Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Swinging in the Wind

The gusty winds blew in from the Alaska Range to the north unimpeded by the tundra and blasted my weakly tossed leech pattern back toward my face. The T-14 sink tip, head and running line piled up harmlessly on river's surface. No rainbow was in danger of mistaking that mess for food. The two-handed casting practice on the Rocky River and the hours watching Ed Ward's Skagit Master DVD were of little help to me as I waded waste deep in the Naknek River. I looked like less than a beginner flayling away trying to cast a wet sock with my two-handed rod. I watched the cold, clear water flow toward Bristol Bay and wondered whether I'd ever get a cast out far enough to actually swing the fly in front of one of the silver rockets that occasionally crashed the surface chasing salmon smolts headed for the Bearing Sea. The Naknek River Camp guide Kyle shouted encouragement over the wind; reminding me to use my bottom hand to create leverage and fire the six-inch long black and white rabbit pattern into the teeth of the wind.

Later that evening I would feel much better about my inept casting when Jerry Darkes conceded to resorting to a traditional overhand cast with his spey rod to cope with the winds. But at the time my frustration only grew. I could turn and cast with the wind, but the water too my back was shallow and I had hiked through that run to get into casting position. Finally I surrendered and hiked downstream to the boat for some nourishment and a mental break.

Fly fishing shouldn't ever be a source of frustration -- Herbert Hoover warned that no one can catch a fish in anger. Thankfully it is hard to stay frustrated in Alaska for long. With bald eagles overhead, brown bears on the bank and few signs of the wound's cut into nature by man, I was quickly back to remembering, as Judge John said in his classic Testament of a Fisherman, that fishing is both a source of delight and an act of small rebellion.

I was ready to rebel against the wind and hook my first Alaskan rainbow on the swing. Kyle pointed to a flat rock that protruded midstream more than 150 yards upstream and encouraged: "Walk as far as you can toward that rock and then cast toward the bank. Most people fish this stretch, and few people fish up there."

Hike upstream.

We joked later that I heard the encouragement as a challenge. "Hey old guy see if you can walk up to that rock and catch a fish." The walk in thigh-high water started out OK but the shallow water was soon in short supply and the strong current pushed hard against my legs. I broke out the wading staff and pushed myself forward, convinced that I could reach the rock that Kyle had pointed me toward. But the water only got deeper and my strides shrunk to baby steps. With nearly 50 yards to go I decided that I had come to the Naknek to fish, not hike, I turned to the left, faced into the wind and started to strip line off the reel. Knowing that my c-spey cast wasn't going to get the job done, I did a mediocre perry poke cast and at least got the fly to land perpendicular to the the distant bank and watched as the current swept it quickly downstream.

There is a point in each swing when the current pushes a large bow in the line and fly begins to whip around a little faster -- it's the fly fishing version of crack the whip. Sometimes this added speed scares off a fish and sometimes the speed makes it harder for the hungry trout to closely inspect the fly so they simply grab it as it swings by. Much to my delight on this first cast a trout grabbed the fly and I swept the rod upstream to set the hook. In response a two-foot long silver and pink rainbow burst from the river, flipped in the air and splashed back into the water. I let out a celebratory whoop, Kyle turned from watching my colleague Bob downstream, grabbed the net and hopped out of the boat and hurried upstream. He made the hike in embarrassingly quick time as I managed the trout's multiple runs. He quickly netted the fish. I snapped a few pictures and we released the trout.

The first rainbow on the swing
The wind kept blowing but it was no longer a source of frustration.


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