We had been busy testing different flies, sinking tips, boat positioning, weather, and timing. Our efforts had been rewarded in small quantities, beautiful trout and assortment of smallmouth, carp, and creek chub- just enough to keep us coming back.
But on this particular morning our day was different. We started at 5 am, the weather report says we’re in the clear. 7 am. We got to the put-in and started prepping the raft, a massive thunderstorm rolls up the river and plows directly into us. We layer up and keep moving-organizing equipment, pumping up the boat, fresh shock leaders, rigging the rods.
We decide to wait before putting in as the lightning is crackling all around us in a brilliant display. Thankfully the storm subsides within an hour and we’re starting to work the banks. Methodically working every root wad, fallen tree, or gradient change that we see. Praying that we strip into a 30” brown trout.
Row a mile, switch, row a mile, switch. Through trial and error we had weeded out flies that worked. But, thanks to our newfound obsession (and disbelief) with The Tiger King on Netflix, Skye came up with a new fly that mimicked patterns we were seeing success with. The Joe Exotic fly was born. Boasting a bright yellow mohawk and a barred body it was the perfect mixture of flashy and natural. There was a sense of belief that today was the day that it would all come together.
Trout eats typically aren’t as violent as some saltwater species, but each fish we caught took us by surprise. While each eat was unique in its own right, they all shared the same startling boldness that can only come from being a top predator within an ecosystem.
One of the browns ate with the same ferocity of a peacock bass-slamming into the fly topwater and snapping shut its jaws with fatal force, before diving back into the depths. Another exhibited the characteristics of a musky- swimming directly toward the boat before eating two feet from the starboard side, completely committed to the kill.
The third rising from the depths above a rapid forcing the rower to hold the boat in a ripping current, unable to resist our new pattern. Slow head shakes signaled that this was no ordinary fish-everyone held their breath and Collin cranked down on the drag. Just as the boat was about to drop down in the rapid, preparation met opportunity and we bagged a trophy.
In these moments, all the early mornings and skunked days became worth it. To have successfully caught and released a tiny piece of a raw apex predator in the wilderness is an intoxicating privilege. And to share this with individuals who understand and appreciate the great depth of the moment. It has the power to transport the group to a new level of shared understanding and friendship. It is one of the many reasons that the fishing community forms such tight-knit groups. That is the real reward of the experience.