Even us whacky ice fishermen who love the cold barren environment on the frozen lake, share a certain affinity for the second Saturday in April. Known in some circles as the “Glorious Opening Day of Trout Season,” for many of us it is simply the celebration of swiftly flowing water and the hope of hooking up with nice holdover rainbow. For others it means a trip up to the Willoughby River to watch the spawning steelhead catapulting themselves over the rapids as they swim upstream to spawn. For still others, it is the mere camaraderie of sharing a hot cup of French roast coffee from a thermos, talking about the long winter and how many cords of wood we set aflame in our woodstoves.
Whatever the reason, whatever the motivation might be, it is indeed a glorious way to embrace the spring. Hope springs eternal in the heart of an angler. Even though the chance of catching a tired but hungry trout on a deep beaded nymph fly is remote at best, it is the love of the fight that brings us to the streamside.
We will cast all morning long at every possible hidey-hole in the river. Drifting our fly over the rapids and into the tail of a deep pool, there is hope, there are prayers, that maybe, just maybe, we might feel that tug on the rod and be quick enough to set the hook into a big kype-jawed brown. Sometimes, it does happen on the first day – but it is the hope and faith that keep us there in conditions that are not amenable to the salmonids. Frustration does not exist. Persistence and faith are the virtues of the experienced angler.
Much like the book A River Runs Through It by Norman McLean, fishing for trout is closer to a religion for some than for those who attend church every Sunday. The sheer power of nature as it is reflected in the hydraulic energy of a briskly flowing stream. The rearranging of pools and underwater landscapes dramatically altered by one ice jam in a brook way up in the mountains, suddenly releasing its pent-up energy. If one is reflective enough to stop and think, “How in the world can a trout survive a winter where the river is locked up and then not get washed out when the giant waves of ice water cascade down from the streams into the river?”
How did this trout eat all winter? Where did he hide? What is this remarkable instinct that drives them to expend so much energy to jump up and over the falls?
If you take the time to ponder these piscatorial philosophies, you will inevitably find yourself with a deepening respect and love for these fish. It is this love, this respect, that draws out the best in humanity. We can return to the stream each year, like a pilgrimage to a watery Mecca, to find the best of ourselves as we cast our lines into the murky depths and pray for a connection.
Lost in thought streamside, hours pass by, and we find that we are in what athletes refer to as “the zone.” It is at this pinnacle of mindfulness that it happens. Bang! The rod bends down toward the rushing water and we bow with it, then raise the tip up quickly but not violently, so as not to pull the hook out of the mouth. The fight begins. The rod begins to thump and swing from side to side as the fish seeks to shake the entomological deceiver from its jaws. Keep the tip up and enough tension to keep the hook set—but not too much. When the fish swings downstream, walk with him. When he swings back up into the raging current, play the rod to the upstream side. It’s like a beautiful choreographed tango where two beings are mirroring each other, connected by a thin piece of monofilament line and a tiny hook. Delicate yet powerful.
Finally, the fish begins to tire, and you gently retrieve the line allowing it to swirl at your feet. Do not reel. Honor the retreat. Once the fish is brought to hand, take the time to admire the beauty of this miracle. Will his flesh nurture yours tonight, or will you choose to release him back to the stream to live to fight another day? It seems that that the older I get the more I choose the latter.
Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature.