I had just given up downrigger fishing, sold my skiff, and bought a fly rod. It was Sept. 30, and getting late in the fishing season in Juneau even fishing up the creeks with flies. I was alone fishing a creek I had never fished before. I walked up alongside the creek bank looking for a pool or a stretch of deep water that might hold fish. The pool I settled on I had noted and walked past then not finding any place better walked back to. It was not an easy pool to get to a position I could cast from without hanging up my back cast. I was grateful for good waders and wading poles as the water was a little high and moving fast. I noted I did not have an easy exit strategy if a bear came out of the woods on that side of the creek, but I was carrying Bear Spray on my wader belt and that would have to be enough.
Once in position, I picked a faded egg pattern fly hoping to find a dolly varden feeding on salmon eggs and started casting. I try not to flog a fly to death. If I’m fishing a hole that should have fish in it and a fly does not draw a strike I change flies. I casted that faded egg pattern six or eight times and changed it. I worked the flies across the pool. I casted to the calm eddy behind the rock. I casted to the fast water pool flowing over the log. I varied my retrieve speed letting the fly sink to the bottom and pulling it slowly along or stripping fairly fast to make a scene. Forty-five minutes passed with nothing, then the fish jumped.
I hadn’t been looking in his direction so only got a glimpse of him as he reentered the water, but he was big. Hope poured into my nervous system. If there was going to be a fish on this stretch of the creek, it was going to be in this pool and there he was. I had chosen wisely. Now, I just had to find the right fly. I changed flies to a chartreuse Clouser Minnow. I changed sizes. I changed colors. I changed patterns. Nothing. And that fish jumped every 45 minutes just to see if I was still there to decide whether it was safe to feed on any of the tasty morsels he might see flow past him. Finally, after four hours and ten flies I was about out of time and patience and ready to give up. I pulled the most recent failure of a fly from the water, cut it from the tippet, and open my fly box to put it away.
“You haven’t fish that Black/White Dolly Lama yet” my mind said. That B/W Dolly Lama had slayed the cohos from the beach at Sheep Creek earlier in the month. “You have time for one more fly.”
So I tied it on and casted.
He hit it on the first cast, but I missed him on the strike. I hadn’t really expected him to hit it so hadn’t been ready. He hit it again on the second cast and this time I was ready, and I could tell I had set the hook well.
He was totally despondent with himself for having been fooled. He rolled the line around his nose to take the pressure off the hook. As he came toward me in shallower water, he just laid on the bottom totally bummed. Then, he started to fight back.
He ran into the deepest pool and tried to hold there, but my 15-pound tippet was strong enough I pulled him out. Then he ran downstream right past me in full flight. I hand stripped slack line as fast as I could. If he made it to the rapids just below us the added strain from the water pressure might be enough to snap the tippet so I had to stop him before he got there.
I clamped the line in my left hand and leaned back on the rod hard. I stopped him in time and realizing that he came right back up stream to his pool at top speed. He went right by me so close I could have kicked him with my foot — and considered it — but I didn’t want to dislodge the hook.
So back into the deep pool he went, but now he was tired and it didn’t take me much longer to bring him to hand. What a gorgeous fish. Once in hand, I dispatched him with a single bonk and ended his ordeal. The feeling of utter elation is hard to describe. The sense of accomplishment, of being a success. I hiked out and drove home totally proud of myself. I had outwitted that wily buck, and we were going to eat fresh fish tonight. And I have to say, even though we cooked it the same way we always cook salmon, that fish was the best-tasting fish I could remember, and I can still taste it now retelling the story.
• Steven Dahl was inspired to share this story by “I Went To the Woods,” a column by Jeff Lund that appears twice monthly in the Juneau Empire. The Capital City Weekly, which runs in the Juneau Empire’s Thursday editions, accepts submissions of poetry, fiction and nonfiction for Writers’ Weir. To submit a piece for consideration, email email@example.com.