The tent was securely staked down, the fly zipped, and my backpack was safely stored inside. The only piece of extraneous equipment was my whisper light stove, a frying pan, and some butter. I picked up my fly rod, a knapsack with some extra tippet and flies, and walked about fifty feet behind my camp on a small peninsula to the edge of a lake nestled high above tree line in a cirque of mountains in the Wind River range of western Wyoming. It was almost suppertime.
As I approached the lake, I crouched down low to the ground to keep as much of an oblique angle as I could between myself and any cutthroat trout lurking along the shoreline. I spotted a large bolder partially in the lake with a nice gravel bar next to it and decided that would be my target. Still crouching down, I drop the knapsack at my feet, unhook the fly and strip out about ten feet of line. Looking behind me to make sure I wouldn’t snag anything, I start the rhythmic count of fly-fishing.
On count one, the fly rod is cast forward and held out in front of you. More line is fed out at this point. You pause holding the fly rod out until you reach count two to allow the line to unroll in front of you. On count three, the fly rod is cast behind you while your free hand gathers up more line. You pause once again, holding the fly rod until you reach count four to allow the line and the fly to catch up and unroll behind you. You have reached count one and once again you cast the fly rod forward. One, two, three, four. One, two three, four. Rhythmic.
With one arm raised high trying to keep the fly and line off the ground, always working the count, I duck walk up behind the bolder and look over the top for potential targets. The water is crystal clear and the shore falls off dramatically so it takes me a few seconds to spot him nearly fifteen feet below the surface and twenty-five feet out. But the large cutthroat trout is cruising from my right to my left paralleling shore, in no hurry but ever vigilant. I reach one in my count, strip out a few extra feet of line, and roll cast my line about fifteen feet in front of my prey, the last few feet composed of translucent line all but invisible in water allowing my dry fly to land on the water’s surface, seemingly unattached to anything on land.
I freeze motionless and continue to watch the large trout continue on a path that will intersect my fly but fifteen feet below it. Ten feet… five feet…. is he going to see it, is he even hungry? With a quick shift of the tail, the large trout suddenly shifts and starts swimming upwards at a sharp angle, my fly now directly in his crosshairs. I watch him swim up from the depths, sharply flipping his tail back and forth as he picks up speed. Three feet, two feet, one… splash. I see the silvery sheen of the trout's belly for an instant before it disappears and all I am left with are ripples hiding the trout now in full dive mode.
I pull back on the fly rod with my right hand as my left hand presses against the reel to apply friction as I set the hook. The rod bends nearly double and I know the fish is on but it is by no means on for good. When fly fishing in the mountains, I always debarb my hooks on the flies. Fly fishing with fragile line means wearing out your opponent and reel him in gently so not to exceed the tippet tensile strength. For the tippet is weak compared to regular fishing line which gives it the invisibility necessary to fish in water almost as clear as air. Because this wears out the fish and I often catch more than I can eat, I want the release to be painless so not to add more stress to a worn out fish. I want the fish to live for another day and for another fisherman to catch. A barbless fly comes out easily with minimal damage to the lip of the trout and it can be held in the water where you gently move water across the gills by moving it back and forth until it recovers and swims off. Fishing with barbless flies also means that you must constantly keep tension on your line so not to allow dinner to slip off. It is all about finding balance of keeping supper on the line while not breaking it. It is all about giving supper a fighting chance to take themselves off the menu.
For the next twenty minutes, the fish and I practiced give and take. He would swim off and I would allow line to strip out while I kept resistance on the reel with my left hand. He would tire and I would gently reel him back in only to have him recover and take off once again. Back and forth, giving and taking, the battle went on until exhausted the cutthroat trout finally gave up and allowed me to pull him to the gravel shallows to the left of the boulder that I had been crouched behind earlier. Careful not to slip in myself, I reach into the very cold water, chilled by a small glacier on the opposite shore in the shadow of a mountain, and gripping the lower jaw, I lifted the trout out of the water.
By fishing standards, the trout was small but by dinner standards he was quite large. About two pounds and a little over twenty inches in length with large vertical blood red gills giving him his name, the silvery body was plump and in very good health. I said a quick prayer of thanks as I removed the fly from the mouth and carefully set my fly rod aside getting ready to exercise the domain over all animals given to us by God. I hit the head of the fish against the bolder stunning him and with a knife that I pulled from my pants pocket, made three quick cuts, one on each side of the gills and one up the belly cutting it from anus to my gill cuts. Holding the trout in my left hand, I stick two fingers into the belly near the anus and start separating the guts of the fish from the belly meat, dragging it up towards the gills. Once my fingers reach the gills, I grab the head and with a quick twist, the head and all the guts come off leaving behind a perfectly cleaned fish.
Not wanting to attract bears, I toss the head and guts out into the water where the birds will eat what floats and the rest will be eaten or decompose naturally beneath the surface. I quickly rinse the fish, my knife and picking up my fly rod, walk quickly back to camp fifty feet inland. I set the fish on a flat rock near my stove which I had previously primed and had ready to go. Within about thirty seconds, it is hissing and my pan is sitting on top with a pat of butter already beginning to melt and slide around. Within five minutes of having pulled the trout out of the lake, it hisses and pops as I lay it in the pan with the tail draping over the edge. I sear the trout quickly on one side and then the other, checking the inside to make sure it was just done, perfect. I turn the stove off, grab my spoon and knife (never bring a fork to save weight) and start eating, now about fifteen minutes from the moment I pulled the fish from the lake.
I quickly ate one half of the trout, flipped it over and consumed the other half leaving behind just an empty skeleton of bones lying in the bottom of the fry pan. Because I had caught the fish almost immediately, I was able to do the dishes, walk back out to the bolder, this time making no attempt to hide this time, and sit on top as the sun sank behind the mountains. The sky quickly fades of light, there aren't many places to see a sunset in the mountains, and with the last of twilight, I walk back to camp, well fed and happy.