A few years ago on a colorful late fall afternoon on the Clearwater River in Idaho, I had a choice presented me that I think that we are all faced with at one time or another as anglers. I was swinging a spot that I had caught a steelhead a few days earlier. It is a very short run with a swirl of water about twenty feet from shore that indicates the presence of a midstream rock. This rock had been very, very good to me over the last 20 years. This was as much of a guaranteed spot for me on the Clearwater as anywhere on the notoriously fickle river.
Highway 12 runs along this river. There are turnouts and endless places to park by the many runs, riffles, and pools. With drift boats and jet boats thrown into the mix, there is no shortage of anglers on this renowned water. So over the years, I have found little “buckets” that I can fish solo away from the throngs. This spot was one of those places.
The sun was hidden by the canyon wall. Shadows draped me with a chilly blanket as I stood thigh deep in the water. Starting above the good spot, I was swinging my way down to the happy place behind that special rock where the fish seemed to rest. Casting my Spey rod has become somewhat automatic for me and I usually find my mind wandering, this day was no different. Plant, shoot, mend, swing and step down was the rhythm I had ticking away on a metronome subconsciously playing in my beanie clad melon. A large herd of wild turkeys across the river was holding most of my attention. Then I heard the truck door slam …..
Instantly the hair on the back of my neck went up. The territorial instinct of lions is rivaled only by that of most fly fishermen. As a group, fly anglers, particularly steelhead fishermen don’t like another fisherman within five miles of them. I am as guilty of this ludicrous sense of river ownership as the next guy. When I glanced over my left shoulder towards the direction of the sound of the truck door slamming I immediately knew I was hosed.
As I formed my next D-Loop, I fought with my inner psyche over how I would handle the next 30 seconds. The sound of some rocks rolling down the makeshift trail pulled me back into the moment. I made another cast, one that I made sure would swing perfectly over the spot where I thought a fish was hanging out. Suddenly Ernie appeared below me with his muck boots on his feet and a spinning rod with a bobber in one hand and a white five-gallon bucket in the other. Reeling up my big Galvan, I waded in towards shore knowing full well I was done there.
“Hi, I am Ernie;” the 80 something-year-old man said as he held out his gloved hand with a smile. I hooked my fly to my rod and grasped his hand. I introduced myself, trying not to sound frustrated by his intrusion.
“How’s the fishing?” he asked as he turned his bucket over and plopped down on it. He pulled a shrimp from his the pocket of his duct-taped jacket and slid it onto the jig below his bobber. Before I could answer he had cast the Ugly Stick. The bobber landed with a loud “SPLOOSH” halfway across the river.
“It was fishing;” I said as I tucked the two-hander under my arm so I could grab a smoke from my jacket. The only time I smoke is when I am trying to catch a steelhead or when I am mad. The thought zipped through my head that I might be killing two birds with one stone as I lit up.
Ernie was sitting blissfully on his bucket watching his huge white bobber drift downstream. When the styrofoam float swung around to the shore he would reel it in and then toss it out again. I just stood there watching as smoke swirled around us. The turkeys were scratching under the cedars on the far side of the river. Only one tom noticed us, his stare fixed on us as if he were waiting to see what I was going to do next.
My cigarette was done and so was I. I had run through my mind what I was going to say. Ernie ruined my day. Time for me to go into snob fly fisherman mode and ruin his day. Just as I opened my mouth, the white blob of petroleum product attached to the old man’s line was jerked under the mercurial surface of the river. Fish on! “Crap!” I mumbled to myself.
He jumped to his feet like a man 40 years younger than himself, almost falling over his bucket. The grass was frosty where he stood, causing him to slip and slide as the fish pulled the line off of his old Mitchell reel. The grin he had on his face glowed in the dusk. He kept mumbling to himself as he almost fell again. When the fish broke water showing Ernie how big he was I was surprised I didn’t have to start CPR. Ernie squealed as he looked at me with a toothy grin that had chew stains in the corners of his mouth and said; “Big one huh?”
I nodded my head in agreement as I moved next to him. As he battled the big slab of a fish, I listened to his line sing in the frigid upstream breeze. We stood side by side as the light waned in silence. The only sounds were the cars on the highway and the periodic sound of his drag working against the fish. Ernie expertly played the fish, reeling when he could. Moving the rod from side to side to get the best angle to tire the big fish, he soon had the large B run steelhead right in front of us. That is when I asked him if he wanted some help. He just nodded, a look of stern concentration taking the place of his childish grin.
“Be careful;” he said as I gently slipped into the water behind the tiring hen. This somewhat annoyed me but when I looked up at him to say something, the joyous glow from his wide eyes made me smile instead. The fish was clipped, so Ernie could keep it if he wanted. I asked and he shook his head. When I asked if he was sure, he just nodded and mumbled; “Nope, I don’t want her.”
My hand barely fit around the tail of the fish. There was hardly any struggle as I placed my left hand under the hen steelhead’s head. Cautiously I moved through the knee-deep water with the big steelhead towards the happy old man. I lifted the fish up so he could see her in the moonlight that was starting to shine downstream from the east. Ernie took his glove off and reached out and touched her with his aged index finger. Then he said; “Turn her loose.”
I walked up to the road with him in the darkness. Offering a hand to him to help him up the last five feet, Ernie happily grabbed on as I pulled him up towards his old truck. I noticed the boot on his left foot had slipped down and was turned to the side at a very unnatural angle as I helped him up that last bit of trail. I must have been staring because Ernie asked me what I was looking at with a laugh.
Headlights zoomed by us as the moon’s reflection danced on the river below. Ernie had his hand on my shoulder as he dragged his left leg along while we made our way to his truck. I opened the unlocked Ford door and he spun down onto the driver’s seat. Leaning forward he pulled his pant leg up revealing the prosthetic that had worked loose.
Quickly he got himself together and swung around into the truck. Turning the key to start the old beater as he pulled the door shut forced me to jump out of his way. I loaded his bucket and rod into the back of the pickup, placing them next to the shovel and Handyman jack. While I was doing this he rolled down his window. He stuck his hand out as I walked by and I shook it while streaking headlights zoomed by. As I turned to walk to my truck, he grinned and said; “You know everyone knows this is my spot.”