So I’m standing in Jim’s waders, flexing Jim’s fly rod, waist deep in Woods Canyon Lake. The water’s perfectly still, reflecting an autumn sky. Peaceful. Quiet. Idyllic.
You’d never guess tigers lurk just beneath the placid surface.
But I ain’t scared.
Momma said beware of tigers. But I say, tiger’s best beware of me.
Just as soon as I get my latest tangle out of Jim’s fly line.
Well. OK. Back up a bit.
Jim Strogen, the Roundup’s inimitable fishing columnist, has been trying to lure me out of the office and up to Woods Canyon Lake for the past two weeks by reeling off lurid tales of hungry tigers just beneath the surface. Jim’s a former science teacher and school principal. In retirement, he’s poured his enormous organizational and analytical abilities into fly fishing. He’s writing the column, he’s started up fishing classes at the middle school, he’s taking disabled veterans fishing, he’s saving the trophy trout fishery at Lees Ferry from bureaucratic overreach.
And as a footnote, he’s vowed to overcome my pathetic, workaholic tendencies to get me out into the world with a fly rod in hand. I have made several vague and unfulfilled promises to play hooky. But this time, he showed up with all the gear and shamed me into turning off the computer, climbing into his car and heading off to see the tigers of Woods Canyon.
Of course, we’re talking tiger trout here — the latest addition to Rim Country’s fishing options. Tigers are the sterile result of mixing the sperm of brook trout and the eggs of brown trout, with some kind of heat treatment thrown in for effect. They shouldn’t really exist at all — since brooks are chars with 84 chromosomes and browns are true trout with 80 chromosomes. But like some couples I know, the mismatch works out beautifully.
The beautiful hybrid tigers have the cold water tolerance and vigorous fly-attacking tendencies of the brook trout combined with the aggressive, little-fish-eating ruthlessness of the brown trout. So they make for splendid sport in the cold, clean waters of Woods Canyon Lake. They grow to admirable size when they overwinter.
But as fall wanes and winter threatens, they come in closer to shore hungry for the fat stores that will get them through hard times.
So Jim gets me all set up, I wade into the water — and get a hit on my first cast.
Dude, I’m good.
After a little more coaching, Jim rigs a second rod and casts his fly upon the still waters.
Naturally, soon as he starts fishing I get a trout on the line. Jim puts his rod down and sloshes over with the net — scooping up the lively little fish. Jim then deftly removes the hook and with assorted compliments on my impressive prowess, sets the little tiger free. I wave goodbye with the smallest carnivorous twinge. Jim’s a catch-and-release man. I believe one should adhere to the ethics of the guy whose fly rod you’re using.
And so it goes. In the course of the next 90 minutes or so, I bring five rainbows and tigers to the net — Jim hooks a dozen. Now, for me — this is me slamming it. For Jim, it’s a slow day — thanks all the time he spends coaching me, netting my trout and unraveling the mid-air tangles I’ve tied in his fly line.
And I’m loving it. Really.
But I keep getting distracted.
First, the bald eagles of Woods Canyon go screeching across the mirror-smooth water. They landed in the top of a 60-foot-tall ponderosa and watch us imperiously — no doubt hoping one of our released trout will go belly up and provide a low-effort snack.
Next an osprey goes flapping past, no doubt muttering little feathered curses about arrogant eagles who think nothing of booting osprey out of their laboriously constructed nests.
Worst of all — the light keeps getting better.
I deliberately didn’t bring my camera so I would keep my mind on the serious business of fishing. But then I remember I’ve got my cell phone camera in my pocket beneath the waders.
I resist temptation for maybe 15 minutes, while the light goes from sweet to surreal.
Finally I break. I slosh ashore, lay down my fly rod, pull out my phone and go wandering along the shoreline working with the reflections.
As I near Jim’s spot, he eyes me skeptically. I suspect he honed this look on errant students without a hall pass.
“Where’s your fly rod?” he asks.
“Oh. Ah. Right back there,” I say, with a vague gesture. “Do you really think I’m the sort of person who would lose his fly rod?” I add indignantly.
He favors me with the hint of an eye roll.
“It’s the light,” I say, waving toward the pines mirrored in water — complete with the dark dots of the two watching eagles.
He shakes his head as he flicks his fly once more upon the waters. “You and I,” he says gently, “have different priorities.”
A big tiger trout hits his fly. He turns all his attention to playing the fish. I turn all my attention to capturing the stray photons bouncing off Jim and his fish.
I cannot honestly tell you who was happier at that moment — Jim with his fish or me with our photons.
All I know is — he let the fish go.
I kept the photons.
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