“Perhaps nature is our best assurance of immortality.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
There exist several memorable fish in my experience. The little brook trout caught in a narrow, tumbling stream whose encounter caused us both to blush. A cutthroat from the depths of a mountain lake so clear it reflected a Colorado sky all the way through to the Earth’s core. A hefty mountain whitefish, one of only two I’ve ever caught, whose silver-scaled sides shimmered with electricity. An eight-pound rainbow trout fooled by a black woolly bugger in an impossibly small pond high in the Bolivian Andes. But none of them held the mysticism of one particular rainbow I encountered as a teen on the Cache la Poudre River.
While it was an ordinary day, I hold fast to the belief that no day in the mountains is truly ordinary. I’m relentlessly drawn to the river, fascinated by its forever flow, bouncing through the canyon, reshaping itself with the turn of each day and each season. I had been working my way further upstream from Papadad’s to a stretch that I figured ought to have held fish since it was a mile from the old homestead, too far for the less intrepid to venture. It presented a nice variety of pocket water and wide runs accessible from bank to bank, and the time of year allowed me to wade without risk.
From the moment he hit the Elk Hair Caddis perfectly drifted around a rock across the river from where I stood, a rock behind which he had lived undisturbed for a thousand years, I knew he was the biggest fish in the canyon.
I felt his weight wrenching away from me, fighting the tension of the fly line, angry at the intrusion. My God, the fight! My rod wheezed as it bent, the loop of line I had been holding now stripped tautly and hotly through my left hand, my shoulders tightened. For just a few seconds, it was an epic struggle that spoke of possibilities about what this water could conceal. Burly behemoths now lurked everywhere. There were gargantuan creatures in the deeper reaches of this river resembling sea creatures I’d seen on old world maps wrapping tentacle and tooth around masted ships. Every step in the water now posed the risk of being bitten and dragged beneath the surface.
Then…the line went slack. Time froze. The river moved in slow motion. Bewildered, I watched the rod straighten from its bend, the line lay limp. He had spit me out. And for one disbelieving pause, I wilted with disappointment, just as my legs started trembling.
Of course, there was only one thing to do. I gathered myself to cast again, shaken as I was, to set yet another perfect presentation around the drift of the rock. I cast again, and again. I needed him to take the caddis! Damn it, he was huge! I needed to see him, to lay my hands on his girth and feel his pulse, to watch his gills slowly quiver, gasping for oxygenated water for the brief moment I would have held him close to admire his form.
Alas, who was I fooling? I had lost him to the ages. I would have few chances in life to encounter such a brawny creature ten times the size of any of his brethren, a freak of nature, secreted away in his lair. And while I was wrecked by the loss, in hindsight this was the seminal moment in my transition from casting metal spinners to fishing with flies. In fact, had I fished this spot with my Zebco and my go-to lure, the Panther Martin, I would not have lost the fish given the fact that it has a treble hook, all three of which are barbed. When you catch a fish with one of those, there’s no releasing it to live another day as the damage inflicted is a death sentence. But at that moment, spent with that fish, it was clear that the spinner would not even have solicited a sniff. It was the fly. I could have caught eleven-inch fish all day long on a spinner, but the fact that I was more closely imitating nature was the only reason I danced with that beast. Fly fishing was the way. It was poetry and art, a labor of intimacy and mysteries and dreams.
I knew that the monster I had hooked was a rainbow trout without even catching so much as a glimpse of him. At that time, the river rainbows had not yet been decimated by whirling disease, and I caught them nearly 100% of the time. The occasional brown was a novelty and rarer still were brookies. But over the course of a few years, whirling disease virtually rid the river of rainbows, except for the apparition I experienced that day. He has something special in his DNA and apparently to this day remains immune to predators, disease, and fishhooks. He still resides behind that rock; of this, I am certain. The average life span of a rainbow trout is roughly six years, and I read that the oldest recorded age is eleven years. My rainbow is pushing forty-five years old this year. I can’t imagine he’s grown too much bigger—after all, the size of the river dictates the size of the fish no matter how many insects and terrestrials he gorges on day after day, year after year.
I have returned to that spot just a handful of times since we battled. The pooling, swirling water behind that rock contains enough lifeblood for a school of fish, but I imagine he’s viciously territorial, and no fish would dare tangle with him. I’ve landed a couple of smaller trout off to either side of the rock, but the leviathan remains as wily as they come. I’ve come to give myself credit for contributing to his guile, as a fish as legendary as he can only possibly be fooled once. Because of me, he scoffs at the occasional fisherman who happens to approach. Because of me, he sneers at the passing cars high upon the canyon road. Because of me, he claims a bravado that broils the water through which he swims.
With the passage of time, most fish stories are built bit by bit inside the storyteller’s imagination, but there is no need to embellish the mythology of my nemesis. He is a biological miracle placed in the clear, chilly water by the very hand of God. He remains the supernatural giant of my youth, indeed the sort of ghost that makes you believe in all ghosts. Fleeting moments spent with legends like this creature forever weave us into the designs and patterns of the natural world. I remain haunted by him to this day.