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We pulled into a high bank and 100 yards out at eye level a group of mallards milled about the near edge of a large slough. The ground between us was blanketed with tall prairie grass, so Al, who had finally had enough of my shenanigans and uncased his own shotgun, split off from me and we crawled through the grass commando-style, weapons leading. When we stood up on cue the birds took off as in slow-motion, at a nearly perfect range of 35 yards, and Al and I just watched as they receded, struck by nothing but the thin December sun. To this day neither of us can explain why we didn't pull the trigger.
Having taken our bird-hunting outing as far as it was apparently willing to go, we picked up and moved to different water, a semi-obscure stretch I will refer to only as Hall of the Titans, in order to protect my ass. We had time for one short late afternoon drift, and in the early going it seemed as if we'd be heading home, bowed once again. Then from my perch in the front of the boat I heard Al grunt, followed by the guttural sound of a big fish breaking the water's surface. The two things that make streamer fishing so goddamn sexy are seeing the fish flash toward your fly before the strike, and the deep sound of a big angry fish using its weight against you.
Though a bit skinny from the recent spawn, the 27-inch brown that Al landed was strong and healthy and the longest of his considerable career, and it redoubled my focus on the remaining water. I was throwing my favorite streamer, a long articulated fly that looks like an emaciated caterpillar when held out of the water but when swimming pulses with a motion that reaches deep into the instincts of big trout. It's called the Two-Week Bender, and the buddy of mine who developed it says it came to him in a fever dream.
I cast the Bender a couple of inches from a steep, weeded bank and on my second strip of the line a wide silver flash exploded from the dark water below the undercut. I was able to delay the retrieving motion long enough to hammer the fish with my line hand at the exact moment he annihilated the fly, the kind of gratifying hookset that means the only way you will lose him is if the line or the rod breaks. As my rod bent with the weight, the fish went berserk on the surface before tunneling back upstream, and even with my stout gear it took a handful of long minutes to bring him to net. The rainbow ranks among the most remarkable I have ever caught—two feet in length, wide through the belly and thick in the shoulders, a virile combination of brute strength and the sort of deep reds and purples painted only by cold water.
As it slipped from my hands and swam away into the liquid heart of winter, I knew that this one was a keeper.