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It's a mortifying moment for any fisherman and damn near inexcusable for an experienced one. If I had buried that hook instead of a chunk of lead into his head we'd have performed the sort of streamside operation no fisherman ever wants to be on either end of.
The upside of the incident is that it afforded at least one memorable fishing-related moment from the trip, because the fishing itself certainly failed to do so. Over the course of the afternoon Big Al drew three strikes and I two, eventually landing one rainbow that, though spirited and healthy, fell far below the threshold of a true season-ending fish. It could've just been an off day, but we concluded we had overshot the active feeding window by a week or two—that winter torpor had already claimed the fish of that river.
It would've been a tidy story to say we made up for the poor fishing with a lights-out day of wingshooting, but the truth is my efforts in that area were on par with the day's casting. As we made the turn around a bend in the river, a group of four mallards locked up over a downstream side slough and dropped to the water's surface with back-fluttering wings. That sight will get any duck hunter's blood moving and, being the only armed member on this excursion, I grabbed my 12-gauge, loaded it, and proceeded to put the sneak on.
Some 60 yards out from the slough's edge I dropped to a crouch and followed a line of tall grass to the point I had reckoned to be the optimal shooting spot. When I stood slowly, the water 20 yards away was barren of ducks. But out of the corner of my eye I saw an explosion that became a dozen northern mallards busting off the water about 45 yards down the slough. I put one shot on a bird still within reach of the Browning, missed cleanly, and then watched the flock climb above a line of cottonwoods into the late November sunshine, the green heads and orange feet of the drakes lit up like neon signs.
Several hours later, we'd have paid a king's ransom for one of those neon signs. The early sunset and the considerable amount of time I had spent chasing ducks set us behind, and the river's hydrology did the rest. The bottom section of the float, which none of us had run in years, is a massive series of oxbow turns. At dusk we saw the pumphouse that marked our takeout in the distance and felt briefly cheered, but then entered the lateral madness of the river. When the light finally disappeared altogether the pumphouse appeared no closer. One of the last mid-river obstacles we could actually see revealed itself at close range as the bloated carcass of a bull elk beached on a gravel bar which, given the circumstances, we could have readily taken as a bad omen.
I believe all of our missteps on this day were explainable—if not completely defensible—except for the lack of a light. Not one of us had brought anything more than a lighter. That's when Al remembered the tiny light embedded in his phone, which provided some small measure of guidance. But it was LG's sonar-like powers—several times he swung away from a rock or bank a split second before it entered the cone of phone-light—that were most responsible for our ultimately safe arrival.
Fishing teaches you many lessons if you listen. Foremost among them are that you can never guarantee a favorable outcome, and that sometimes even really good fishermen have really bad days. With these homilies to salve the wounds, we could have let the '09 trout season slip away in a clusterfuck of bad judgment and incompetence.
But the value of perseverance is another of the many lessons. With the blessing of a slightly less understanding but still gracious wife, I stole another mutually free day two weeks later on the second weekend of December. The time for fishing freestone rivers now long past, we turned our sights to the northeast, to a tailwater fishery the name of which I cannot reveal under threat of dismemberment and/or death from LG and/or Big Al.
We spent the morning looking for ducks to jump and, to my great misfortune, we found several groups on which I would cleanly miss eminently makeable shots. The last flock of the morning couldn't have presented a better stealth jump-shooting scenario had we drawn it on paper.