By Louis Cahill
This story originally appeared in Fly Fusion Magazine
Ice in my beard, fingers burning, I haven’t felt my feet for hours.
I know from experience that it will be sometime around midnight,
standing in my shower with the hot water running out, before I feel
them again. My fingers are killing me, so I tuck my rod under my arm
and work them into the fleece gator pulled up around my face. I’m a
firm believer in global warming, but it’s a hard sell today. I have
fished on some truly brutal days. Alaska in the fall, Maine at ice out
in the spring. I fished in Colorado one day when it was ten below and
I could watch the ice form around my boot freeze when I lifted it out of the
water, but this day on the Nantahala river in the mountains of North
Carolina may be the worst. You may scoff at this if you live
somewhere like Wyoming or Michigan but if you’ve been here and seen it
you know, when cold comes south, it comes holding a grudge. It’s about
fifteen degrees at the truck. It feels colder on the water. The wind
is howling and the snow has tapered off to flurries but what cuts right
through the seven or eight layers I’m wearing is the humidity. It’s so
humid that icicles form, right out of the air, on every surface that
doesn’t have a constant source of heat. They hang grimly off of rods,
and tree limbs, forceps and drying patches.
I like days like this. I know that sounds crazy but any of the guys I
fish with will tell you, the more miserable it is, the more I want to
get at it. One reason is nobody else wants too. On a day like today
you can have the most popular water to yourself. By being outside
when no sane person will go, you experience things that those warm
sane people don’t. Another reason is that I find these cold days of
slow fishing can be punctuated by big fish. It’s that idea that gets me out of
bed in the middle of the night to creep up snowy mountain roads to the
top of Standing Indian, the third highest mountain in North Carolina.
Today, I’ve talked my buddy Kent Klewein into coming along. Kent and
I share a lust for big fish. I know it’s supposed to be about the
experience and all, and some days it is, but not today. You have to
work for big fish. For big wild fish in small streams, you work hard.
All of the really big trout I’ve caught I’ve had to stalk. It may take
me a year to catch a specific fish, once I’ve found him. One twenty-
seven inch rainbow I landed in a stream twenty feet wide and overgrown
with mountain laurel took over a year. I hooked the big hen three
times in that year before I landed her. With a fish like that you have
to do everything right and still be lucky. That’s the mission Kent’s on
today. He’s been stalking a big male bow in this stretch of water for
some time and like any good fisherman, on any given day, he’s sure
that today is the day.
I hang back as Kent approaches the run where he’s seen the big buck.
One misplaced step by a numb foot can blow this and it’s not gonna be on
me. Kent is wound as tight as a guitar string. Of course he usually is.
I’ve never known a guy as serious about his fishing and I’ve know some
complete nuts. It turns out Kent may be right, this might be the day. He
makes one perfect cast and the line comes tight and heavy. As soon as
the fish figures out he’s hooked we know it’s the big boy and that’s
when the work starts, the hard work. Kent has been lucky and he’s done
almost everything right but the one thing he’s done wrong is
heartbreaking. Remember those icicles? The ones that form right out
of the air. Kent has cleaned the ice from his guides, he’s no rookie,
but what he didn’t see coming is the block of ice that was his reel.
The reel is completely frozen up and the big fish at the end of his
six x tippet is turning for a big downstream run. The look on Kent’s
face is total panic. In a split second he does the only thing he can
think to do, there in blowing snow and fifteen degrees he drops to his
knees and plunges the reel into the water. We can’t hear it but we
know that down there in that frigid water that little reel is
singing. Kent has a chance. He fights that fish on His hands and
knees. Frozen hands and knees that must feel like fine china on those
hard river rocks and when he put that fish in the net he clamps a
burning red hand to his forehead and stared breathless at his opponent,
his brother in the net. He doesn’t say it but I hear him loud and
clear. “I can’t believe I landed that fish”.
He has done everything right and been very, very lucky. I stay well up stream for a bit and
gave him that moment to himself before wading down to marvel at the
beautiful wild fish. He releases the fish and without discussion we
cut off our flies and headed for the truck and a shot of warm
whisky. Kent is soaked a shivering, his fingers bleeding. We are done
and we are satisfied. There is no question that it has been worth it.
I know then, I will find myself, in a few months, standing in a stream
on a warm spring afternoon maybe during a hatch, thinking, I wish it