Our Man In Canada
January 20th, 2003


Chris Marshall

By Chris Marshall (Fiction)

The lie was not a natural structure, but the trout did not know that. She had moved into the pool after an unusual summer flood had torn away the undercut bank where she'd spend the previous three seasons. Her new lie was better than the old one, though. Cedar logs lay parallel to the current, overhanging cleanly washed gravel.

She was resting, secure with the logs to one side and above her and the thrust of the current to the other side. She paid no particular attention to the twisted wire tying the logs together or the steel bar driven into the streambed to anchor them. They were just part of the landscape. For Mike Baxter, however, these artifacts had very special significance.

He crouched among the milkweed and goldenrod at the tail of the pool. The sun was just setting behind the farm on the hill upstream. He was relaxed, waiting for the Isonychia hatch - never prolific this late in the summer, but sufficient to entice the bigger trout to feed on the surface.

As he filled his pipe, he examined the log cribbing against the bank upstream to his right. Even though the flow was at its usual late summer level, the current chuckled bristly along the edges of the logs. It was a lovely pool - hard to fish due to the drag produced by the complex, ever-changing eddies, but it was a challenge and it held big trout.

Earlier in the season, when the stream was much more crowded, it was a popular place, and Mike always seemed to find some other angler there when he arrived or, if he had managed to get there first, he'd been disturbed by somebody clumping down the bank. He preferred the summer - the fishing was harder, but the crowds were gone.

The log cribbing in the pool had been built by Mike's fly-fishing club the previous season to protect the eroding bank and to provide cover for trout. It had proved to be one of the more successful of the club's conservation projects. Since opening weekend, there had always been fish in the deep, gravelly run against the logs. This was why it had become so popular.

Now, the dogwoods and grasses planted in the backfill behind the logs were in full leaf, hiding the raw construction scars left by the work party more than nine months earlier. Mike smiled wryly to himself as he remembered the day they'd pounded in the last T-bar and twisted the last strand of wire.

* * *

It was painfully cold. Mike stood in water up to his waist, leaning against the new section of cribbing. His exposed hands were red and puffy from the near freezing water, but he kept his grip on the pliers and gave the stiff wire a final twist to tighten the log securely against the T-bar. Then, dropping the pliers on the logs, he raised his hands to his mouth and tried to blow the ache away with his warm breath. It didn't help much. His whole body was chilled to the bone. Even his mind seemed frozen.

I'd better get out and warm up a bit, he decided, rousing himself.

But he hesitated. If he took a rest, the others would, too, and they'd be slow to get back to work again. He didn't really blame them. It was a hell of a day to be working on the stream - and they were all older than he was. Still, he was the one working in the icy water. Could he get them back to work quickly enough so they could finish the job? It was the 29th of November. They were lucky it wasn't ten below zero. It was too much to expect the unseasonably warm ten above to last into December. He know this was the last chance to finish the job before the following spring . . .spring! It seemed an age away . . .

"You OK, Mike?"

Winter came back.

"Come on out. We're going to take a break. You must be half-dead with cold in there. Here, grab my hand."

Jack Milner's gloved hand reach down to him. Mike grabbed it and pulled himself out of the stream and on to the logs.

The others had a fire going in the lee of a clump of big cedars. Thankfully, Mike sat down on a log and took the mug of hot chocolate Dan Fergusson offered him. Dan was at least seventy and had a heart condition, but he always came out to work parties. In fact, all three of the others were well over fifty. Mike, at thirty-one, was the baby. He listened condescendingly to their half-serious grumbling as he warmed himself at the fire.

"Thought we'd have had a few more come out today."

"Too damn cold. Gotta be crazy."

"Snow's coming."

"They're all inside watching the football game on TV."

"Nah, Ross and Al and some of the others are off hunting."

"Can't expect people to come out in weather like this."

"You did!"

Mike was only too aware of the problem. As club conservation chairman for the past three years he'd been frustrated by the lame pattern of member involvement (or lack of it) in work parties. The spring wasn't too bad, when anticipation of the opening of the trout season generated initial enthusiasm for working on the stream. But the enthusiasm quickly waned once the season opened. He'd almost given up trying to call work parties in the summer because of poor turnouts. Oh, the excuses were legitimate enough for the most part - family obligations, vacations, and so on. There really weren't all that many freeloaders. But it always seemed to be the same handful who could be relied upon to show up when needed. The past year had been the worse, as he'd lost his two best workers. Dave Jacklin had moved out west when the factory in which he was a machinist had closed down, and Ted Delaney had slipped a disc while jogging.

Despite the drastic reduction of his work force, Mike had been loathe to abandon the half-completed log cribbing project, knowing that if it were not securely wired in, it would most likely be washed away in the spring runoff. But without Dave and Ted it had almost proved too big a job. Even now, in late November, they had yet to finish.

