An excerpt from my fishing journal—this was the first time I took a real swim while wading in the Blacksmith Fork River. Back then I couldn’t cast accurately more than about 30 feet, and I was trying to reach some rising fish on the opposite side of a big deep pool at a bend in the stream:
I kept inching upstream and into the pool to cover the distance. Yeah, big mistake. I was up to my hips, then my navel, then nipples. The water was slow, but when it’s that deep, buoyancy becomes an issue and you walk like an astronaut on the moon. I edged up further and realized the bottom was no longer sand but a hazard of sunken logs and branches. When I began to cast, the entire mass rolled forward beneath me. I fell back and sat on a snag. This opened a gash in the seat of my waders big enough to pass my hand through, and I felt the entire Blacksmith Fork run past my butt cheeks and into my boots as I drifted downstream like some immense larval insect. The current deposited me onto a gravel bar, where I gasped and sputtered awhile before going in search of my hat and fly rod.
I started keeping a fishing journal after reading Ray Bergman’s Trout. Bergman often remarks how his journals helped him work out the problems of fishing. I surely had more such problems than most anglers, so I had little choice but to get my own notebook. Now I record weather and water conditions, catch totals, the flies I try, and the ones that actually work. The data is helpful, but it’s the stories I value, like this one from last summer, fishing on Pelican Lake in the Uintah Basin. We’d had a good morning, catching dozens of big bluegill on streamers and poppers, but I was fated for another swim:
I’d been sitting on the thwart in the middle of the canoe, and as I shifted to the seat, I guess I leaned too far to one side. This dumped Bradley, myself, and all our gear into the lake. Bradley went into a sort of panic, though I couldn’t figure out why. The water was warm and there were several floatation devices at hand, including the canoe itself. He was talking fast and loud, but not saying anything: “oh man, grab my, ah jeeze, pull this, we need to.” All of our stuff began to drift away. My bagels bobbed on the placid water beneath the blue summer sky. Bradely got hold of himself and I counterbalanced him while he hauled himself into the swamped vessel. I stayed in the water and swam the canoe slowly toward shore while Bradley tried to keep our equipment together. Soon the water was shallow enough for me to touch bottom. We dragged the canoe to the put-in, already joking about our unplanned bath. At least I was joking—Bradley confessed that he’d lost it for a minute because he’s not a strong swimmer. However, when we were sufficiently dry, we climbed in the canoe and went after the fish again.
The Scottish author J.M. Barrie said every man’s life is a diary in which he means to write one story but ends up writing another. Man’s humblest hour, said Barrie, “is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it.” My journal is full of exceedingly humble hours. Sometimes I feel it’s just a very meticulous record of how bad I suck at fishing. Early on, when there were lots of blank days, I often obscured my frustration and embarrassment by gushing about the splendid weather or how lovely it was to stroll the riverbanks. Exaggeration finds its way in, somehow, and sentimentality, too—many passages are unprintably rapturous.
Sometimes, however, you fish for awhile and when you call it a day, you realize the stream has told you a story that needs no embellishment:
When we arrived, the temp was above freezing but the wind howled through the canyon like the exhaust of some ice-powered jet engine. After an hour we’d caught nothing, so Bradley took Russ to a hole where he’d had a lot of success before. I went on my own and fished without success. I was quite discouraged and so I fished without much diligence, but the fish seemed truly off the bite.
As I waded upstream without any particular purpose, I saw two sizeable fish bolt away, and I realized I’d blundered onto a large redd. This capped off my discouragement, and I turned to join Russ and Bradley. When I found them, they reported catching several decent rainbows. I was honestly glad to hear this, but I began to consider the implications of getting skunked on a trout stream in Montana. I told Bradley and Russ the closest I’d come to catching anything was scaring two big fish off a redd. Bradley confessed he didn’t know what a redd looked like, so I led them back to where I was before.
The redd was very bright and obvious on the streambed, but we saw no fish on it. Russ and Bradley fished nearby while I sat on the bank and stared forlornly at the vacant redd. As I watched, I thought I saw a shadow moving near the opposite bank. Without standing up, I rigged the olive Woolly Bugger I’d tied with Russ at the cabin the night before.
By the time I was ready to cast, I was sure a big fish was holding over the redd. I stood and cast upstream. The bugger drifted past on the right of the fish. I saw him clearly now, but he made no move. I cast again, this time off to his left. No move. I cast once more and the bugger came straight on, only an inch or so to the left. He turned to take the fly, and I saw his white mouth open and chomp down. I set the hook solidly into him, and he stirred heavily in the shallow water. I shouted something—“got him!” I think. Russ and Bradley came trotting back. The fish made a quick run upstream and I knew he was awfully big, bigger than I had any right to hope for.
I turned the fish around and he shot past me and into the heavier current among some boulders and debris. I plunged after him to keep the strain off my line, but apart from doing that I had no other plan. Out of nowhere, Bradley leapt into the stream ahead of the fish and somehow intercepted it with his big black net. It was a brown, 20 inches and a little more. The sun was going down.