Fish Tales Squared by James L. Bruner
For this issue I’ve compiled two ancient fishing stories from my personal archives.
This Special Place
Everyone has their own special little place where, no matter how the day went or what tomorrow holds, the time spent there calms the nerves and brings peace of mind. A place where you feel in touch with everything around you and time has no measures. Whether it is a hardwood ridge in the fall or an open meadow of newly born crocuses in the spring, this is your space. Your safe haven from all the troubles and turmoil you have left behind.
My little haven happens to be a stretch of wild river that is as beautiful to behold as it is to fish. For some reason this river calls out to me. It beckons my bravery and sanity to try and cross without being swept under by the heavy current. To hold my footing as I glide my feet cautiously across the polished rock bottom. Many fishermen have been dunked and swept downstream of this river by charging across like a moose through young undergrowth. Respect has taught me to read a path across. As many fishermen will attest, knowing how to read a river is an art in itself. Reading the river can not only keep you out of harms way, it can put a lot more fish on the table.
This stretch of river is surrounded by 20 feet of rock face to each side. It is not for the most part a place for you to try out your freeclimbing skills. The top of the rockface is considerably more dangerous than the river as it is riddled with open fissures big enough for a large man to be swallowed whole. Natural springs produce numerous waterfalls introducing cool, oxygen enriched water to the waiting trout below. This is a stretch of quality trout water with a minimum size of 12″, and a creel limit of two. Enhancing the beauty further is an artificials only rule that keeps out the majority worm dunkers.
After much deliberation I opt for my spinning rod armed with a small arsenal of panther martins and rooster tails. My fly rod begs me to reconsider by falling out the door of the pick-up and nestling square across my feet. Ah, not today, you went last time. Walking away I feel a certain amount of guilt and indifference but one must still such critical choices even in a place such as this.
As I wade through the waist high tangle of everything that grows wild I can feel the river and all of it’s power and beauty filling my senses like a deer testing the wind for danger. Sparkles of water dancing like diamonds in the snow start to appear through the heavy vegetation. I can hear it. Like a strong wind building and sweeping through a cedar forest the river announces it’s presence to me. For a moment I stop and gaze, grinning and catching my breath, it is just as I left it.
The first glimpse at the drop down the rock face is intimidating. The best plan of attack is to lower the bottom half of your body over the edge with feet searching blindly for a solid foothold. What if… no, we wont go there. After completing the toe grip of death on the crumbling rock walls my shaky hands now slide to the edge. I can look down now, the rest is easy. A short descent and the river is at my feet. I have conquered the climb, now the river.
Might as well get the feet wet right from the start, it is inevitable in the long run. The first cast produces a small brown trout. Nothing big, but always special. This is not a place where trophies abound but they are here for the taking lurking the edges of the mainstream where the abundance of food gets distributed to those most skilled. Further downstream I hook into a decent fish and he’s a keeper as well as a good fight for a small spinning rod in the powerful current. A quick glance and he’s back in the water. That felt good. With dusk closing quickly I notice a good rise beginning and wish I had my fly rod. As I dream of floating a fly my rod bows to the river, good fish!
All of my thoughts of fly fishing quickly turn to the wise choice of choosing my spinning rod and fighting the football size brown. Oh, four pound test don’t fail me now. A quick run down the river with me in close tow and the fight is on. Hunkered down in the current I watch as the brown peels line heading for slower water. He has tired some. The trout leaves small wakes and boils on the rivers surface while searching, seemingly calm, for a place to hide. The water has taken on an ink-like appearance and the evening closes in. It’s now or never. I gain small amounts of line with slow steady pumps and quick retrieves while the trout approaches the only obstacle between us, the whitewater.
Working the fish towards the current I already feel a sense of satisfaction to have been part of this natural spectacle. As if on cue my prize brings me to my senses by stripping line that I had regained earlier. Into the current, a short run downstream, and alas… he’s on my side. Only thirty yards of line between me and the trophy which has begun to float on his side. He is mine. As I cup a gentle hand beneath his belly I feel his exhaustion. I see the longing for water as a prime trout out of his natural habitat seeks a need for another chance at life. I to feel a need as I release the somber giant back into the water. A need to leave things as I found them, in this special place.