"Another cup, Mike?" Dan Fergusson was holding the thermos out at him.

"Thanks, I need it."

Dan filled up his mug.

I'd better get back to work, Mike worried as he sipped at the hot, sweet chocolate.

A flake of snow drifted from the leaden sky. Then another, Mike dragged himself up. "Let's finish it," he encouraged, mustering the others.

As he eased himself back into the water the snow intensified. The wind was beginning to freshen, too.

Current issue

Only six more to wire in, he told himself, as Jack handed him one end of double strand of wire. The other end had already been attached to a T-bar driven into the bank. Dan waited with a short stick to twist the wire tight, and a hammer and a ten-inch ardox nail to pin it to the log. Moved on to the next T-bar. By the time they tightened the last strand of wire, it was snowing hard. Mike was exhausted. I must be crazy, he thought. Somebody else can do the job next year.

Dan had built the fire up, and the cedars provided some shelter from the driving snow. They clustered around the flames, absorbing as much of its warmth as the could, indulging in the last of the hot chocolate before they picked up their tools for the long walk back to the road.

They walked in single file, silently, along the muddy path through the meadow, totally absorbed in the task of forcing their feet to make each step. The snow had eased to a few, bitter flurries, but it had turned much colder. The farm on the hill stood out - white roof against a dead grey sky - like some surrealist painting.

That's where the road is, Mike assured himself grimly. It's a long way.

A thin, icy wind moaned fitfully in the tops of the cedars. Occasionally it descended to cut indifferently at their numb faces. They continued in silence.

* * *

A waxwing fluttered across the stream, almost hovering as it twisted to snatch a fly from the air. Mike snapped out of his reverie - the hatch had started.

He had already tied on his Isonychia imitation. He'd been experimenting with cut-wing, upside-sown pattern, and had found that, for the bigger duns, they were very effective, especially in sparse hatches.

The waxwing made another sortie - and another. This time, Mike saw the big dun rising steadily against the evening sky. He shifted to a kneeling position on the gravel bed at the tail of the run. The surface upstream was burnished in the afterglow.

The first rise came almost under his nose. He didn't really have to cast - just an inelegant combination of a dangle and a flick. The trout hit it almost immediately and dashed downstream into the riffle. As quickly as he could, he brought it back towards him. It wasn't big - under twelve inches - and it didn't have much of a chance against the 4 lb. leaders, but it was a well-fed, tough, wild brown, and it gave a creditable account of itself. Its flanks glistened gold and green as he reach down the leader to twist the hook free. It held in the shallows for a few moments, but as soon as he made the first cast to dry his fly, it shot away towards the other bank.

He settled back to watch the pool, which had not been much disturbed by his capture of the small brown. In the west, the sky gradually changed from gold to a cool, translucent green. Above him the first stars began to appear. The waxwings vanished.

The reflection on the run was much dimmer, but still bright enough for him to see the rise clearly. It was tight against the log cribbing. Mike knew there was at least one very big brown in the run. He's seen her on a number of occasions during the summer, by lying down on the cribbing and peering through a gap in the logs into the deep hole beneath - and on one windy June afternoon he was sure he's risen and missed her. She was well over twenty inches long.

This rise had the heaviness and deliberateness of a big fish. He felt the old familiar quickening of his pulse.

Steady - take your time.

The fish rose again. It was a good fish. Carefully, he false cast, and dropped the big fly a foot-and-a-half above the fish. It dragged almost immediately. He cast again - and again it dragged. It was a familiar pattern - the eddies were so unpredictable. It took infinite patience. On the eighth cast he managed a good float. The trout took it in a heavy swirl. He struck and felt the weight, then the first savage plunge for the safety of the logs. No finesse here - just brute strength and luck.

The fish turned suddenly, bolted towards him, and erupted out of the shallow water almost in his face. Frantically, he handlined in the slack. When he tightened, the fish was still on. Incredibly, it was holding in the centre of the run, well clear of the logs on the far bank.

Almost as if it's waiting for me.

As if in answer, the fish surged upstream. Mike gave it line. Then, as soon as it reached the head of the run, it turned and headed back towards him again. This time, however, when he's taken in the slack, the line tightened against something solid and unyielding. It pointed directly into the log cribbing. Although he knew it was futile, he released the tension on the line for a couple of minutes, then tightened on it again. But it was stuck just as solid as before. He pointed his rod tip at the logs and pulled on the line until the leader snapped.

Shaking a little, he rose to his feet and reeled in his line. The reflection in the pool was gone.

Ah, well, he rationalised. At least I hooked it. Maybe it'll still be there next year.

Beneath the logs, the trout lay with gills working. Beside her, the remains of the leader were wrapped three times around the steel T-bar, the broken end floating freely in the water. ~ CM

We thank the Canadian Fly Fisher for re-print permission!

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