Whip Finish


Ralph Long - June 02, 2014

As most fly fishermen know, spend any amount of time on the water and eventually you will take the plunge. Not the type of plunge as in going to bamboo rods, high-end gear or two-handed spey casting. I'm referring to the literal "plunge" where one's self gets fully immersed in the waters we wade. Some get that initiation out of the way as a novice just learning to wade. In this case you are lucky and have an excuse. You didn't know any better, "I'll never make that mistake again" often applies to this situation. Hence, you save face to a large degree, but for others it often comes later in our fly fishing journey. When experience leads to confidence, confidence leads to complacency and complacency leads to total surprise and complete shock when the moment arises. These events are the ones talked about around campfires, tying enclaves and general gatherings wherever fishermen are found for quite a while by any fortunate enough to have borne witness to the event in person. When the experienced wader does take the plunge it is usually shadowed by the knowledge of what the inevitable outcome will almost certainly be even as it's happening. We understand this because we "know" better then to have made the initial mistake which kicked the entire event into motion to begin with. For the novice wader as the event unfolds, he/she is often herd muttering "What the!?" or some such other unidentified mumbled phrase in surprise. However, the experienced wader, to a person, will more often than not declare "OH S%!$" since he/she already knows. No surprise of the outcome involved once the mistake is made, only the instant acceptance of reality. 

My first plunge, as an experienced wader, took place on a very cold Washington State coastal river during the spring steelhead run. This is compounded by the fact that the water involved is spring glacial run-off, and that "spring" is a misnomer since the air temperature was 40 degrees and it was raining. I was fishing with a good friend Troy, and while attempting to turn around and head for shore in the thigh deep run that passed over the slick piece of table-rock upon which I stood. Knowing full well that you never lift your downstream leg and turn "into" the current when in moving water, I did exactly that. As I lifted my downstream foot to turn, the current caught the toe of my wading boot. The effect was to do almost a perfect pirouette in 5mm neoprene waters, thick hoodie, wool sweater and wading jacket. Then, with both arms outstretched and swinging a fly rod, I slapped face-down into the water with a loud "POP". I came to my hands and knees gasping from the cold, and then stood as two things happened. First, my body screamed for help as the water which was very recently ice slowly migrated to nearly every place that skin existed. Secondly, Troy's laughter grew louder with every awkward step that I took towards the bank. He had the right and the duty to honor my plunge in this fashion, since he was fortunate enough to have witnessed it in person. So I could only shiver and half-heartedly laugh along with him in proper steel-header etiquette. My take away from the event was not really what I had done wrong. I already knew not to do that prior to doing it. What I vividly recall thinking at the time was that all those folks you read and hear about in those "polar bear society" events are all complete morons.

My second most memorable plunge came on the upper gorge of the Little Naches River in Eastern Washington. While fishing the plunge holes with my buddy Darryl, we stood side by side on the rim of a 30 foot section of scree bank looking down into a likely hole below. We were both still looking down when I said, "I wonder if we can get down from here?" The instant I completed my question, the bank gave way under my feet and was suddenly sliding on my heels down the bank, miraculously keeping my balance as I surfed through ankle deep rock like Goofy in a Sunday morning Disney cartoon. I may even have used some of his hoots and hollers that we all know so well. But again, the foregone conclusion of what was about to happen was vividly painted in my mind as I rapidly approached the stone bench at the bottom, and when my feet hit that rock, my momentum was a force to be reckoned with. It instantly catapulted me out into that great looking pool with a splash as I curled up, bracing for impact. Standing up in the chest deep water, yet still holding my fly rod, Darryl's answer was loud and clear. "YES!" he answered, then headed for an easier route downstream while laughing hard enough to wake any Yeti still hiding in the Cascades.

The plunge happens to all of us eventually, though for some sooner or more often than others. But in the end, it's coming. I have a good friend that falls more than most. I'm not sure whether it's a result of aggressive wading or clumsiness; however he does catch a lot of fish along the way. Spend a lot of time on the water, and fate will rear its ugly head eventually and bring you closer to the water than intended. One must accept and embrace the inevitable. As long as no misfortune or injury is involved, it is simply the price we pay for pursing trout in these beautiful but often very cold waters. And remember, when it does happen, witnesses are allowed to laugh. It's their piscatorial right as fishermen to relish in your plunge, and then retell the events of the account at every chance.

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