Man and fish departed ways somewhere deep in eastern Washington on a tributary of the Columbia River. The water we fished ran from the granite cathedrals and frozen peaks of the north Cascade Mountain range.
The hook didn’t break. The tippet didn’t snap. The knot didn’t fail. There was an audible “pop”. Then it was gone.
“What was that?” one angler said to another.
“Dunno,” said the guy on the sticks.
“Steelhead?” asked the guy who had just lost the fish.
“Dunno. Don’t think so. Didn’t run like a steelhead,” said the guy who knew the river best.
I stood in the bow of the 13’ Otter and had the same internal dialog running through my head. We were after steelhead, the runs we were fishing looked rich with potential, and the day had been active. A wide variety of species shared the water—and we were running into them. We saw spawning chinook that were three feet long. We had caught a few smaller bull trout early on, but word on the street was that some of the bulls pushed into the 10-pound class. Local folklore cited a 15-pounder taken from this river.
The fall conditions were perfect. The foliage was in full bloom and the water was clear. At one point we spotted a smaller steelhead teed up behind a chinook redd. As we approached for a better look, the steelhead spooked—the chinook held in position and we moved on. In addition to finding whitefish everywhere, coho season had opened for the first time in many years based on a strong return.
My buddy’s 8-weight had bent over against the strain of whatever fish species had eaten the stonefly imitation or the egg pattern. It quickly sounded and we never saw it—not even for a second. It wasn’t a trout or a whitey, we knew what those looked like. It didn’t make a long run or blast out of the water—but it wasn’t docile either. The rod tip never stood still and the fish bulldogged the reel’s drag in short powerful bursts. At one point I saw a flash—but that was all.
And then the “pop”. My buddy’s taught fly line bounced in the air and came down in a defeated heap.
“Oww...” I said. It looked like it hurt. Then silence in the boat.
“Damn...” I broke the silence again. “That fish is going to get burned into your brain and stay with you.” My stream of consciousness was at work, kind of like angling tourettes.
“Bullshit,” my buddy shot back. “That’s not the first big fish I’ve hooked and it’s not the first big fish I’ve lost.”
Fair enough, I thought. That was an admirable way to look at the situation.
The boat was quiet again as we all digested the fact that we would never, ever know. We could analyze. We could hypothesize. We might even lay in bed late at night and think through the whole scene in slow motion like the torturous frames of Zapruder’s JFK film: back and to the left… back and to the left….
But we would never know the truth.
“F—k!” my buddy yelled, airing out his frustration. The sting of the loss had not worn off so easily. We were obviously coming to the same forgone conclusion.
“You think that was a coho or something? Big bull maybe?”
My buddy stood at the back of the boat reeling in slack line shaking his head.