I could catch more fish. For starters, I could nymph. Or sling streamers. Or fish with a dropper. At the very least, when there are no fish rising, I could prospect likely water with an attractor pattern, a hopper or a gaudy stonefly dry. Any of these tactics would increase my hook-ups; employing all of them would get me on a bunch more fish. I’d be lying if I said I never try these things, but usually I’m just as happy to walk along the river, rod in hand, watching the water for the first subtle sign of trout taking bugs from the surface. Walking and watching, but not casting.
On my first trip of the year to my home stretch of islands and side channels on my favorite river, I was anxious to be the first one there and, as a result, arrived a couple hours too early. I saw no bugs in the air or on the water, no trout rising. But it was noon, and the blue wing olive hatch hadn’t been happening until closer to 2 p.m. So I waded across the narrow side channel to the first island, and my mind took me through 20 years of fishing and walking this stretch of water.
The first section on this stretch is upstream of the trail. The surface is so smooth you can see for 200 yards if any fish are rising. Today, there were none. I didn’t even bother tying on a fly, just looked at the water.
It was on this section where I learned to catch big fish on dry flies. My friend Galen was my patient instructor. Both of us were graduate students, he was eight years older and stout, a linebacker to my cornerback frame, and this particular summer we shared the happy coincidence of neither of us having jobs and the weather being, for months on end, overcast and moist. Mayflies thrived under the cloud cover, and we returned to the same quarter mile of slow water four or five evenings a week, fishing to the same large rising trout, “the usual suspects,” we called them, fishing side by side and taking turns that lasted until you either had a take or put the fish down.
My education came in three phases, equally long. The first was getting one of these big rainbows—between 18 and 22 inches—to actually go for my presentation. The second phase was learning the soft feel of the hook set, raising the rod ever so slightly, hard enough to sink hook into flesh but not so hard as to break the 5x or 6x tippet the conditions and fly size required. The final phase was learning how to get the trout into the net. These were strong, athletic fish, and a typical fight would begin with heavy thrashing in the slow, shallow water, a couple dramatic jumps, and then a reel-screaming run for deeper, faster water. Sometimes the fish would turn back toward you, racing faster than you could reel or strip, to put slack in the line. Often, nearly within reach of the net, they would jump again, three or four times, then tear for deeper water again. More than once they caught me standing with my feet too far apart and swam between my legs, wrapping the hairlike tippet until it broke. Underwater rocks with sharp edges, tree branches trapped beneath the surface—these were targets the big fish knew how to use.
Today, with none of the usual suspects showing themselves, I decided to head downstream. Just below the first of three islands is the site of the most memorable fish I’ve never caught. The time of year was probably spring, although it could have been as late as late June, because later in the summer this side channel all but dries up. It’s a slow, shallow curving channel with a log pile on the deep, inside curve and shallow water giving way to willow saplings on the other. Rarely had we seen fish rise there, and never had we caught one.
On that day years ago, for some reason, we inspected the pool and saw what appeared to be a large trout delicately slurping tiny mayflies from the surface. Galen and I crawled on our knees through the spindly willows toward the pool. We reached the water’s edge, still on our knees, and Galen tied on the smallest parachute Adams he had, for it was his turn to cast. Galen had a graceful, delicate casting stroke, and I was envious of the way his fly line looped magically in the air, even in this difficult spot where his backcast had to clear the willows around us. He landed his fly perfectly, time and again, drifting it drag-free over the feeding trout, and each time the trout ignored it, rising to naturals between Galen’s drifts. Finally, frustrated by the fish, Galen said it was my turn, and I found an Adams in my box that was slightly smaller than what he’d been using, probably a 20 or a 22, and tied it to my 6x. In my memory, it was the first cast I made, and the fly drifted perfectly over the spot where the trout had been rising, and he rose to my fly and gulped it down, and we saw how big the fish was, easily a 20-inch rainbow. No sooner had he shown himself than he made a mad run straight for the log jam, and I, in a moment of desperation, tried to put the slightest pressure on my reel to slow the fish, and he snapped me off before I could even rise from my knees. I’ve caught many fish that size that I hardly remember. This one that I hooked after so much effort and lost after less than five seconds will be vivid in my memory forever.
