BY SEAN STINY,
A strike on my Royal Wolff in the russet water and a dart of adrenaline hits me like an atom splitting. Raising my rod, I set the hook on a sardine, a fry really, and inadvertently fling him thirty feet downstream. Shin deep in the current, there’s an unmatched vigor in my unspooled line, even on a fingerling trout. Fish on, and the rainbow’s spastic breach is a show of cockiness. The freedom they know is unrivaled, certainly by my few days of PTO and flight and truck I took to the landscape they know their entire lives.
The Crooked River twists through Central Oregon and harbors a trout with an IQ of one who relentlessly outfoxes me. A single IQ point, just higher than a plant. The rainbows, weary of man and Osprey alike, rule the river with a sharp eye. Try to coax them with a bunk cast with a sham insect, they balk. Getting caught, a mere nuisance to their afternoon and their lip. They simply catch their gilled-breath, head back to their pool, and do it all over in a moment’s time.
The average ‘bow in the Crooked isn’t more than twelve inches, usually closer to a spunky eight. What pluck it takes for a pan size critter to attack a half inch dry fly. That’d be like me eating a burrito the size of my femur.
The rainbow’s flank is scattered with the colors of the universe, in random order to my eye, in neat sequence to theirs. Jostling for feeding position with the shockingly large and tangerine-tinged crayfish, their only true fear are the raptor talons in the canyon far above. The humans simply cradle and slip them back to the chestnut water. The anglers then peel off their waders and felt-soled boots and head to one of the countless breweries in Bend for a frothy amber brew, while the ‘bows head to the depths of their copper river.
Upriver, the Crooked runs through the famed rock climbing and canyon slacklining Smith Rock State Park. The park, with its smoothly paved parking lots and card-scanning kiosks and visitor’s center yurt, feels more like a National Park-Light than a trifling state park. Climbers grab hold of every indentation in the rock face like they’re free soloing El Cap. Rather, they’re REI harnessed as tight as can be with their climbing bestie or significant other on belay, or testing out their first date for adventure compatibility.
And if the rock face is too humdrum, there’s a slackline that traverses the entire canyon. 382 feet across, nearly 500 feet above the Crooked. For me, the jibber jabber of the geese and a bit of fall pigment in the deciduous were enough to belay my attention.
Downriver, my Parachute Adams floats next to a mayfly. A cloud finally passes and the hungry dimples on the water begin to appear again with the sheen. Half a dozen trout gulping mayflies that mayday down the ripples. The next cloud again covers the sun and turns the water slate gray and spells the feeding trout for a moment or two. Less contrast for them to decipher a true mayfly versus the artificial fur and feathered one I feign as real. The breeze topples the grasses like a sea pulsing its shores, then subsides. I try to time my cast with the sun and clouds and wind as they come and go at their celestial leisure.
The rainbows my father and I caught (mostly me for once) were down the river and through the woods, forty or so miles outside Bend along the agricultural and dirt bike corridor to the east. Nearer to Prineville than to the lineup of Caterpillar tractors turning Bend into a growing junior metropolis. Meander through the Bend Fly Shop when you first get into town, bend their ear about what they’re biting on, and buy one of their spiffy hats for their trouble.
Autumn in the Oregonian out-of-doors is crisp and clear and burning with reds and yellows. The trout lay down once the chill hits the evening and the mayflies taper off. In summer, they’ll be feeding late into the balmy night, eating their fill of fluttering wings and spindly legs and goopy abdomens until they about burst. In Autumn though, the chill beds them down like they’ve gone to put on the Earl Grey and while away the evening with a pescatarian novel. Maybe one by Jim Harrison.
Mid-afternoon and an old man fishing guide leapfrogged our pool. Earlier he accompanied a client, but by then he’d shed the paid caster and come back for an hour to himself. His wispy cast hooked a trout every time I glanced downriver, then continued on upriver after he passed us with a nod. We flung fly after fly at the hatchery-raised trout as his rod sprung to life again and again. I even saw him net a ‘bow just before he disappeared around the bend, proof he’d found one larger than a pan and worthy the annoyance of a net. Perhaps he had the right fly on, or perhaps it was the years his mind had spent drifting the Crooked and streams like it.
I am envious of the rainbows and the single thought they seem to bestow in their heads. Eat. Eat until your jaw is tired, your tail fin tuckered, your belly taut. Our noggins hold thousands of thoughts, maybe millions, a tangled mess of contemplation and intrigue and feeling that make the world more complex than it ever needed to be.
The trout eat, lay eggs or deposit sperm, and survive. That’s it for their kind. In death, like their sister salmon, they’ll nurture the hawks and crayfish and sage and firs and other trout with their flesh.
I aim to trick said trout into slurping my counterfeit mayfly and getting the pointed sheath stuck in their gullet to command them to the surface, into my hand. I feel a victory when that happens, like it’s more than a bit of fortuity that the trout saw my fly and instinct made them pounce.
But maybe it’s the rainbow who’s victorious in showing me his speckled flank for a few scant seconds before disappearing to the muted depths. Or maybe there are no victors, not the angler, not the trout. Only wide-eyed creatures looking each other eye to eye in wonderment for a fleeting astral moment.