THE CHESS GAME
I had been pounding the creeks for a month, but the water was high and murky and the fish were reluctant to rise. I had yet to get that, ah, feeling; you know, the feeling you get after you’ve landed five or six fish and realize that you are going to catch a dozen more. I was still looking for that first nice fish and the smile that comes to my face when I feel it throbbing on the end of my fly-line. I had been fishing every day hoping to hit that first good day, the day when I would be casting to risers instead of likely spots.
I had hiked into one of my favorite spots; not so much because I thought the fishing would be any better there than it had been anywhere else, but because I needed to be there. It’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and I wanted to let it talk to me. The Aspens were just starting to leaf, making the distant ridges look like they were covered in green velvet. The ridges above the creek had an unbroken bank of snow several feet deep running along their military crests, and I could see a thin, green line of new growth just above the snow. The tops of the distant peaks are a mixture of pine and aspen. The slopes that run up to the forest, at a distance, look like well-maintained lawns that are somehow comforting to look at. The patches of shade under the trees look inviting and remind me of the last words of Stonewall Jackson; “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.” On the closer ridges, I can see the quakies shimmer in the light breeze, the gray-green sage covered slopes dotted with purple and yellow wildflowers, and lichen covered outcrops stained rust, gray, and black. The banks of the creek are cut here and there by spring-fed streams that sparkle in the sunlight. Near the creek, the sun glares off the bottom of an empty beer can.
After three hours of hard fishing with no sign of a fish, I was resigned that today was not the day. So when I reached the fork in the stream where I had dropped into the little valley that morning, I sat down on the bank and broke out my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a book. I had never been up the creek from there, always choosing to hike down the main stream and fish back up to the confluence and the trail which followed the left fork out. The right fork spilled out of a rough looking little canyon, boiling and angry, as if glad to be free of it. The banks were covered with a growth of thick willows that looked impassable, and on each side of the creek the canyon walls were shear and looked impossible. On the left side of the creek, the steep slope is dotted with rocky outcrops, some looking toothy, like the exposed jaws of a Dinosaur, with red, yellow, blue, and white wildflowers sprinkled thickly around and one lone pine tree perched bravely among the rocks. On the right side of the creek, the slope is covered in pines right down to the shear wall that the angry little stream rages against. I had studied the canyon from the other end many times and it looked just as uninviting up there. I kept looking up from my book to study the terrain, and finally decided I could see a way to get through. I climbed up a hill to get above the willows and to see if I could get an idea of what lay beyond the mouth of the canyon.
The canyon opened up into a meadow, and what I could see of the creek looked promising. Instead of busting through the undergrowth, I thought I could make my way along the face of the hill on the left. As I picked my way along the edge of a steep drop-off, I thought about the news stories that I hear every year about hikers falling to their deaths or having to be rescued after getting ledged up. I had always wondered how people managed to get themselves into those life threatening situations, then, as I looked down at what looked like a sixty-foot drop onto sharp rocks, I thought, this is how they do it. I began to move more carefully, looking back often to make sure I could get back down the way I had came up. I zigzagged my way along, stopping frequently to map out my next three or four steps, and when I reached the point of no return, all human endeavors have one, I could see a way to move forward to a clear path down to the creek. From my perch on the hill, I could see that the willow growth gave way to interconnecting open areas just a few yards from the creek, and what looked impenetrable from ground level could be easily traveled on my way out. I moved forward and quickly made my way down to the creek.
When I reached the creek, resisting the urge to immediately start fishing, I sat down, lit my pipe, and began to watch the water. I was hoping to see some activity that would give me a clue regarding which fly I should tie on. I never pass up a good sitting rock or log now, having learned that I can get a better Idea what’s going on if I take a few minutes to observe; if I don’t see anything happening, I tie on an Adams and go fishing.
I came to a promising bend-pool and began casting the Adams, getting a good drift through what I thought must be a good feeding lane. On the third cast I saw a flash about six inches under the fly. On the fourth cast, I got a good look at the fish, it was a nice sixteen or seventeen incher, and it was looking at but refusing the Adams. When the fish quit coming up to look at the fly, I moved back a few yards and sat down to watch the pool. Still not seeing anything going on, I tied on an Elk-hair Caddis, not because I had any notion, but because I could see it better. On the first cast, I could see the big fish finning backwards under the fly, giving it a good look but again refusing to strike. I made several more casts but when the Trout quit responding to the fly, I again moved back and started searching through my fly-box for something that might work. There was no insect activity on the water; however, I had seen a few Red ants on the banks so I tied on a flying ant pattern that I’m partial to and tried again. On the third cast the fish materialized out of the murky depths to inspect the fly. I gave the fly a slight twitch and the fish disappeared, its white side flashing as it turned. I casted a few more times without response; I had spooked the fish when I twitched the fly, so I moved back and sat down to smoke my pipe. I started what I felt was another fruitless search through my flies when I noticed a fly in the water at my feet struggling against the current and trying to make it to the bank. I became engrossed in the little drama and began rooting for the fly to make it. When it latched onto my boot and pulled free of the water, I felt like letting out a cheer. I had forgotten about the Chess game with the big Trout that had taken up most of the afternoon. I put my finger next to the fly and it climbed on. I brought it within range of my bifocals and studied it with disappointment. It was a Stone-fly, about a number sixteen, and I didn’t have a Stone-fly to my name. It had light colored wings and a gray-green body. I looked through my box to see if I could find something I could trim down and make work. I pulled out a number sixteen Tent-wing Caddis thinking how it looked a hell of a lot like a Stone-fly. The body color was right and the lightly palmered hackle looked right too, but the wings were dark. I tied it on, and I was back in the game.
On my second cast, the fish came up and took the fly without hesitation. I felt his weight for a split second as I pulled the fly out of his mouth. I stood there with stooped shoulders and slack mouth for some time, then the shadows in the canyon told me it was time to start the hike out. As I was snipping off the fly it hit me that I had done a pretty good job. I had fooled the big Trout into taking my fly. Not just any fly, but one that I had tied. My headwork had been good. It was the mechanics that sucked.
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