Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Fourty-six

Big Redside

By Mark Bachmann
Photos courtesy Frank Amato Publications

From edge of a large back eddy and the shade of streamside alders I survey the Deschutes. Upstream there is a short riffle. Here the river slows over rough cobble. Ten feet from the near shore there is a slick where the currents are broken by a large barely submerged flat boulder. Over hanging brush and tall canary grass protrude from a high bank, providing afternoon shade for a trout and a handicap for any right-handed fly caster, such as myself.

Deschutes above Maupin

The big "Redside" is six pounds, twenty-three and a half inches long, and seven years old. He is in perfect physical condition and is the dominant fish in this riffle. His home was taken in combat, by driving out all previous occupants and succeeding interlopers.

The big trout rests in his lair. . .in the slick behind the boulder. This is the prime hold in many acres of water. Even though his living room is only three feet deep the trout is nearly invisible from above. There are perfect escape routes to either side, into rushing water that will instantly hurtle him away from danger.

The Deschutes rushes by. The trout's home is a calm tunnel amid the raging torrents. Long filaments of blue green algae wave with the flow, further concealing the trout in his home. The boulder is a chunk of basalt, recently discharged from the rim-rocks. It anchors the algae. The surface flow breaks into a cascade, which plunges a thousand oxygen-laden, silvery-green bubbles deep into the river. They mix with the long trailing algae and bounce off the gravel bed like an endless procession of transparent rubber balls. In the suction behind the boulder is a tiny eddy, which traps food and pulls it deep into the water.

Food, oxygen and safety is a hard combination to beat.

There is a narrow weed bed along the shore. It forms caves and funnels and tunnels. Several small trout flit about in the caves under the weeds, capturing many of the hapless dwellers as they are washed from the foliage.

The big trout needs not waste energy by flitting among the foliage in search of prey. The river brings him an endless smorgasbord and deposits it in the tiny eddy inches in front of his pointed snout.

I quietly peek over the streamside vegetation. Several small trout are visible along the edge of the weed bed. One is directly below me. It rises splashing to the surface and dispatches a small yellow stone fly.

My binoculars disclose other stone flies upon the riffle but no other trout rising to them. The rest of the riffle seems barren of fish. My view rests momentarily on the slick behind the boulder. The visibility is unusually good but the seamy, boiling surface is hard to penetrate. Yet there is a grayish-red cast to the streambed in the far edge of the slick. At first I think it is a fish. Then I am not so sure as the image seems too immobile and too large.

A tiny yellow stone nymph leaves the gravel upstream from the boulder. It struggles to the surface and the pressure within its body splits the exoskeleton from the top of its head to the center of its back. A viscous, bleached version of the adult insect emerges through the rend in the skin. First the crumpled wings appear and then the back of the head and finally the thorax, feelers, and legs. Last to leave the nymphal shuck is the abdomen. Finally, the stone fly rides the choppy, undulating meniscus as a fully developed air-breathing adult. It rides the surface only a short distance and is pulled under by the spill behind the boulder. It pauses struggling briefly near the bottom. There is a short, swift movement as the trout lunges forward and the stone fly disappears into the giant maw.

Standing crouched on the bank, I see the movement and for an instant the trout is fully visible. A shot of adrenaline shoots up my spine and lodges in the base of my skull. The primal hunter is aroused. The quarry has been detected. Briefly his camouflage has failed.

Brush and tall weeds surround me. The alders, which shaded me earlier, are now an obstruction to my back-cast. My eyes trace out the only possible trajectory for my fly line, which must be high over my left shoulder and between two of the trees. The forward cast must change direction in the air to align itself with the target. Since the line and the fly will land in water travelling at drastically different speeds, there will have to be a lot of slack in the leader. As I trace and retrace the path that the line must follow, my confidence falters. There is a brief search for alternatives. There are none.

Carefully, the leader is inspected and the 6X tippet is replaced with three feet of 5X. To its end is knotted a size #14 low floating Yellow Stone Fly - which was constructed complete with feelers, tails and flat Fly-Film wings. The colors, size, and shape matches the real ones hatching from the river. The fly is not dressed so that it will sink quickly as it enters the spill below the rock.