The Brazen Bronzeback
The waters took on an ambience of tranquility as the oars sliced their way to the brackish backwaters of the long forgotten inlet hidden discretely by the overgrowth of unattended landscape. Each movement came with fluid ease, repeated time and again through stealth and persevered regimen that only trained professionals possessed. Common mistakes, like those of an errant oar slapping the waters surface, would surely send the trophy bronzebacks into a defensive mode and hasten any attempts to boat a true lunker. The heat of the day brought a steady sweat to my brow that trickled in endless streams of salty confidence. Knowing that the canopy ahead would provide a natural relief from the days heat I dared not wipe the burning discomfort from my eyes and risk missing a stroke with the oars. Numerous carp made their quick getaways in front of the boat leaving behind plumes of silt that hung in the still water like a great cloud of volcanic ash. The ever present urge to hook into one of these behemoths was justly over-ruled with the prospect of the waiting smallmouth that lay just ahead in the cool calm waters.
As I drifted silently into the cool darkness the world seemed to change. Even the scent of the air hung closer to the waters surface. A permanent aroma of moss and decaying wood filled the air while the silence was nearly deafening. The bright sandy bottom of the earlier water had turned to a stained, leaf littered bed of promise, harboring a variety of emerging crustaceans and structural ambush points. The water was teaming with a variety of airborne insects and water walkers that scurried with every move they made. A small but poignant swatch of lily pads jetted out from a fairly invisible rocky point protruding from the furthest edge of the inlet. Numerous stumps seemed to stretch in search of sunlight as they peered upward breaking the waters glassy appearance in the distance. Each appeared to harbor a pair of dragonflies who’s contrasts of ocean blue and green colors announced their presence against the weathered stumps. My excitement was suddenly heightened by a small boil that appeared 30 feet to my left near one of the stumps.
In a motion as slow as that of a hunter I reached for my fishing rod equipped with 6 pound test and a motor oil colored mister twister that had yet to see any water. The line disappeared in flight as I side-armed the lure with a quick flip and it quietly plopped down next to the stump and slowly began to sink. I pictured the lure working it’s magic as it slid gracefully down to the bottom and made contact with the bed of decaying leaves as I began to pick up the excess slack. As quickly as I felt the telltale click my line shot to the right away from the stump and the hook was set. It felt like he had wrapped me up in sunken log or brush pile until my reel made a short screaming sound and I knew the fish was free. My small fiberglass boat turned like a point dog directing it’s attention toward a gamebird. This was definitely a nice fish hanging tight to the bottom.
After finessing the fish for several minutes it became evident that he had the upper hand and I would need to work him closer to the boat to gain back any sort of advantage. The short pumps I executed were lost quickly as more line stripped from the reel and I distinctly recall my own silent suggestion that I must have hooked into one of the big carp I had seen earlier. I gave several more quick pumps and gained some line back while nearly bringing him to the surface. A very short retaliation of line stripping and I came right back at him bringing him to the surface for the first time. In that fleeting glimpse I recognized beyond a doubt that indeed it was a big smallmouth. He was dark in color from the lack of sunlight and cloudy waters in which he seemed to be natively accustomed with. As the boat turned once again with another short run, he made his first jump.
The sound filled the air like the slap of a beavers tail on a smooth ponds surface in the dead of night. A quick dive only lead to another leap as he tried to shake my lure firmly embedded in the corner of his mouth. With the gap closed to half the distance the bass began to hug the bottom. I felt my line strain as he pulled me around every stump and rock in a desperate fight to thwart the efforts I had put forward to this point. Under the boat it seemed like a waiting game that stretched all limits of resilience between man, fish, and equipment before the fish finally floated on it’s side and I firmly grasped his lower jaw. At 25 inches and 5 1/2 pounds this smallie was a trophy by most standards for the area. He was photographed and released into the same waters he was caught.
Looking back some 20 years now I realize just how important it was that day to proceed with the utmost caution into a new area that sees little or no fishing pressure at all. More importantly was the conservation by releasing a fish this size who has probably passed on those same dominate attributes and provided numerous other fishermen and youngsters with their own story to tell.