At the bottom of the second island is the hole where Galen’s luck changed. This was years after he’d taught me to catch big fish, when I’d started catching more than he (something he joked about but was, I think, a little irritated by). It was spring and the water was on the high side, flowing through young flooded willows. Galen spotted a fish rising that at first I didn’t see and that, once I saw it, thought was insignificant. He insisted it was a monster, and he threw his gray drake to the edge of the spindly willows again and again, the fish ignoring it but continuing to rise. Finally, he hooked the fish and as the water erupted, so did Galen. A shout of joy and braggadocio, some Texas-twang admonitions to the fish and to whoever else might be listening. The trout jumped and ran and took out line. Galen played the fish for close to five minutes—it was every bit the monster he’d predicted—and then, just like that, it was off. No mistake, no broken tippet, just gone.
Galen was crestfallen in a way I’d never seen him. This fish, for some reason, meant more than most. He caught no more fish that day. His fly tangled in branches. He missed setting the hook. He broke his tippet on a heavy trout. He was the one who later pronounced that, at the moment he lost that fish in the willows, his luck had changed. And for the next several years, it seemed that he was right. He caught fewer fish, enjoyed them less, and kept looking back in his mind to whatever it was that that one lost fish had done to his psyche.
Of course, his health was starting to give him problems, too. Hepatitis C, which he eventually overcame, sleep apnea, which he never did. But along the way, we would have more years to fish together, though sporadically, as Galen moved from Montana back to Austin for another stint in graduate school, allowing most of his friendships in Missoula to grow cold.
I crossed this March day to the third island, where there were still no fish rising along the bank. I walked downstream well away from the shore so I wouldn’t spook fish. The last year Galen and I fished together, about ten years ago during one of his visits from Austin, I met him one afternoon on this stretch. He was already there, casting upstream to picky trout, and I walked toward him downstream, and possibly because I was happy to see him I didn’t give as wide a berth from the stream as I normally do, and he cursed me for it, for putting down the fish he’d been working for a while. Today, after walking for two hours without making a cast, I saw a single rise, and despite no hatch I caught my first trout of the day.
I started back the way I came and arrived at a stretch I call Desolation Flats. It often has rising fish, but the water is slow and shallow near the rocky shore where the biggest trout hold, and it requires extreme stealth. Just as I got to the shore, I saw a trout rise. Then another. And I saw blue wing olives floating daintily on the surface, a tiny flotilla, and there it was: the magic of the hatch. It’s what I’d been waiting for, what I was willing to wait for as I walked the islands and the side channels of my memory. Today I caught fish after fish in Desolation Flats.
Once a few years ago, before my second bout with cancer and after Galen had died of a heart attack in Livingston, Montana, having driven himself there from Twin Bridges in the middle of the night, making it to the hospital only to collapse dead in the parking lot before reaching the emergency room door, I fished Desolation Flats and had the feeling I was being watched. Galen was already on my mind that day, not just because of the countless times we’d fished this stretch of the river but because of an exchange I had with a stranger at the fly shop earlier that day. A man who looked like an older version of Galen was there to meet his guide. When I did a double-take, I found the man staring at me. He smiled, approached me, and asked if I was so-and-so, a guide he’d fished with a few years earlier. I told him I wasn’t, and went on my way, a little spooked by the coincidence of a stranger who resembled an old friend mistaking me for someone he knew.
Over the years, on these islands where Galen taught me to fly fish, I’ve seen deer, elk, moose, beavers, bears, owls, eagles and osprey. The day of the stranger in the flyshop was the first time I’d seen a coyote. I watched him pick his way through the willows as I stood waist deep in the water, casting toward shore. He disappeared for a while, and then, when I looked up again, he was back. He looked right at me, less than fifty feet away, and starting moving toward me—unusual behavior for a coyote. I talked to him, whistled lowly, and the coyote sat down at the edge of the water and watched me fish. Like he was my dog. Like he was my friend.
I’m not a religious person, and I have my doubts about God, but I like to keep my mind open to some form of spirituality. Most likely, there was no connection between the Galen look-alike in the fly shop and the coyote that appeared out of nowhere and shadowed my like a pet. But then again, who am I to say?
Enough years have passed that I doubt even the heaviest bonechunks of Galen’s ashes remain in the pools where I scattered them, in the slow water where he taught me to catch big fish, or in the side channel where he proclaimed his luck changed. Who knows, though, exactly what lies on the bottom of the river, among the rocks and the sandy soils. It’s hard to say what it is, exactly, that triggers the hatch. But it’s what I wait for when I go fishing, to see the insects rising, flying from the surface, settling back on the water and drifting downstream. And the trout, that previously had not betrayed their presence, rising to take them from the top, breaking through the barrier that separates liquid from gas, water from air, invisible from visible. I could catch more fish if I went beneath the surface or prospected attractors when no fish are rising. But the magic of the hatch is what brings me to the rivers. I’m willing to wait for it. To have faith. To catch fewer fish.