The rapid was still in sight. Its white symphony took first chair to the wind, and the cold followed third—silent and subtle, but heard. I made another cast to a piece of rocky structure. It was labored, with many false casts. Fly line doesn’t shoot through guides when it’s frozen the way it does on a temperate spring morning, smooth and sailing. When it landed, I counted the sinking line down in the water column and began to retrieve the fly.
Harmonious applause shoved the rapid and the wind and cold from the stage. I turned to look over my shoulder, downstream, to see a large flock of greenheads smacking the water in a downriver exodus. I watched for a while, then turned back to the task at hand. I could sense my fly was nearing the boat.
Long, flowing feathers—the tail of my fly—danced just inches in front of the shovel maw of a four-foot-long predator, its green back and sleek figure adept at sulking behind a veil of stain and rocky ledges. My brain froze, but my generator—the muscle memory hidden away in my brain for emergencies—took over immediately. I crouched and struck fear into to the fabricated baitfish, jamming the rod tip deep into green river water and sweeping it back to the boat before changing directions and stirring the emerald river in a figure-eight pattern with the rod, attempting desperately to illicit an attack.
The beast followed hot, like a cat on a string so nearly caught. When my fly disappeared from view, so did the fish. And I only saw the fly again.
The symphony—muted for such a tense moment—returned to the foreground. There is nothing mindless about fishing for musky. At least not in really hunting a musky. But there is much to tempt the mind to wander—the long, fishless days; the long, fish-sightingless hours. The wind and the cold force the blood and the mind inward, and only the toughest persist. But when it all comes together it’s worth the trials—every one of them—just to hold a living and breathing reason. A passion, manifested.
The close encounter pumped buck fever through my veins—an occurrence so regular, yet so total, every time. My whole body trembled, and I reveled in it until it passed.
The game has evolved for me. As I’ve matured, so have my methods and quarries. But the important things remain unchanged.
In the beginning, there was no boat, no meticulously crafted fly, no rod. There was no previous knowledge of the target. Just an oxidized #2 snelled hook tied to a short length of four-pound monofilament, a small creek full of shiners and chubs—an inch long and rarely longer—and just enough happened-upon working knowledge to facilitate capture.
To the tune of a younger symphony, I crept on hands and knees to the creek’s edge. When I found an unsuspecting pod of minnows, I uncurled my primitive rig and suspended the bright orange hook in their midst. The true predator was curiosity; I, merely its employer. A soft tap on the hook signified a decision to indulge.
There were many taps and many fish caught. Most I held captive in an underwater bowl carved into shallow sand where I could study them.
One day, there was a bigger tap. My trained arm sprung from the water and hauled up a quivering chub half the length of most of the flies I chuck for musky—my modern-day infatuation—but more than a few times the size of any fingerling I’d ever pulled from those waters and committed to my creekside aquarium.
In that moment there was pride and admiration. Admiration of its mud-toned flanks, and of an age class so sparse in my little creek. There was a shiver of adrenaline. And there was a reason.
Damn, I’d like to do that, again.
*Originally published in The Rural Virginian