The leader and twenty feet of fly line are carefully coiled in my left hand. I raise the rod quickly with my right hand and "cross body" my back cast over my left shoulder. The coils feed out of my left hand as I shoot line into a high back cast which beyond all odds slices through the open space between the trees and hangs momentarily over the tall grass. The rod tip is then brought forward in a shallow arc and the forward loop sails out high over the water. The loop changes from vertical to horizontal with an upward the swing of the rod tip. An instant before the loop flows into the leader, I push a tiny amount of slack into the line and the cast dies in the air. The fly line lands on the water upstream form the fish, with the leader pointed downstream and the fly on a direct course to the center of the boil below the rock. There is a quick rush of air from my lungs, and the incredible tension from executing this impossible cast is suddenly gone.

The fly drifts a foot and then disappears in the spill. There is sudden movement in the slick below the rock; I raise the rod more by instinct rather than observation. The line comes instantly tight, and there is an explosion of water meeting the air as the giant caudal fin hurtles the fish into the raging current. The trout and my fly line are a blur as the white Dacron backing leaves my shrieking reel.

The huge trout launches himself into the air near the far shore and then races downstream into the eddy. Still he takes line, and the black felt marker stripe signals that fifty yards of backing have left the reel. Incredibly the fine leader holds against the pressure of the light rod and smooth drag.

The trout pauses, and then runs toward me and I reel frantically to maintain tension on the line so that the tiny barbless hook will stay embedded in the flesh. The trout shakes his head in angry violence and I ease off on the pressure slightly. He reverses his course and the reel spool, which is now small in diameter from loss of line, turns with unbelievable speed. The shiny black handle disappears in a blur. A red felt marker stripe signals that the reel is almost empty.

Again the trout pauses. There is no accounting for the luck. A few more yards and I will be out of line and he will break the light tippet. I must follow him. Immediately downstream, alders over-hanging the deep eddy block my path. The river bottom is mud and sticks. Off comes my vest and binoculars, which are tossed in the grass. I can barely feel the trout as I slide down the bank into the cool water. I am in the river over my shirt pockets, fighting my way through a raft of flotsam and midge shucks, which adhere readily to the fabric of my clothing and the hair on my chest. I reel myself down to the fish and gain some line. The alder branches hang nearly in the water. I fight my way through them as quickly as possible. My feet sink into the bottom and I finally emerge downstream of the alders in a muddy plume. I crawl up the bank, still maintaining pressure and gaining line back on to the reel. The fish is still far below me as the red marker stripe comes back onto the reel.

For a while the fish gives ground and I reel continuously until the black stripe is also on the reel. I am down stream fifty yards below the riffle.

I see my fish next as the backing knot comes into the rod guides. He is only a silvery-green blur deep in the clear water of the eddy. My heart jumps. . . he is larger than I had thought.

For a long time the fish stays deep and edges slowly upstream along the far shore. He bullies my light tackle with the force of the main current at mid-stream. The backing knot seesaws back and forth through the guides. There is a tremendous down-stream bow in my line, as the fish stays straight across the wide green river. Finally after many minutes the constant pressure takes its toll and the big trout starts to give ground. A few minutes more brings him to my hand.

He is a wondrous creature, subdued but still full of life. His body is deeper than my hand is long. I can barely close my fingers around the waist of his tail as I slide him into the shallow water. His black-spotted, olive colored back blends with the skimpy aquatic vegetation and sand. The rose colored gill plates pump rhythmically. His nose is long and pointed, but the lower jaw lacks the kipe of sexual maturity. All of his fins are in virgin condition. He has never spawned. The predominant male red stripe from whence his species got its name is but a faint glow of the ruby it will become. The pectoral fins contain this same red tinge. The ventral and anal fins are tipped with milky white. His lower sides are silver-amber. Every scale contains a sparkling mirror crescent. His muscles are hard to the touch.


Energy returns to this body and he starts to struggle, at first feebly. . .then with vigor. Compete equilibrium returns slowly. He is tired. I am tired, but relaxed as I turn him toward the river and he struggles free from my hand. His form dissolves into the green depths of the eddy. He is free again. And so am I. ~ Mark Bachmann

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