Little white fluffy cumulus clouds were playing peek-a-boo with the early spring sunshine and I was all alone on a beautiful spring creek with a steady hatch of small dark Baetis mayflies bring several trout to the surface. Like tiny sail boats with dark sails the small Baetis would hatch in a flurry as the sun slipped behind a cloud and quickly disappear when the clouds parted. I worked my way slowly along the edge of a long flat picking up several smaller trout that seemed all too willing to eat my fly. At the head of the flat a large cottonwood log was lodged along the far bank and a collection of limbs and flotsam had collected along the upstream end providing excellent cover. The past summer a large brown trout had taken up residence in that place but I had not been able to induce him to take any of my flies. Perhaps, I thought, he might still be there this year.
Several smaller trout were working the currents in the middle of the flat opposite the debris pile at the head of the log but no sign of the big brown. I decided to wait and watch for a few minutes, waiting for a good flurry of flies to see if that would cause the big fish to show himself. If he appeared like he did last year he would feed right at the edge of the brush, making presentation a real challenge. Several minutes passed and nothing happened so I moved on working my way up to the head of the flat where I noticed several better fish working at the bottom of the riffle. I managed to hook and land several nice browns and one very spirited rainbow that filled my net with his tail hanging the rim as I scooped him up. A full 18 inches of polished chrome with a vibrant red stripe down the side he gave me a shower with his tail as I slipped the tiny barbless hook from the corner of his jaw and he hurtled away back into the depths of the stream. The hatch was fading and I thought that I might call it a day.
I walked back down the bank and as I approached the fallen log I saw the familiar dimple of the big brown’s nose as it poked above the surface at the very edge of the brush. I could not resist stopping to see if he could make a fool of me again. His rises were sporadic but steady enough to keep me glued to the spot and each time that I thought he had stopped rising he would stick his nose up and take another insect. Minutes passed as I made cast after cast without a hint that he even knew I was there. My legs were beginning to get cold and the sun was slowly moving toward the horizon and I was about ready to quit when I heard a voice behind me.
“Nice trout, but you need to change your position.”
I turned around and sitting on a stump next to the water was an old man. He was wearing a faded denim jacket and he had an old felt hat perched on his head. I did not know how long he had been there and I had never seen him on the creek before although I had fished this water for years.
“Let me see your fly” he said. “What sized tippet are you using?”
I waded to shore and showed him my fly. He looked at my fly and I thought I detected a slight grimace when I told him that I was using a 6x tippet.
“You need to use a 5x tippet if you hope to land that trout. You will need to turn his head immediately when he takes and this tippet will snap under that pressure.”
Without asking he reached into his pocket and produced a pair of nail clippers. He slid his fingers up the leader to the knot where I had attached the 6x and snipped it off. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a spool of tippet material and although I noted that his fingers were gnarled and his hands had a slight tremor he deftly attached the tippet, moistened the knot in his mouth, snugged it up tight and quickly trimmed the ends of the knot.
“This fly will never do. Apparently you did not notice that there are spinners on the water and that fish is eating them and not the duns.”
I was embarrassed to admit that in my excitement I had failed to observe the spinners on the water. The old man reached inside his jacket and produced a small fly box. He opened the lid and inside were rows of exquisitely tied flies. He picked out one of the flies, snapped the box closed and tucked the box back inside his jacket. He quickly threaded the tippet through the eye of the tiny fly and knotted it fast. Reaching inside his jacket again he produce a small tin of some type of floatant.
“You need to grease your tippet. This will keep your fly and tippet in the same current and help you to avoid any drag.”
The old man slid the tippet between his fingers applying a small amount of floatant.
“There is not need to dress this fly. It will float without any floatant and if it gets wet just flick it dry with a couple false casts.”
He handed me the fly and told me to wade out about three feet from the bank and take two steps upstream before I cast to the fish. I took the fly and leader in my hand and stepped back into the stream. Once I was in position I stripped off some line and made my first cast.
“It’s short and you need more slack,” he said. “Use a puddle cast and drop your fly about a foot above where he is rising. After you make the cast drop your rod tip and follow the drift with your rod tip.”
After a couple more casts he told me to move one more step upstream and take one more step out into the stream.
“Cast now,” he said.
I dropped my fly just about six inches above his feeding position and the tiny fly floated perfectly toward the edge of the debris.
“Wait,” he said, “wait, wait, wait. NOW”
The tiny fly disappeared and I quickly applied pressure turning the trout’s head away from the brush pile. The next few moments were a blur as the big brown made several runs toward the log, he dove deep into the center of the run and shook his head violently as he attempted to remove the irritation from his jaw. Slowly the pressure from my rod brought the big brown within range of my net. He was longer by at least 4 inches than the big rainbow I caught earlier and significantly heavier. I lifted him out of the water and turned to show him to the old man but he was gone. I quickly glanced up and down the bank but he was nowhere in sight.
I released the big brown and walked over to the stump where the old man had been sitting. The dry winter grass around the stump were undisturbed. There was no sign that anyone had walked up and sat down on that stump since last fall. The fly on my tippet was real and it wasn’t one of mine but as for the old man I began to doubt if I had really seen him.
The years have passed and I never saw the old man again; but then one day, in early spring I was walking along the bank of that same spring creek. I had left my rod in the car and as I walked along I sat down on a stump along the edge of the stream. I reached inside the pocket of my old faded denim jacket and took out a small fly box. I noticed that time had knotted the knuckles of my hands and there was a slight tremor as I held the fly box in my hand. I pushed the old felt hat back on my head and gazed out at the water. Against the far bank, near the top of an old cottonwood log, a big brown pushed his nose above the surface to sip in a tiny spinner.