Big Fish Pool

This was a major activity period if there ever was one, he thought. A gentle breeze blew down river as the squabbling of two feuding mink and a cacophony of sounds from all manner of river dwelling birds disrupted the usual quiet of the pool. The mink exchanged squeaks, chirps and growls somewhere in the brush nearby. It must be mating season he thought. Black birds, sparrows, chickadees, quail, magpies, egrets, herons and several other bird species were in evidence in and along grassy banks, cottonwoods, willows and tulle reeds.

A muskrat crossed the river with a clump of green grass sticking out of the sides of its mouth. Canada geese picked insects off blades of grass overhanging the river while a lone male sentinel kept a wary vigil. Ducks fed in a nearby cove oblivious to the boat while a pair of cormorants dove beneath the surface in search of minnows, maintaining a safe distance.

I recalled John Alden Knight’s book of yesteryear. Knight advanced a theory describing the effect of moon phases on animal activity. In Moon Up, Moon Down, he states fish and animals are active during four predictable periods of each day. Knight identified the specific times for each day in published charts he called Solunar Tables. Today’s trip was planned to coincide with the tables. Today was one of two excellent days of the month. More importantly, the two-hour excellent activity period would begin in a matter of minutes.

A bow-mounted electric motor pulled the boat quietly upstream into the frog water. The first stop was the lower end of a long, wide pool. A slow current pushed a foam line lazily downstream toward Klamath Lake. Frog water is what locals call sections of the river with little or no current.

I anchored at the bottom end of the pool, waiting patiently for a trout to reveal its location by taking a bug from the surface. He pondered that waiting for a trout to show itself is an exercise similar to a Labrador retriever sitting at his master’s foot waiting for a duck to fall from the sky before entering the water. Minutes passed. Suddenly a rise form appeared upstream within casting distance. “I have a dilemma,” I said to no one particular. I have never caught a trout on a wet fly when casting up stream.

A little voice in my head said, “move the boat upstream hot shot and position it for a good cast to the feeding fish.” Good idea I thought, but I want to wait to see if the fish continues feeding. A large trout rose again, removing any residual reluctance to move. I quickly repositioned the boat.

Another waiting period began. A bulge under the river’s surface, caused by a feeding fish, appeared a few minutes later sixty feet down stream. The rise form of concentric circles moving slowly outward, dissipated quickly on a rippled surface. It was time to cast.

I picked up the fly rod, stretching the line and leader until most of the kinks and loops were gone, and cast down stream. The intermediate fly line was just starting to sink when the mink began another tirade. Could a testosterone-induced male be screeching “consummate this relationship you fickle beast or I will declare you incompatible on Match.com!”

The cast did not produced a strike although the fly looked very life-like and tantalizing as it twitched erratically back to the boat. There had not been enough time for the intermediate sinking line to absorb sufficient water to submerge to where a trout might eat the fly, I conjectured. Several casts would cure that allowing the line to soak up water.

The second cast flew toward the right bank, ninety feet away. After allowing the fly to sink it was twitched back with short, intermittent strips. During the retrieve the line tightened when the fly stopped. I raised the rod tip gingerly, clearing the slack line on the deck as it snaked through the guides. A good trout had taken a wiggle tail leach. The large rainbow shook its head angrily. I reminded myself that the fly was attached to 5 X tippet. “This would be a good time to check the drag and to keep my ego in check,” I muttered.

When the trout felt the hook point lodge in its jaw and the resistance of the line restricting its movement, it turned down stream toward the lake. The rod, in my right hand, was pointed skyward ready to bow to the fish if it jumped. My left hand was at my side as the trout moved away, pulling line and backing from the fly reel at will. I consciously avoided any temptation to touch the churning reel handle until the trout ended its run. Countless large fish have been broken off on the Williamson River due to excessive drag, I recalled. Even the most experienced guide has broken off super sized trout. I witnessed that event on more than one occasion.

As the fish swam down steam most of the backing disappeared from the spool. A hundred feet of fly line and a hundred fifty feet of backing is a lot of drag on 5 X tippet he told himself. There were two choices. Chase the fish or get spooled, he thought, as the rod tip jerked up and down with every violent movement of the fish’s powerful body. It continually tried to touch it tail with its head between sprints down stream.

The anchor was up, the boat drifting slowly down the river. Backing was continuing to disappear from the spool.

Suddenly and for no apparent reason, the fish turned and swam upstream. I got a break this time I thought as I started retrieving line as the trout swam toward the boat. “This is when a large arbor fly reel really comes in handy,” I thought.

