I like Tyler.
I looked downstream at him while I fished. His casts were forced. The fly and indicator rarely reached the water where a fish would be. I stood thirty yards upstream knee deep in the Ravens Fork River. Tyler is a tall man, with smooth hair and a smooth face. I saw him smiling through his red beard. The smile grew with a snagged line or a botched cast. He was learning.
Tyler is my cousin’s husband, and he went to school in the Smokey Mountains. Not far from where we were fishing that day was Western Carolina University — home of the Catamounts. Being so close to the beautiful trout streams of North Carolina for all his college years, I supposed he might be a fly fisherman, but today was Tyler’s first time on the river.
Earlier I had been tucked behind his shoulder, ducking false casts, and watching for a strike. I had fished with him in several good spots along the river. Nearly all that time my rod and reel lay on a sandbar or the shore behind us. I would bring it to him while I untangled a nest of line or replaced lost flies and broken tippet. I wanted him to catch a fish. Badly.
A few times I noticed a subtle take. “There.” We both smiled. “That was it. That was a fish.”
A few times he saw it. “Oh!” Then an excited hook set. “Man. Dang it.”
He was ripping the line, or not setting soon enough. His struggle to find the balance reminded me of how I had found it. Time. Patience. And many lost fish. Even today missing a hook set conjures the same frustration it did while I learned on the South Platte in Colorado. Some things never change.
Tyler had hooked up a couple times, but both only for a moment. He was fishless. I hoped he would stick with it. Today, and the next days.
“You go fish” he said. “I’m happy. I’m doing good.”
After several pleas to let him fish alone, I agreed. If he caught a fish, for now, it would be alone. I waded back to grab my rod and moved upstream to fish a seam I had eyed walking in.
Two small rainbows landed in my net before I saw him reeling in. As he came upstream towards me, I saw the reason. A broken rod. Damn.
“Broke my rod”
“I know. Want to fish mine a bit?”
“I think I’ll take a break for a while. I don’t wanna break your rod too.”
“It’s no worries man. Use it. Please. That’s why I brought it.”
“No, I’m good. I’ll fish some more in a bit.” He reached in his vest, patted his pockets, then shook his head. “Duuuuuuuude — I lost my phone.”
“Is it in the truck? You sure you brought it out here?”
“Yeah. I’m definitely sure. I was taking pictures. I must have put it in my vest, and it fell out.”
“Oh man.” I remembered I had left my phone in the truck.
He stood silently. The river was a green canyon. Trees sharply framed a baby blue sky. The river cut through our feet. The sun was high and sprinkled light off every riffle and warmed every boulder. The path along the shore was touched by shadows.
“Ahhhhhhh. Well. I guess I’ll go look for it.”
“Yeah. It’s in a waterproof case.”
“Well.” I remembered all the bits of kit and parts of gear, that I had lost forever into a flowing trout stream. “Good Luck.” Then I watched his body sway back downstream. When he was ten yards away, I cast again.
Twenty minutes went by. Tyler moved up the river towards me. It was the same rhythm.
“What’s up?” I smiled and gave a roll cast away from his approach.
“Are you serious?” I had missed a take while Tyler was walking up. “Wow. I really thought you had zero chance. That’s great. How’d you find it?”
“Just went back to where I was standing and looked around for it man.”
“Yeah. Works.” Tyler snapped some pictures of the river, turning in half circles, then waded to shore and sat on the bank.
I half hollered to him. “You sure you don’t wanna use my rig?” He shook his head. He was content to sit for now, so I moved upstream casting and pushing my shins against the current until I could see my father casting to a dark pool behind a boulder. I watched him fish until he noticed me and waved. I waved back. This spot would be good.
Trees hung over me, so I waded out further and freed up my rod tip. There was a shelf of rocks five yards out. I fished the near edge, but I knew there might be a nice trout just beyond the other side where it dropped off into deeper, faster water. I was waste deep by the time I could reach it and keep a good drift.
The take was hard. I knew it was a big fish when I set the hook. I stepped back and clasped the line with my fingers above the reel. Tight line. Good. I raised the rod high it bent over deep. I braced the butt end of my rod into my forearm. Line ran out into the current through my two fingers. He was into the fast water by the time I had gathered my line onto the reel. The line ran in towards me. Then stopped. I reeled quickly and then he ran it out again. In the middle of the back and forth I felt him rise. I expected him to jump or thrash at the surface to try and spit the hook, but he only rolled over, beneath the water. It was enough.
I saw the silver flash first, then the red and blue. He had come up and lingered there to show me what I had on my line, and then dove back down. I took a deep breath. This was it. This was my fish. It was him. It was happening. I realized I had waited to fight this fish for 16 years. The thought of losing him in that moment made my heart race with fear. It terrified me.
“DO. NOT. LOSE. THIS. FISH. JASON.”
I spoke to myself and the words surprised me. The rod became heavier as it bent even further. I pictured his jaws clamped over the line and the hook seated deep his mouth, hoping that it was true. I walked down stream slowly at first, but soon my careful steps were lost to slips and stutters as getting this fish upstream became more important. I was so scared was I that I would force a tight line break or that he would spit the hook. I was getting to the backing and fast water downstream was now my lifelong nemesis.
I had not seen my father walking downstream, but I heard him now. “Oh my God Jason. Don’t lose that fish!” He knew.
I worked the fish in close he thrashed and then ran out again. I let him have it. Happy to let him have it. On the third time I had him in close I knew I had to try. This time his head was up. There was no play left in his massive shoulders. I grabbed at my net over the shoulder, snagged it, and reached forward. The line was heavy, and it was hard to net him. I reached and missed. Damn! The next time I had him. He only fit one way. I sat back on the closest rock, and let the water run around my waste. I closed my eyes, raised my head, filled my lungs and held it.
My father squeezed my shoulder tightly then shook it. He he stared at the fish, when he spoke, “By God son, you are a fisherman. And I’ll fight anyone who says different.”
Tyler approached on the footpath. “You catch a fish?”
“Yeah. Monster.” It was all I could muster.
As Tyler got closer, he saw my fish and smiled.
“Nice fish” is all he said. Then he pulled out his phone.
I learned three things that day on the Ravens Fork River in the heart of Cherokee country, North Carolina.
- Always have a camera on the river.
- Monster trout scare me.
- I like Tyler.