Tap, tap, tap sounded against my bedroom window as incoherent thoughts of a planned fishing trip for that day slowly materialized. Pulling up the blinds, I see my friend Mike clad in brand new waders giving me the thumbs up. Mike was new to fly fishing and looked as though he had just robbed a mannequin of it’s fishing garb. Although I had considerably less enthusiasm than he did at 6am, I was nonetheless excited to be taking him fishing.
Over the years we’ve developed a kind of enthusiastic sarcasm which acts as a defense mechanism for when things inevitably go horribly and sometimes hilariously wrong. We have endured fishless days in below freezing temperatures, nights spent in hotels where you slept on the bed instead of under the sheets and 8th period Spanish class. Out of this misery formed some kind of bond that made us friends and fishing buddies for life.
As we drove up to the river, the rain started to pour. Being high school boys, we were light years from thinking to look at a weather report and had brought hooded sweatshirts and nothing else to protect us from the elements. As I stood in the pouring rain trying to get my waders and boots on, I had a foreboding sense we had no idea what we were doing.
Again, being a high school boy, you can only recognize these thoughts and feelings years after the fact. In the moment I had only the slightest uneasiness about standing in a river in the pouring rain with only a sweatshirt and shorts on under my waders. Thoroughly soaked before we had even started fishing, we waded out to the first riffle we were going to fish.
I looked over just in time to see Mike’s rod get bent double over. With the classic look of sheer surprise most people wear when they are connected to their first fish on the fly, he tried to bring the fish in. I waded over to help him land it. His first fish on the fly turned out to be a beautiful 16 inch half pounder steelhead that ate an October Caddis dry fly. Though we were freezing and varying degrees of miserable as the wind picked up and died off, we knew this trip could be nothing but a success.
Two hours and no more fish later, the rain really started to come down. I was thinking it may be time to pack it in, but the sight of Mike bull dogging through wind and rain kept me going. Shortly after I found renewed motivation, my line came tight on what had to be snag. I vaguely remember hearing someone say “Whatcha got there?” before a massive dime bright chinook came crashing out of the water. Line started peeling off my reel way faster than I had previously thought possible. I thought “this fish must have had enough with rivers and decided to go back to the ocean now.”
Looking back, I should have known I was using gear way too light for a big salmon, but again the teenage brain said “you got this!!” So down river I went chasing this fish. Somehow, I managed to stop the fish with just a few turns of backing remaining, giving me the illusion that somehow this would all end well. 20 minutes and 300 yards later the hook straightened and came flying out of the salmon’s mouth. Some part of me had to know this was inevitable, but I was nonetheless devastated at losing such a big fish. We stood there in silence when about 20 yards away, a different salmon started jumping up stream. For reasons I didn’t understand then and certainly don’t understand now, I called out to the fish, “COME HERE BOY!” As if to respond to my exhortation, the salmon started jumping like a dolphin. It jumped five feet from me and swam between my legs.
Now, I’ve had some strange things happen to me over the course of my life, but at the time this topped them all. I also realize this story sounds completely absurd, but I assure you the specificity with which I recount this story is because it is neither made up, nor exaggerated. There was nothing to do but laugh hysterically at what had happened in the last 30 minutes and head back to the car.
Completely soaked and at this point flirting with hypothermia, we decided to stop at a drive through coffee stand. These coffee stands that sometimes sell decent coffee and always sell candy disguised as coffee are all the rage in the pacific northwest. “That will be $7.50” the barista said as she handed us our coffee. Now, in my defense, I thought I handed her a $10 bill as I turned to Mike and continued our conversation. She made no reply for several seconds before saying, “Um, I have a dollar.” Not missing a beat I replied, “No, that’s not mine.” This poor barista, now thoroughly confused, just sat there having asked for $7.50 and instead received a $1 dollar bill and then was told the bill she had just been given was in fact fictitious.
Fortunately, Mike knew me well enough to recognize what had just happened and told me I had given her a dollar bill to pay for our $7.50 tab. About to turn red, I opened my wallet and found the $10 I had meant to give her and made sure that is what she received this time. Forfeiting any right I had to my change, we drove away laughing the way people who have devised ridiculous inside jokes do.
I’ve had a few rare moments in my life where I seemed to have clarity both on what had just happened and how it would change my life going forward. Fly fishing and friendship are two of the most wonderful things in life and this one day started us down a path that harmonized the two in a unique and awkwardly beautiful way. I say “awkwardly” because most people would not find anything interesting about two guys eating jet boiled hot dogs under the stars after a bang up day of trout fishing in Eastern Washington, but those who do understand it can easily see the beauty in it (if only because they’ve had a similar experience).