There was enough light by the time I drove over the bridge. I pulled the steering wheel and raised up in my seat to see the river over concrete. Gravel crackled beneath the wheels when I pulled into the parking lot just beyond the HWY 191 bridge on the far Eastern part of town beside the Boise River. There was a Toyota Tacoma pick-up truck, plastered with fly fishing stickers already parked. I knew the two men standing next to it. One, a guide. The other, a client. They were running line through the guides of a fly rod when I stopped my compact rental car and stepped out.
I set up my rig quickly, shimmied into my waders, and pulled my boots on. Starting down the path before the other two, forced a grin. I had never fished this river before. I did not have the truck, the stickers, or a guide’s knowledge, but I had what I needed.
The Air Force sent me here for five days to fly A-10s with the Boise Guard because my active duty fighter squadron sat grounded in Las Vegas due to sequestration. I brought my fly rod.
I fished dries the first two hours, and had some luck on a small elk hair caddis. Nothing remarkable. It was shaping up to be an average day. An average day, interrupted by the next forty seconds…
The trout left the water when he took my fly. In a moment knew I had a big fish with a solid hook set. His head ripped the water apart, erased my fly, and pulled the rest of him a foot above the river. A colorful, red-blue flash. He thrashed violently in midair, then smacked the water with his massive side. It made an abrupt, surprising clap. The scene played in slow motion in my brain, but fast outside.
If a trout could be angry, this Idaho native rainbow was furious.
He ran out 10 yards in a second, then stopped. My steps back splashed the water. I pulled line and raised my rod high, trying to keep a tight line and get him on the reel. I felt the tension I wanted and pulled back against the suddenly static fish. The rod bent above my wrist at a shallow angle. Too shallow, I knew.
In another two seconds, the rod bent more. I pulled harder to hold it up, but the line was spinning out from my reel fast and loud now. I was fighting and failing to keep the rod tip up. The run followed by two powerful jolts downward on my line, left me moments from tasting the bitter juice of a lesson that took a few more years and a few more lost fish to internalize —
“Keep the rod tip up!” If you haven’t said it, you’ve heard it. If you’ve never heard it, you will.
It is what we do with a fish on, to help keep the line tight, the hook set squarely in the fish’s mouth, and let the rod bend take the brunt of the force a trout exerts. This prevents the fish from snapping the line — hopefully. It sounds simple, because it is. Yet, many a trout are lost because the rod tip dipped too low.
It is one thing to get the rod tip up. It is another to keep it there. If you’ve ever hooked into a monster trout, you know it can be thrilling and exhausting.
After setting the hook, I work to get a big fish on the reel, but I also mechanically and instinctively brace the butt end of the rod into my forearm below the wrist. I call this digging in.
Digging in helps you use the big muscles in your biceps, shoulders, and back, to fight the fish. In this way you will tire less and be able to maintain control of the rod better. These days, I always dig in (unless I’m messing up). Because you never know what you’ve hooked into, I do it every time. Big fish or small. It’s a habit pattern I have developed at the expense of many lost fish. Fish like the one I lost on the Boise River six years ago.
As fast as it started, it ended. The tight line abruptly loose, it flew violently towards my face.
I ducked instinctively and crouched in defeat. No fish. Just adrenaline and a vision that I can play back in my head like a movie. I fell to my knees and let the cold river and loose fly line flow around my body in the current. Dig in my friends. And WADEOUTTHERE.