Wednesday, February 22, 2017


I had a dream, once, of a stream I knew only by name.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Given the statistic in hours I spend regularly pouring over, scrutinizing every faint, squiggly blue line of even hopeful consequence, this is not an uncommon occurrence. Its very form—its tributaries and bends—gave way to brown trout of beastly proportions, chasing streamers meant for the likes of them. The best part was…no one else knew about it.

    In my waking hours I put more logic to the illusion. The flow in question is a tributary to a wild trout stream heavily fished in Virginia. It’s long and runs a hollow elevated more than a half-mile above sea level. It’s stocked in a short, half-mile portion, and I had reason to believe that the water downstream, leading all the way to its mouth, remains cold year-round. All of these elements are indicators of a potentially great wild trout stream.

    So I put boots on the ground. I spent a rainy fall afternoon plying its dark corners with a meaty fly. One with enough seduction and substance to persuade the kind of fish I was after, the kind of fish I had dreamed about.

    As such fishing is, the action was slow, until, about halfway through the morning, I saw a dark, trailing figure explode on my fly as I was pulling it from the water to make another cast. There was no good hookset. No real contact. And so the fish was lost to the raindrop-stippled depths and the wondering, hopeful realm of my mind that manifests itself physically, actually, sparingly.

    But I wasn’t fuming. I didn’t smack the water in disgust. As any fisherman knows, a brush with a beast is encouraging, bordering on infectious. What was an ambitious hope was realized as a more-than-possible reality.

    But was it the only fish? Were there more shouldered wild trout cruising the creek of my personal discovery? Was it a fluke? A river has many faces. A single trip is not sufficient in defining a river. So, what, in fact, had I found?

    I’ve known and had tremendous success on other rivers like this. Rivers few others fish, but hold many fish, trophy fish, regardless.

    One such water I fished for the first time at an average streamflow, on a bluebird day in early October. Local lore fills the runs and bottomless pools with trophy brown trout—the largest brown trout, it’s sometimes said, in the state of Tennessee. I never believed it, not based on my own experiences angling it, which could be counted on a single hand. But the rumors persist, and flames don’t burn in the absence of fuel.

    Four months after my orientation on said river, a window of opportunity arose. A thick layer of snow fell in early February and covered the valley irrigated by the river. Runoff brought the river’s flow up several feet. A few days after it began to recede, I had a free afternoon.

    Figuring high, falling water would be the time for any monster brown trout in the river to show their faces, I packed my biggest stick and fly box and headed for the stretch of river I knew best. I had never caught more than a handful of average-sized fish there, but the roiling current gave me hope.

    The second cast of the afternoon roused anger in a foot-long brown, which hammered a brown Woolly Bugger swung against a hemlock-lined bank.

    In the next pool, I met the rumors. She was holding perfectly in dead-still water, affected by a limestone protrusion several feet from the near bank, nose pointed into a ripping run. When I set the hook, not much moved for several seconds. Then she surged upstream, and then down, creating long, deep pulses in my fly rod. I couldn’t chase her downstream, and when she was finally tired, I lost her to the ripping current and a hole worn in her mouth by the hook.

    The next day I returned looking for the rumor I had lost. She was nowhere to be found, but, from a deep pool, I managed to pull a half dozen wild browns over 12 inches, along with several smaller ones.

    The following day, I caught, and saw, nothing.

    On this cold, windy February afternoon, there’s little to think about but the fish I haven’t caught, and the rivers I haven’t known.  I spend hours studying my maps, guessing at the potentials of various rivers and streams. I think about the places I have fished, once, maybe twice, and what they have to offer that I haven’t seen. I think about those secrets out there, waiting to be discovered, and the ones I may never get to. And when night comes, my eyes don’t close.

    I am haunted by waters.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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