the fish, it takes more line. I apologize for a long string of obscenities.
“I can’t believe you ran over here without falling,” she says. “I can barely walk on this stuff.” Nearby, the guy lobs another long loop across a minuscule bite of the river.
Again I try leaning on the fish. Again I curse.
Then finally it yields.
I reel as fast as I can, the edge of the handle rattling against nail clippers and a pair of reading glasses dangling from my neck. I promise to watch my language if I can just see this thing. The fish turns and swims directly our way. I curse again, skipping backwards over the rocks to keep the line tight, finally reaching up to strip line that falls in a dangerous pile at my feet.
“This is fun,” says the gal, smiling above me on the jagged rocks. “I always
lose the big ones.”
I manage to get the loose line back on the reel. The fish bulls this way and that in the broad pool alongside the ledge. Beyond the quiet water, a vast upwelling lifts the river into a long wave that advances like a tidal bore our way.
“There it is!” The gal aims a finger at the pool. Wow,” she adds.
Wow is right. I inch my way down to the wet rocks, searching for a landing spot.
“I’ve got a net,” says the guy.
I guide the fish through deep water and a tangle of ledgy rocks. A shorthandled trout net appears; it’ll have to do.
The fish makes a sharp, frightening run into the shadows of underwater rocks. Then another. Finally the fish breaks the surface and I guide it to the net.
It all feels way too serious to celebrate. Maybe it’s my age. I take the net, the
fish. I hold the fish in both hands, raise it toward the butt of the rod—only to remember I’m fishing a 6-weight, not my usual trout rod with incremental 12- to 26-inch marks on it.
“What do you think?” the guy asks. “Twenty-four? Twenty-five inches?”
I get the fish back in the water. I keep hold of the thick wrist of the tail, all the while admiring yet another faultless UC trout sparkling in the sunlight, good as they come if not nearly so big.
The body flexes; I open my hand and the fish glides free, already beginning to fade into shadows.
“There it goes,” says the gal.
Scott Sadil lives in Hood River, Oregon. His newest fiction collection, Goodnews River, will be released soon by Stackpole Books.