Empty. All gone. Alas, I am cast back upon my wits. Not good. Not good at all.
What’s the line? Oh yeah: Those trout were in a battle of wits with an unarmed man.
My bright yellow strike indicator floated serenely on the surface of the small pool on Tonto Creek, a deep, shadowed mystery at the foot of a little waterfall where two days ago I had briefly become a fishing legend — in the cramped confines of my own mind.
On that occasion, the wonderful folks from the Tonto Creek Hatchery had just stocked this little fish farm of a pool with a couple dozen trout. Two Buddha-wise pillars of the Payson Flycasters Club had led me to the spot. Then they rigged my pole, weaning me from my futile dry flies and introducing me to the exciting world of nymphs.
Once they had me pointed at just the right spot with just the right nymph and just the right line — I got a bite on every cast. I caught and released six trout — one of them big enough to pull a water skier.
I was invincible, haloed in the setting sun. I was one with the stream, the guru of gurus. I could have walked across that pool without so much as disturbing the fish.
I was that good.
Of course, that was right after the weekly stocking but before the weekend.
Now, my nymph wiggles and jiggles down in the cold shadows, like a discouraged stripper in an empty club.
My nephew, who builds and improves copper mine blast furnaces for a living, gazes down skeptically upon my hapless nymph, my bobbing strike indicator.
He lives on a big river in Georgia. I had thought to impress him on this visit with Tonto Creek and my magical pool of trout.
“Ah. My line’s too thick,” I say, for the endless succession of flies fed to hungry trees had gobbled up the thread-line, tapered tip of my line — forcing me to attach my fly with a telephone cable of a line tip. You see, I had given him my main pole — perfectly rigged by my fly-fishing Buddha buddies of my last trip.
So I blunder back up to the car, only to discover I haven’t packed any tippet, which an even marginally competent fly-fisherman would have stashed in his vest so he could have tied on fresh line as needed.
I galumph back down to the pool, only to find John has vanished.
So I turn and flounder through the brush downstream, where I find John flicking his line expertly into a tiny pool beneath a downed tree.
I start to apologize for waking him at dawn to fish on a stream not yet stocked for the week, but he interrupts me.
“Got a nice little brown,” he says, watching his orange strike indicator circling on a tiny eddy. “Beautiful thing,” he adds. “He went for the strike indicator and caught himself on the hook.”
“A brown?” I say. “That’s a wild one. They only stock the rainbows.”
“Ah,” he says, flicking his line again.
So we devote ourselves to the stream, leapfrogging from tiny pool to tiny pool. Wild trout. Now. That’s a whole different matter. Got to keep your big clunky silhouette off the skyline, so as to not spook the little dears.
I think I have a couple of bites.
I definitely glimpse a couple of fish.
But the more I tromp downstream, the less it matters.
The rising sun finally tops the lip of the canyon, casting lances of light through the perfectly clear water. The birds stage a musical competition in the trees overhead. The water sounds just like the Creator’s sigh of satisfaction at the end of the Sixth Day, before his well-earned rest.
My spirit rises, like an 8-pound brown trout to a caddis hair fly — gleaming and sleek with luminous red spots.
Looking up, I see John sitting contentedly on a big rock overlooking a long shallow pool.
“School of them in there,” he says quietly.
I bound downstream, moving precariously from boulder to boulder like a drunken bighorn.
Sure enough, in the center of the small pool a sleek formation of rainbow trout holds position, waiting for breakfast to float past.
So I detour around the pool, wade into the current well downstream from the position of the fish and cast upstream, so my nymph will float through the midst of the cluster.
Swish, swish, swish — cast.
Perfect. The Buddha is back.
Float, float, float — nothing.
Swish, swish, swish — cast.
Float. Nothing. Float. Nothing. Float. Nothing.
A fish breaks the surface. Then another. Another.
They’re feeding, the little devils — at the surface.
So I change to a dry fly, my stubby
fingers struggling with the thick line.
Cast. Float. Cast. Float. Cast. Float.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
I work that little pod of finicky fish for 20 minutes.
Two of them rushed my fly, then turned away — laughing.
Nice, guys. Very “finny.”
I look up at John, sitting on his rock with perfect poise. He smiles. Inscrutable.
At length, I yield to the indifference of the trout.
I look up, where the sunlight infiltrates the branches of the ponderosas. Birdsong filters through the rustle of leaves.
Ah, well: I have returned to my natural level of expertise. Many casts, no fish.
But it is time for John to be on the road, with furnaces to sell. Time for me to get back to work, with quotes to mangle.
But as we hike along the dappled, grassy trail back to the patiently waiting Jeep, I realize that I had precisely as much fun today as I did in the course of my six-trout glory.
Still, I feel bad John did all that tromping for one little brown trout.
“Better to come after they stock,” I observe, as we near the car.
John just laughs. “I’m not in it for the fish,” he says.