I hooked into a freight train the other day. I never saw the fish, but I suspect it was a beauty judging by the rate at which it nearly emptied my fly reel.
We were fishing the North Fork of the Shoshone River upstream from Buffalo Bill Reservoir. The river was filled with big cutthroats and rainbows, fish that had moved up the river to spawn in the spring and were now filtering their way back down to the lake. The river was still high with spring runoff, though not as high as it usually is this time of year, and the fishing had been excellent, albeit a bit perplexing.
We were catching trout and the fish were the sort that would make anyone happy. Papa Bill sat in the front of the boat and landed a half-dozen rainbows, cutts and hybrids that ranged up to 22 inches. Back in my guiding days, it was the kind of day that might have earned a crisp C note for a tip.
This trip was just for fun, however, and I’m not sure how much actual guiding I was doing. The river was new to me, at least as far as floating goes. There isn’t any big whitewater on the North Fork, but it’s tricky enough water that I had my hands full on the oars.
We didn’t catch fish in the usual places. Nice fishy-looking runs along deep banks, or slow dark water next to downed trees — the kind of places you can normally count on to hold trout — didn’t produce fish. But then out in the middle of the river, where none of us expected much, Papa Bill would hook up with a doozy.
The randomness of the fish led to my unscientific conclusion that these had to be spawners from the lake rather than resident fish. Rivers in the Rocky Mountains don’t produce many 22-inch trout, and the fish that do grow to such size tend to be older, secretive, and difficult to catch. You simply don’t hook river-grown trout like that drifting a No. 10 Copper John in the middle of the river on a sunny July afternoon while you fumble for your beer.
The resident trophy fish were probably lurking deep, rolling their eyes at their clueless lake-bound cousins stupidly falling for the amateurs crowding the river. Soon the riffraff will clear out, the residents must be thinking, and it will get back to normal around here.
Since we were fishing in Wyoming through private property, opportunities to stop and wade were few. But the river occasionally intersects random BLM parcels or state-owned land that has been set aside for river access. On one such piece we pulled out and I got a chance to work a small side channel that had produced fish on a previous trip.
No luck this time, or so it seemed. After a few dozen drifts, none of which produced, my strike indicator finally dipped and I set the hook on something solid.
I soon learned I was just a helpless observer in this event. The fish, which remained deep and unseen, ripped off a 50-foot run to the head of the side channel, then turned and ran back to where the water poured into the main current. Once in the current I knew my chances of landing the fish were slim.
Of course the current’s where the fish went, making a beeline downstream for the lake. It got into my backing, and quickly reduced that to just a few scant wraps around the spool. Facing the loss of not just the trout, but my fly line as well, I stopped the spinning reel and broke the fish off.
Almost certainly the freight train was another tourist, a mackinaw that had followed the spawners out of the lake for an easy meal.
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