By Sam Larson
From my right I heard Jeff swearing softly. I waved at him and offered the universal, “What’s wrong?” sign with raised hands and hunched shoulders. He shook his head and pointed out towards the middle of the lake. The circle of a rise spread and faded. A second rise, ten feet further out into the lake, spread fresh ripples and I could just see the strike on the surface. Not a body-slamming rise, more of a sip then anything, but a rise nonetheless. There were fish here, we had proof now, and at least one was moving and feeding. Jeff cast and cursed softly again. The fish was rising forty feet out into the lake, and from where we stood there was almost no hope of getting that much line into the air without getting tangled in the trees behind us. The best solution was to stand on top of the embankment and lay the backcast straight down the trail we had hiked up, directly into the face of any hikers on their way up. So with one eye on the trail and the other on the intermittent rises that still dappled the surface, that’s exactly what we did, pausing in between casts to make sure we weren’t going to smack someone in the face with the business end of a fly line. We drifted emergers and gnats, tiny para Adams, and nameless midge patterns that we cooked up during late mid-winter nights at the vise, but nothing seemed to interest the trout. The fish circled further out into the lake, negating the extra distance that we achieved by casting from the embankment. I wandered off along the shore again, batting hanging branches out of my way as I headed back to the submerged tree I had fished earlier, thinking about ticks and if the weather was still too cold for them, wondering if we would catch anything for the rest of the trip. The skunk had settled heavily onto our shoulders and it didn’t look ready to shift.
I stripped a couple arm’s lengths of line from my reel and cast out towards the fallen tree and the drop off beyond, silently counting to fifteen as the zonker sank. Maybe this just wasn’t our weekend, I thought, six, seven, we had cruised up and down Cameron Pass like madmen and had nothing to show for it, nine, ten, well, there were the stocker rainbows at Chambers Lake, but those don’t really count, dumb, tank-bred beasts that they are, twelve, thirteen, but that might be all we got this weekend, fifteen. I stripped slowly for a three count, twisting the line between my fingertips and just as I paused for another five count to let the fly sink I felt a soft tap on the line, and a gentle shaking tug. I stripped line, raising the rod tip as I did show and, miraculously, I felt a firm tug on the end of the line. I palmed the reel as the trout took a short run back towards the middle of the lake. I looked over my shoulder, stripping line in with one hand and keeping the rod high with the other, and saw Jeff give me a thumbs up. I walked backwards into the shallows and I could see the fish now, racing back and forth across the bottom of the lake, flashing its white belly as it carved sharp turns. I grabbed my net from where it hung down my back and scooped the trout from the water. Kneeling in the still waters of Zimmerman Lake I cradled the greenback cutthroat in my hand, tugged the barbless hook from its jaw and lowered it back into the circle of water inside my net. Cream-colored on the bottom, fading slowly to a delicate pale green, it had a cutthroat’s typical heavy speckling on the tail, fading to an irregular scattershot of freckles across its neck. At no more than eight inches long it felt like the fish of the weekend, a hard-fought victory in the face of a late spring and slow fishing. The greenback swam slowly from my hand, slipping smoothly back to the center of the lake and the colder, calmer waters there.
Jeff walked towards me, his line reeled in, leading Baxter along the shore. We had plans to return to Joe Wright Reservoir and see if the grayling were moving after a long day in the sun and it was time to head back down the trail towards the van. We turned our backs to the lake, hiking silently, thinking about grayling and the inlet, wondering aloud if the nine anglers we had left behind that morning still lined the shore at Joe Wright, or if they had moved on to more profitable waters the same way we had. Another solitary rise dotted the lake’s surface, the spreading ripples blurring the reflection of the cliffs above the south shore. Below the water the greenback swam, cruising through trembling columns of water-soaked light, sinking into solitude and darkness. I think that trout do not cease to exist when we release them, and they are not called into existence, spell-like, by a soft cast or a twist of feathers and string bent ‘round a hook. They are always there and they, along with the osprey and the towering cliffs, live deep lives, sensing in their fins and feathers the constant seasonal back and forth that defines the years. Back at the Westy, standing next to its chunky, metal awkwardness, listening to the Dopplering rumble of traffic passing back and forth over the top of Cameron Pass, I think again about the greenback I held and feel the pull of the world around me, urging me back to the high alpine lakes and the solitude of the peaks.