The monsters circled lazily in the crystal clear Tonto Creek pool as I threaded my fly, poised on the unheeded cusp of a karmic breakdown.
My hands fairly trembled with my proximity to those three-pound rainbows, holding fast in the eddy just as Mark Severson, the Tonto Creek Hatchery manager, had promised.
The hatchery decided to end another season’s stocking with an extravaganza of big fish, like some Fourth of July fireworks show crescendo.
Plagued this year by a massive fire that severely limited fishing in the White Mountains and a month-long forest closure that stalled stocking efforts early in the season, the Tonto Creek Hatchery found itself with runs crowded with 2- and 3-year-old fish.
Normally, a hatchery truck loaded with 600 pounds of fish will include maybe 10 two-pounders — “incentive” fish dear to the hearts of salivating fishermen haunting the banks of Tonto, Haigler and Christopher creeks, together with the East Verde River.
But in the past week, Haigler, Tonto and the East Verde each received two truckloads containing only the monster, incentive fish – maybe 500 of the big fellas for each of the three creeks.
The beloved hatchery folks figured they’d give Rim Country anglers and legions of sweating flatlanders one last trout blowout, to get them through the long, unstocked barrens of winter.
“It’s going to be phenomenal,” said Severson. “One of these fish weighs about as much as six normal stockable fish.”
Severson said word about the lifetime rush of giant hatchery trout had already leaked out.
“Sometimes I think that people would rather that I just hand the fish to them. Down on the creek, it’s like a battleground. People were sitting, waiting, at every single hole” when they stocked the first load of giant fish on Saturday. “I just hope they’re all buying licenses.”
So they did it again on Tonto Creek on Tuesday, then added a load of incentive fish to the East Verde on Wednesday.
I have to confess — I pretty much went straight from that phone call to Tonto Creek, as I keep my fishing poles always jutting out the back of my ramshackle Jeep.
When I pulled up to my favorite Tonto Creek pool, a construction worker who had driven up from Phoenix to fish was just lifting up his six-fish-limit stringer of rainbows.
Staring at that mass of fish, I came close to passing out, falling into the pool and drowning. He looked like an advertisement for a fishing guide trip from Alaska. Those trout looked like they could tow water skiers on a straightaway or gobble up careless kittens who had come down to play in the water.
I tell you truthfully, when he slung that stringer into the back of his pickup truck, it sagged and groaned.
He’d left plenty of fish in the pool. They hung in the current, gleaming, like the memory of young love, like the day I got a copy of my first book in the mail, like my first bike under that long-gone Christmas tree.
I deployed my two poles, my three sets of eyeglasses for fly tying, my box of nymphs, my box of dry flies, my bright red and yellow power bait, my box of lures. I was taking no chances.
Now, here’s where I made my mistake. I started gloating before my first cast. I started thinking about Max Foster, back in the office dutifully filling up the sports page with manly prose.
Max can catch trout with beer can pop tops. He can cuss out a trout with such conviction that the poor beast will give up and swim into his net.
Worse yet, I recently had to beg him to start my chain saw and he’s been laughing at me ever since. So all I could think about as I stared down on those monster trout was the look that would cascade across his craggy face when I slapped down on his desk that 20-inch rainbow holding court in the center of the pool.
I rigged my fly rod with a sexy little nymph and made a perfect cast, all but bouncing that iridescent green little Pheasant’s Tail nymph off Moby Trout’s nose.
Hit. Immediately. Yes. Yes. Yes.
I reeled that sucker in.
Except it wasn’t the giant rainbow —it was a little wild brown trout, all speckled. He was all of five inches long. Smallest trout I ever caught — no competition.
I set him free. I cast again.
Hit. Down goes the strike indicator. I jerk the tip to set the hook — but succeed only in yanking the fly out of his mouth.
No problem: two casts, two hits. I’m golden.
Now here’s the thing: Max never reads my stories all the way through. So if you’re gonna read any further: You have to promise not to tell Max how this story ends. Promise? Cross your heart?
OK: So I can tell you honestly: That was my last bite for the next 90 minutes.
I nymphed. I dry flied. I put out Power Bait. I rigged my spinner.
They had contempt for the nymph — letting it bounce off their backs like a dud depth charge off a nuclear submarine.
They completely ignored the dry fly, contemptuous I would even try to fool them with such a pathetic imitation.
They gathered round to examine my Power Bait — and started telling unkind fishermen jokes. That’s the worst thing about those great big fish: They talk so loud you can actually hear them making fun of you.
They did chase my lure repeatedly, but always pulled up, laughing, as the sparkly little dangly reached me.
At the end, I lost it. I grabbed my net and waded into the edge of that pool like a demented Blue Heron in a fishing vest. I deftly slipped that net in under a giant fish lounging arrogantly at the edge of the pool: But he was too heavy. I couldn’t lift him. He shook his head and swam off.
I retreated to my rocky fortress of failure and stared down at the pool.
Then it came to me.
I had secretly offended the fish gods, in whose favor Max has long abided.
Moreover, I had come to the pool to trade on my insider knowledge — without even posting on the blog about the giant trout stocking. I had betrayed my trust, tempted fate, mucked up my karma.
A fitting justice had been served on me by these ancient hatchery survivors, like the tag line to a Twilight Zone episode.
So I hurried back to the office to write this column: Confess my sins, make it right with my gentle readers. And that means I can go back out there this evening — still a day ahead of the infestation of flatlanders that will scour those pools come Saturday.
So now you know: My shame is revealed and expunged.
I have only one request.
Don’t tell Max.