As Plato is said to have noted in The Republic (perhaps, but he certainly didn’t say it in English), “necessity is the mother of invention.” Have you ever set out for a day’s fishing, only to discover at streamside, that you have lost your terminal tackle or are down to the one and only lure that has any appeal to your quarry?
Not so terribly long ago, and not so terribly far away, a young man of European descent stepped into the icy waters of a stream flowing off the eastern slope of Mount Lassen. It was a tributary to the north arm of Lake Almanor, crown jewel of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s hydroelectric reservoirs in northeastern California. And, the stream was inhabited by the native rainbow and exotic brown trout, ravenous for the insect fare emerging in mid-June.
An invasive element himself, the young man sought an entrée to accompany his evening meal of ramen noodles. Now, half a mile upstream of the camp, numb from foot to knee, he had explored every riffle and pool, every pocket in the cascades, and every leaf in his flybook.
The downriver wind had reversed itself by mid-afternoon and the popcorn clouds scudding along from the west announced a high pressure system that would keep trout close to the bottom, unless the Fates intervened.
The morning bite had simply not materialized. No evidence of stonefly emergence; no rise forms along the banks; no clumsy caddis springing from the bushes; not even a cloud of midges!
Absent any indicators of insect activity, the young man had resorted to the ambiguous “attractor” patterns. A fish-worn and tattered black Woolly Worm had elicited a following shadow at the tail of a riffle, and a Zug Bug had produced an unseen, vicious strike in a deep pool, but the leader had parted at the lowest blood knot, releasing both the fish and the last pool probe in the fisher’s flybook.
Disingenuously thinking, “I’d rather see them take it anyway”, he went back to the floaters. First, a Royal Coachman, then a Stimulator in size 8, then, his all-time favorite, and the last one in his flybook, a #12 Rio Grande King bucktail. Best tied with polar bear hair, an endangered species verboten, but acceptable with a wing of kip tail, this little beauty floats like popcorn, fishes wet when drubbed by fish slime or plunging rapids, and often raises a strike from a twitch at pool’s end.
First cast after tying on the bucktail produced a six-inch brown trout. A few minutes later, an eight-inch rainbow was beached on the gravel. Hesitating only slightly, this too was released to grow a little larger.
Focussing with renewed intensity on the moving waters, the next backcast lodged the bucktail firmly in the upper branches of a streamside red fir. No amount of coaxing, cajoling or cursing could entice the Christmas tree to divest itself of its only ornament, and, alas, the leader broke at the terminal knot.
Now seated on a water-worn log, the young man began to regret his impulsive release of the last rainbow. Gazing down at his frayed and waterlogged sneakers, he noticed between them a cigarette butt stubbed in the sand, and felt a moment of consolation that, hungry though he may be, at least he wasn’t addicted to tobacco.
Further observation revealed that the butt was a filter tip, an obvious concession by the smoker that, perhaps, the Surgeon General had made a point, after all.
The filter now became the object of attention. By cutting off the cork wrapper and splitting the filter lengthwise, the young man now held a glistening array of tobacco-stained white fibers in the palm of his hand.
Setting them aside, he removed the now dry Woolly Worm from his hatband, sunk the hook securely into a driftwood stick held between his knees, and, with his sheath knife, stripped the broken grizzly hackle and silver tinsel from the hook shank.
Turning to the Christmas tree, he unapologetically punctured a bark blister with the knife point and annointed a tuft of filter fibers with the sticky, crystalline sap. A clinch knot secured a length of his lightest tippet to the hook shank and, pinching the cluster of fibers just behind the hook eye, a triple wrap of tippet, and two half hitches completed the fly.
Just upstream of the makeshift fly-tying bench, the stream flowed in a strong, curving slick in the shadow of a willow thicket. Probing the nearside waters first, the improvised lure bounced over the surface and rode, unmolested, to the tail of the run.
A single false-cast whipped water from the wing fibers secure in the cold-hardened sap. As the fly settled onto the surface in mid-stream, a good trout lept out of the water below it, turned in mid-air, and took the fly down with it to the bottom of the run. Two more tail-pulsing surges and the rainbow became a flying fish again. Ever so grudgingly, the head-shaking diminished as the trout wearied of the taut line and unrelenting current.
The young man beached the fish at the tail of the pool and cut a forked willow to carry it. On the hike back to camp toward a promising dinner, he reflected upon the travails of the day. The Fates had intervened after all, especially in that final Lucky Strike.
*My thanks to Lynne Frutiger for her insightful summation of this story.