Profound lessons learned from a Winooski rainbow

I am standing in the Winooski River just a couple of miles upstream from the town of Jonesville off River Road. I’m not giving any secret spot away if I tell you that it’s just upstream from the railroad trestle. Everyone knows about this spot.

What most people don’t know is the thundering silence of the rapids, surrounded by the steep walls of stone just across the interstate, as dusk sets in. There is a mystical nature to the sky as the sun sets to the north and thunder rumbles in the distance after a rainstorm.

Photo by Bradley Carleton.
A rainbow that did not get away.
Photo by Bradley Carleton. A rainbow that did not get away.

With the swift water just a few steps away, my feet seek stability in the sand between the rocks. I anchor my upstream foot and lean into the current. Looking up against the royal purple- and sage-colored sky, I see a hatch of yellow drakes beginning to burst through the tense surface of the undulating water. I can see them pushing their bodies upward toward the darkening sky, illuminated by the remaining light above the trestle. The tempo of the hatch begins to reach a crescendo as the darkness surrounds me.

I can hear the plop, plop … plop of fish rising to swallow the large yellow flies all around me. I can distinguish the sound of the river in the background splashing against the big boulder in the center of the pool. It sounds like a thirsty dog lapping at his water bowl. The plopping sounds build in intensity. Soon, everywhere I look, there are flashes of silver against the blackened water. I raise my old LL Bean rod over my head and begin a long thrust behind me, letting out the weight forward five-weight floating line load the rod, bending the tip backwards.

The rod has become an extension of my own arm. I feel the flex and pause to let the line catch up to the back of the loop, then thrust forward with my forearm, bending at the elbow. The sensation of the line whipping through the guides and the quiet sound of air being split by its acceleration is like an angel’s whisper of a song, playing above my head. I retrieve a section of my line as it flies forward, to build more speed by denying the physics of forward thrust, and thus further increasing the speed. For those who know the double haul and have practiced many hours, they will understand that the physics of such a strategy can be felt in the hand and the shoulder if done properly.

On my final cast, I hear the fly whiz by my head and rocket out into the darkness. If my projected trajectory is accomplished, the fly will land at the tail-out of a strong ripple in the middle of the river, where a large fish has been feeding heavily. I cannot see the fly, nor can I see the rise, but I hear the voracious gulp.

For a moment I am not sure if he has hit my imitation, or if he has chosen another true drake in the hurricane-like hatch, but before I can wonder for more than a second, my reel begins to spin. The rod tip bends powerfully toward the surface, and the spool is now whining a high-pitched whistle.

I can feel the tremendous tug on the rod and bow to him, letting him have all the line he wants to run to the far side of the river. I cannot see him, but suddenly hear a loud splash. He is diving and straining against the line rolling off the reel. I cross my left hand under the bottom of the spool and gently apply pressure, palming it to provide more resistance to his fight.

Just when I think he is tired and I have been able to retrieve about 20 yards of line, my rod bends in a strong arc. He is now extremely near to me. Maybe 20 feet. I reach back behind my head with my left hand to grab the net hanging on a magnetized clip between my shoulder blades. It takes but a moment to realize my mistake.

As he nears me, he feels the pressure of the rod bending hard and he senses the physics of this equation trying to lift him up from his aquatic environs. He senses the additional pressure and turns abruptly to sprint away from the unseen danger. The reel begins to whine again, when he suddenly jumps high out of the water, and even in the darkness, I catch a flash of silver as he dives down into the depths once again. This time he runs downstream and uses the current to increase his speed, much like I used the double haul against him. Then in one swift and powerful turn, he spins back into the fastest current just below the boulder.

My line goes limp and my heart sinks to the depths of a fisherman’s despair.

Fortunately, in fishing, especially fly fishing, the heartache dissipates a few hours later and the appreciation for the formidable fight of a magnificent Winooski rainbow will remain in my memory for the rest of my life.

Once again, the Great Spirit has shown me the humility that I need to keep me in a state of wonderment of this most precious planet on which we all dream of one day recognizing the incredible run we’ve been given. And one day we, too, will be released from our tethers to this splendid earth.

(Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred, a privately owned limited liability corporation that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature through hunting, fishing and foraging.)