The pivotal moment when everything changes. The event that makes the trip. The defining instance that separates all the memories that come before from the ones that come after. It’s what I wait for — what I look for every time I’m out there — and it’s why I keep fishing.
These moments happen in sports too. And watching for the one play, one shift, one slice of time that changes the momentum, is the best thing about following a team through a full season. In every memorable win — in each campaign — there’s a low point, and then there’s an event that acts as the hinge between all that happened before and ultimate victory.
A few weeks ago the pivotal moment sneaked up on two tired fishermen and left a lasting memory.
Pat Burke and I have floated down rivers together in his two-man pontoon for about five years now. He’s a good friend, and a good fisherman with the ambition to fish long enough and hard enough to get to the next defining moment — it’s hard to find sometimes and easy to miss if you give up too early. Burke and I each have two tenacious young boys, yet we still find the time and the right water conditions to float pretty often.
Anything you do a lot becomes commonplace. It can start to seem plain — boring even. For floating, though, I think that’s part of the charm. Burke and I often drift long stretches of water without saying a word. I know the best lanes on our favorite river, and I know the kinds of bank structure where Burke wants extra time to present a streamer — so I backrow. He knows what kinds of conditions prompt me to change rigs and how long it takes me to tie the knots — so he drifts for a while and lets me adjust. No words. Just experience and a longtime friendship dictating the next move. We know each other well enough that by mid-morning we’ve usually shared all of our new stories; we’re all talked out and caught up. Nothing left then but to fish. So we do. Yes, it can seem common, and that’s a good thing.
Burke called me a few days earlier:
“Are you ready for another theme float?” he asked. “July 4th is coming, and the river is in good shape.”
“Yeah, I’m in!” I laughed. I fondly remembered the fun of the previous year.
The theme float is a Burke creation to mix things up and infuse the mundane with something to chuckle about. This is the second year in a row that we found things lining up for a good Independence Day float, so we flew Old Glory from the back of the boat once again — it doesn’t take much for us to call it a theme.
Last year, somewhere in the late afternoon, we floated parallel past a popular campground on the 4th of July. Partygoers and patriots alike came to the riverbank to salute the flag, raise their beer or give us a friendly wave. Just before we rounded the bend away from the campground, a tanned, shirtless kid skidded his muddy bike to the water’s edge. He pumped his fist and yelled, “A M E R I C A !” The flag seems to bring out the unreserved best in people.
With lower flows this year, we chose a bigger river with fewer fish but more recreational boat traffic. Around noon, when we pulled aside to allow a rowdy regatta of (poorly navigated) kayaks to pass, we received the full-throated chorus of the Star Spangled Banner from the amiable group. There’s nothing like a good theme float.
I did this trip on no sleep, leaving directly after a late gig on Saturday night to travel a few hours into the darkness, and I’m happy to say I can still pull that off. We floated at dawn on Sunday and were off the river by dusk. It was 11:00 Sunday night when I closed my garage door, the hot engine dripped sweat on the concrete floor. Finally back home and ready for sleep, it was all worth it.
Floating requires a lot of extra work. There’s the shuttling, the lifting, the packing, the rowing, then the unpacking and the cleaning. Extra skills are required. Someone better be good at backing up a trailer, and for Burke’s pontoon, two men should be able to deadlift at least as much as their own body weight and walk the boat to the water’s edge without falling down the hill. Oh, and both men need enough talent to guide a boat and create fishing opportunities for the guy in front. It comes with time.
The action wasn’t what we’d hoped for. We had some reports of big fish eating big surface bugs, so we traveled the extra miles to the big river. I’m sure the reports were true (because a fisherman wouldn’t lie), but I think we missed the window by about a week. By afternoon, we had long since accepted this fact; we’d given up on the big bugs and were catching occasionally cooperative trout on streamers and nymphs.
After pushing hard against the oars through a very long and unproductive pool, I backrowed the craft to the river’s edge and beached it in some shady sand. Burke lit the portable grill while I dug through the icy cooler. We’ve done ribeye steaks, pork ribs or brats on some trips, but today there were just a few hot dogs to grill. More of the common, I suppose. The beer was a wheat brew, low in alcohol percentage for a craft beer, because we’ve learned the hard way that IPA’s rob us of the will to fish hard. Even so, while cleaning up after lunch, Burke quietly said what I was starting to feel on this weary, hot day — that his heart wasn’t in it anymore.
We pushed on, regardless. What else could we do? You can’t just give up on a float — you have to make it to the take-out first.
With a few miles left and evening moving in, the shade lines grew wider along the bank, and I decided to fish dries again. I tied the knot to a favorite high-floating Adams variation — just a simple pattern that floats well in mixed water, gets attention from trout of all sizes and doesn’t have too much going on that can turn a trout off.
Burke guided the boat to the far bank, into a dark and shallow piece of broken water serving as the header for some Class III rapids below. If a good trout was to eat the fly in that water, you certainly wouldn’t want him running down into the …
WHAM! We both saw the gold swirl and the wide mouth. The big brown fish inhaled the high-floating Adams in one swift, giant gulp.
The pivotal moment.
I set the hook fast — snapping the rod high while stripping line with my off hand — picking up all the slack in one strong movement. A solid strike. Game on.
Burke hollered and dug in hard with the oars, doing everything he could to keep the boat on the shelf and upstream of the whitewater while I angled the rod sharply to the side, trying to convince the rocketing brown trout not to dive downstream into the chaos. Our only chance was to keep the fish and the boat out of the rapids.
On the dry fly rod, I had my old click-and-pawl reel, and the big fish took one strong and nasty run before I finally remembered to palm the spool (no drag and a small arbor). I reeled furiously after turning the fish’s head bank-side, then eased up when the trout agreed that he didn’t want to enter the whitewater either. He dodged under the boat, and I pulled hard again. Burke yelled, “Where do you want the boat,” and I pointed left. We entered a swirling stall behind a large rock, and Burke tried to hold us in place for a moment.
The trout was close, and I grabbed my net to take a chance; it wasn’t ready for the capture, but I needed to try before bad things happened. Off balance and stretched beyond my physical limit, with my second swipe I nearly tipped headfirst into the river. Then with no hesitation, Burke decisively dropped the oars, grabbed the long-handled boat net, leaned far out over the pontoon and plucked the slashing trout from the soup. I took the net with our fish in the bag, and Burke caught the boat with the oars again, backing us out of the current just before we would have drifted over the shelf and into the rapids.
Adrenaline faded slowly as Burke docked the boat against the rocks. We took a couple pics and released the fish. With wet handshakes we recounted the experience as we readied ourselves and the boat to push off into the waves once again — renewed and invigorated — with Old Glory flying behind.
Just one moment changes everything. That’s what I love about fishing.