The thunderstorm came from nowhere.
I’m not much for weather reports, and I hadn’t checked. I’d simply walked out of my garage and looked at some clouds in the sky at dusk. No moon, either. So it would be a dark night with only patches of starlight between the clouds: my favorite kind of sky for night fishing.
I hopped the guardrail. I was through the woods and down in the water just a few minutes later. My objective was to walk all the way to the bottom of the long pool, keep walking to below the next run, and then fish my way up through the pockets. So I walked. This part of the river is remote enough that there’s no path. The surrounding forest was too dense for a night hike, so I walked through the skinny shallows. Places that are usually knee deep had just a trickle of water bordering the dry stones. Summer drought can be devastating.
Twenty minutes later I was in position and rigged up. Then the thunder started.
I’m not afraid of thunderstorms. In fact, I kind of enjoy violent weather, and I have some lasting, burned-in memories from summer rains and winter blizzards. Violent weather reminds us that we’re alive, somehow — that we are a small part of something infinitely larger. It’s a graceful hint that we have no control over most things: a direct admonition that anything can and will change any time it damn well pleases, so just let go a little and accept life as it comes. A burden lifted.
I’ve always been the kind of angler who likes to walk in far, so I’ve gotten stuck out there in some monumental weather.
When the sky softly grumbled in the distance, I figured I’d ignore the warning and wait it out. It probably wouldn’t even rain. When the flashing lights were added and the chorus of thunder grew louder, I figured I would wait it out, because it likely would pass. When the big rain drops outnumbered the small ones, I figured I’d wait it out, because hell, I could handle it, and the rain just might stir the fish into a feeding mood. But when the buckets came and the full force of a summer storm crashed on top of me, I needed a new plan.
Cold water soaked my hat. The rain found its way down the back of my neck and into my shirt as I waded above the fast water and walked across the tailout. The huge raindrops poked minor potholes into the water’s smooth surface. I flipped off the red filter of my headlamp, permitting the full blast of white light to lead me through the riffles and the rain. And then I saw it.
The massive, golden-speckled sides reflected my light back in brilliant, deep browns. The complicated refractory angles of the water changed quickly, and then I could see only the grey shadow of a trout. The mottled camouflage of a trout’s back provides the perfect disguise in the daylight, but it somehow doesn’t work that way under battery lights. Large trout stand in contrast from the surrounding streambed under direct, artificial light. It’s one of the few advantages that go to the fisherman.
The brown trout was holding where the soft glide of the tailout turns into a riffle. Right where he’s supposed to be. It was the kind of trout we don’t see much around here during the day, and it’s the main reason I fish this river — because fish like this are possible — although it can take years of fishing before finally having the moment when seeing becomes believing.
The trout shifted nervously when it felt the light. I took two steps closer, then the legendary fish made a circle around me. Small fish always dart for cover in these situations, but the largest trout wants to stand his ground for a while. The big ones seem cocky. They are, after all, the kings of this river. The apex predator. I kept the light on the trout, and it finally bolted for the safety of deeper water — its daytime hideout, no doubt.
I moved steadily through the storm. The rain was heavy, but it hadn’t lasted long enough to muddy the water. I walked up the same river’s edge I’d walked earlier; the soaking, cold rain trickled into my chest waders and down to my waist. I planned to get back to the small island where the path comes down from the road because it would be a quick escape up to my truck if the rain or the cold or the lightning became intolerable.
On the way upstream, I spooked five more trout from the edge. All were high-teens fish or better. Again, right where they’re supposed to be — feeding on baitfish in the dark. “Supposed to be,” and yet, usually they are not. I’ve walked this same edge many times, spotting for fish, but I never found one.
The rain ended as I neared the lower tip of the island. The air was thick, dark and heavy after a half-hour of hard rain, and the dense fog moved in like a blanket covering the water. The world seemed still. And after the raging sounds of the thunderstorm, even the rush of swift currents seemed muted and soft (like my ears were under pressure and needed to pop). The transformation and the calm seemed like an open invitation that was far too good to pass up.
I wrung the water from my long sleeve and noticed that the cold rain had found a path all the way down to my socks. But the water was warm now. In fact, all of the water on my body and clothes inside my waders had warmed to a comfortable level of insulation after the fast walk upstream.
I stayed on and fished for three hours, carefully working the edges, and the riffles where I had seen the half-dozen trout in the rain. I spent at least thirty minutes in the area where I’d seen the legendary fish. I caught trout, but the large ones eluded me.
It seems the feeding period in the shallows was quick again — short lived. But I know where some good sized brown trout make their home. And I know what it feels and looks like to fish through a thunderstorm in the darkness of a lonely river.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N