Fish for enough summers and you can’t help but accumulate some photos in the classic sporting genre: guy holding fish. If the trophy is a smallmouth, you’re likely to be hoisting it by the lower lip; if it’s a striper, you might still have it by the lip, but the fish could be the size of your leg. And if it’s a trout, more likely you’ll be cradling it delicately in your hands, treating it like you would a newborn.
Tucked easily in the pocket of a fishing vest, disposable or small digital cameras have become as important a bit of tackle as a spare reel or a landing net. I’ve got a bunch of these snapshots of myself, but only one such photo has been enlarged and is hanging on the wall. The grin on my face is one that I only wish could be there every day. It was put there – the grin, not the photo – by the beautiful, fat brown trout I hold, still dripping, inches above the water, about to be released.
It’s a wonder we caught any fish that day. My friend Ray and I knew the water was going to be high, but we went anyway – we each needed the day on the water. We normally fish dry flies there, but in this heavy water, there was no choice but to use weighted woolly buggers. Casting these things, especially in a wind, can be an adventure, your back and neck tightened into a cringe as the weighted fly with its big hook comes whipping by your ear on your forward cast – we call it “chuck and duck.”
So we pounded the banks with our woolly buggers, and on a cast and drift not significantly different from any of the preceding ones, I raised my rod to begin another cast and suddenly felt the weight and the shake of a trout. Because of the big fly, I was using heavy tippet, but I was careful not to horse it in. I could feel it was a nice fish and didn’t want to risk losing it. With a decent fish on, I’m always unaware of time, so I haven’t a clue how long it took me to bring it to the net. But when I did, I was stunned not by its size – it was 18 inches at least, but I expected that – but by its color. This male was in full spawning display, its flanks the buttery gold of an autumn full moon and spotted with a crimson only a dahlia should wear. The fish’s color was seared into my memory, and that night, it brought me repeatedly to the turbulent surface of sleep. All night long, I could see nothing except gold and red.
So much has happened to me on the upper Connecticut. I’ve had days of catching half a dozen trout 15 inches or longer. Other times it’s been maddeningly difficult: a long trip, a long day on the water, and nothing to show for it. Not that we keep any trout – all are returned unharmed to keep the magic of the place alive.
Ray discovered this stretch of river a dozen years ago and was kind enough to take me there a short time later. In the years since, it’s been a treat watching Ray develop into an incredible fisherman as he has made this place his own, each year learning more of its secrets. During the winter, he ties dozens of just the right caddis imitation, and it works well all season long. He brings to the river abilities he developed as a soccer goalie in his youth. His eyes take in the whole river, seeing trout rise even in riffly water. He’s quick to spring into action – seeing that rise, he can drop a fly in front of it within seconds. And each action he commits to fully, wading confidently through water up to his ribs.
I have some of the classic guy-with-fish photos of Ray, but when I think of him fishing, it’s never the isolated moment of a still photo. It’s an action sequence of Ray, athlete and predator, that I see so clearly. He hooks a big trout that gets out in the current, refuses to lose it, and follows it downstream, splashing along over slippery cobbles and boulders, rod held high, with nothing on his mind except landing that fish.
Eventually, he ends up in the shallows near the bank a hundred yards downstream of where the trout rose to his fly. Ray kneels while he removes the fly, and then up comes the net, heavy with a beautiful silver-sided trout. This one’s a rainbow, no surprise since we saw it jump three times when it was first hooked. He returns it to the water and walks slowly back upstream, the smile on his face barely hinting at the quiet satisfaction he must feel.