After fifteen minutes the fish was tired and nearly controllable. It finally came reluctantly to the boat. I tried to slip the net under the fish several times before succeeding. This trout did not like the net one bit. A plump, twenty-five inch rainbow rested on the floorboards as I removed the fly from its bottom jaw. I returned the fish to the river and revived for a full ten minutes before it swam away with authority. That fish was at least five pounds I figured. “What a way to start the day,” I thought.
The morning progressed. The action was slow but steady. My initial strategy was to explore as much of the pool as possible. This was water I had not previously fished. I also planned to test a different fly pattern at some point during the day as well as validating or discounting the predictions in the Solunar Tables.

Each trout that stuck its nose up to take an insect from the surface received extra attention. A selective few were cooperative. As the sun rose higher in a cloudless sky, the light levels became predictably brighter. I knew from experience that when it gets bright, trout become more reluctant to feed on the surface.

Four trout exceeding five pounds had been landed and released so far.
I experienced one heck of a morning. One never knows about this river. It can be chicken one day and feathers the next. As early afternoon approached the end of the trip was drawing near.
Consistent with his earlier resolve, I switched to a smaller fly for my final minutes on the water. suspected the fish are feeding down in the water column. I selected a size #18 emerger and attached it to the tippet with a loop know. This tiny bug sometimes worked well in the faster water upstream. Why wouldn’t it work in frog water?

I moved the boat to the top of the pool, anchoring in ten feet of water. River visibility was four feet, just right for fishing the fly five to six feet down in the water column. With each successive cast I counted the fly down a bit deeper, probing of the water column thoroughly. The retrieve consisted of a series of short, quick strips with frequent pauses, giving the bug a realistic action. Most of the large fish would be lounging down near the bottom at this time of day, I speculated. After a dozen casts I was ready to call it a day when the fly stopped briefly, then resumed its jerky journey toward the boat. “Ah ha,” I thought, a trout ate it momentarily. The bug was either pulled out of the fish’s mouth or, he just bumped it, I conjectured. It did not feel like the hook point entered the jaw. If that was the case, the trout just may bite again.

In the middle of the next retrieve the fly stopped suddenly. A powerful tail pulled the fly up stream toward the boat. This is not typical behavior for a trout in this river, I thought. Big fish usually head for the lake when hooked. Perhaps this fish does not know it is hooked yet because it is swimming upstream into a slack line, I conjectured.

The anchor was raised in case it became necessary to chase the fish. I installed an electric anchor winch on the bow last winter just for situations like this. All that was required to raise the front anchor up was to press a rocker switch on the anchor case. I pushed the switch immediately after realizing this trout may be a bruiser. Just then the mink started their noisy confrontation again.
When the fish was twenty feet away, parallel to the boat, a beautiful rainbow with big shoulders jumped out of the water. There was no doubt about it now. This trout was hefty.

After a thirty-minute tussle I gained some semblance of control, not without difficulty. The boat net was twenty-four inches from front to back with a deep bag of rubber webbing. Getting this fish to the net would require care and patience. The fish circled the boat several times, swam back and forth parallel to the rail for several minutes, and made a series of increasingly short runs. It was not ready to fully submit after twenty-five minutes. Finally, it tired and reluctantly approached the boat. It swam away from the net several times. At one point a quarter of the trout was in the net but immediately flopped out, it would not fit. Minutes later neither fish or angler had much left. When the trout rolled over a showed its belly, I grabbed the tail while its nose was against the bottom of the net webbing, lifting net and fish into the boat with both hands. This trout was larger than average trout I noted, but I already knew that, duh. It measured thirty-one inches in length, with an eighteen-inch girth.

Weighing somewhere north of twelve pounds, it was a beautiful red sided rainbow trout with unblemished skin. This last fish of the day was the perfect ending to a remarkable day. I placed the trout into the river, reviving it for a full fifteen minutes. When the fish regained enough strength to swim from of my hands with authority, I released it to continue its journey toward the headwater to spawn. “Amazing! What a remarkable day on the river,” I said to no one in particular. Where else in the continental U. S. could I go to catch and release five wild, redband rainbows ranging from five to eleven pounds all in one morning? Who would believe it? I might write about it someday?

On the trip down river I thought about the Williamson’s treasures. It is not a river to be taken for granted under any circumstances, even for the most accomplished. It guards its secrets well and is without a doubt, one of a kind. And then there are those Solunar Tables. On this day, they could not have been more correct.

Robert Rathborne
Half Moon Bay, California

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