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I squeeze hard, clamping the wet nylon to the rod, but the fish rockets off and line burns across my fingers. My eyes go wide. I strip more line in, walking the delicate balance between the line is gonna break and it’s gonna spit the hook.
After taking three more big runs with my fly, there it is, gasping in the net: a 17-inch bull trout as thick as my forearm. “She’s a beaut! Nicely done!” the guide says, digging the fly out of its mouth with a hemostat. “You’re not supposed to catch it, but good job anyway!”
The bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) is very picky about where it makes babies, so after decades of mining, irrigation and dams screwing up its mojo, it’s on the threatened species list. You can’t deliberately fish for bull trout. You’ll get in trouble. In my defense, I can’t deliberately fish for anything.
“But it still counts, right?” I ask as the guide lowers the fish back into the water.
He smiles and nods. “Of course. It might be the biggest fish we’ve seen all day.”
As the trout kicks its tail and jets back into the safety of the deep, I slump back into my seat and smile. It was that perfect moment, the just-right angle when it all makes sense—like driving past a cornfield, and watching a jungle of random stalks resolve into a thousand clean rows.
It’s so clear now. That’s why people go fly fishing. Not just because a big trout ended up in my net as I rode snowmelt down to Flathead Lake, covered in sunshine, with the swishing action of fly rods on every side of me. I get it now. As in golf or baseball, every swing is another chance to improve. Chasing that perfect moment is frustrating and addictive, but so much fun. I might never be the Tiger Woods of dry flies but, as it turns out, all men are equal before fish. And hell, even if you don’t catch a thing, you’re still in paradise.
We down our last few beers at the take-out. On the drive home, every smooth piece of water beckons me. Like a lab with its head out the window, all I want is to be back outside: in the boat, on the banks, anywhere. Rivers are no longer just something to build a bridge over. Every riffle and line of bubbles whispers an invitation to come try my luck.
Since I’ve been home, I haven’t managed to catch another fish, but it doesn’t matter. Chasing the impossibly perfect cast is enough for me. You know, that’s why they call it fishing, not catching.