THE LORD OF RAINBOWS
Twenty years ago...before the flotilla of guideboats and herds of anglers gorged New Mexico’s San Juan quality waters....a great rainbow trout haunted a giant pool downstream from the famed Texas Hole.
To this day I have no knowledge of his capture or proof of his demise. He graces no one’s wall on a board....his bloated carcass has not been found on any shore.
His death could have come during a final lunge for prey ....or as he rested behind a boulder deep in his lair. His funeral could have been in the dramatic surge of a 5000 cubic feet per second spring flushing of Navajo Dam. His final resting place could have been hundreds of miles downriver in the depths of Glen Canyon Dam.
I’d like to think it happened that way. It would have been a fitting burial tribute to the royalty of his size, and to his zest for survival.
To attain such mass took tremendous appetite and cunning. Smaller fish became his diet, fishermen his nemesis. While their imitations could dupe him, they never outflanked him. Escape was his expertise!
Let his encounter with me be his eulogy...for I know of no others who have written about his lordship in the river of catching.
That summery day he entered my life, the dam was at low drainage...only 500 cubic feet per second. The river’s clear sparkling waters were dancing the sun on its ripples. The air was calm while breezes enjoyed a noon siesta.
The lord’s haunt should have been in his dark 200 yard long sanctuary above a tailing chute. In there he could cruise easily midst the indolent current selecting his fare: adolescent trout....undulating leeches.....moss worms.....emerging insects....schools of minnows.
But that was not where he was.
This day he forages the shallower, mildly turburlent chute. Lionlike he flexes his might, tames the current, and chases lesser challengers who invade his habitat. He lurks where he pleases and devours at will. He needs no megalithic stronghold as his province, for his presence proclaims his domain. No fish reigns over him, no angler has yet to net him. He alone rules with ultimate authority in his river.
My former son-in-law, Gary, is in the chute at this moment... unaware of the lord’s presence.
I am upstream, fishing the long lazy hole that is easily a hundred feet across. Because I noticed a few rising trout, I affixed a Caddis Fly four feet above my already rigged San Juan Worm ( fancy name for a piece of pink yarn tightly wrapped around a barbless hook). The worm was on line’s end ...a sinker a foot above. I was using light spinning gear with 6# test yellow mono line and my dry fly was 4 feet up on a 4# test clear dropper leader.
I had taken a few small rainbows on my trek down the long hole to the chute, but nothing in the 18-inch category that was legal that year.
Gary on the other hand was ecstatic when I approached.
“Hey...you gotta try this chute...I’ve released three keepers so far...it’s a hot spot!”
“No kiddin’?” I exclaimed...anxious to try.
“Cast above me and out there....you’re bound to get some!” he pointed excitedly.
The chute funnelled the 100 foot wide pool to 50 feet and then to a tail of 25 feet. I flipped my line to the far side, gently splashing down. Repleat with large sub-surface rocks, a vortex of currents and riffles rolled my flies with the flow as I slowly retreived across the confluence. When the end of the retrieve was about four feet from Gary’s backside I lifted the line to recast.
Suddenly a massive eruption of spray exploded at him!
“Hey...what are ya doing?” he shouted as the crash and splash jolted him. He thought I had tossed a large rock behind him as a prank.
“It’s a giant....a giant rainbow!” I sputtered.
“No-waay!” he challenged. Twisting around, his eyes traced my taut yellow line to the imposing dark shape below. “ Holy-moly...you’re right...he’s a lunker!”
The immense trout after engrossing the upper caddis fly with his mighty vortex retreated to a loll in the clear water depths just five feet outstream from Gary. He stayed steadfastly rooted near the edge of the current and seemed oblivious to my fly embedded in his jaw.
He was immovable, fixed and frozen to us in the clarity of the scene. As we assessed his enormity, Gary exclaimed : “He’s a yard long!”
“At least!!” I echoed, “and a log....a freakin’ log on four pound test line!”
“He’s gotta go 15 pounds...don’t horse him! Keep your tension light!” Gary admonished as his hip boots took in water when he inched for a closer view.
No amount of tugging could antagonize a battle. He was boss and knew it. No four-pound test line would marshall him. He owned the river...he was the master teacher...I was the student. Granted I had hooked him...but I hadn’t caught him!
The lord now gave survival lessons to all the trout in view.
“Let frantic maneuvering not be your escape,” he seemed to convey. “Desperate leaps and wild runs are self-defeating, leading to exhaustion and capture . He had seen many gasping in the net, those who had not learned from him, their mentor. Now onceagain they would see a demonstration at escape...would they absorb his instruction? -47-
“Behold!” the great fish heralded by his in-action. “Mind my toleration of thehook stinging my lip. Mark how I angle inward to the current, conserving my strength. Observe how I frustrate the angler by positioning myself deeply from his net. See how I brace myself against the tug of his fragile line , which both of us know will snap instantly at the flick of my tail should I so desire.”
“I can’t believe he was lying right behind me the whole time I’ve been here!”Gary exclaimed. He was really begging for an explanation for his previous inattention . A real niche in his angling ability .
“He chased my flies across the chute,” I replied, consolingly.
“But he wasn’t spooked by me standing here!” He felt really down.
“He fixated on my fly....and besides, nothing in this river could spook him!”
“He’s enormous...look at him...just ignoring our threat!” Gary stated.
“What threat?” I replied. “He may be hooked...but he’s caught me! I can’t do a thing unless he wants to. “
The lord lavished at our dilemma.
Excited forms above the underwater legs were playing out a drama he’d witnessed many times before. He smirked at their feeble attempts to move him: their thumping on the handle of the fishing rod (as if that could jar him into fear);the splashing of the surface with their nets (was he, the maker of greater splashes, fearful of these?); the kicking of stones at him (they served merely to becloud his taunting ).
“Enough of this play,” the lord mused and turned his bulk into the current broadside.
“He’s going downstream,” Gary shouted.
“Head him off in the shallows. Get below him... hurry..hurry...hurry!”
Slipping and sliding along the bank I ran in pursuit of the big rainbow, while
yards of line screamed of my reel. I never felt in less control.
“If fish could laugh,” I reflected, “this would be a belly buster----the fish playing the angler!”
I ran the shore for forty feet then launched into the shallows downstream of him. He must’ve taken pity on me for he halted prior reaching a deeper hole below.
Was this an error on his part? Would I be able to get close behind him and hope he’d turn at my presence into the net?
The lord turned and faced the riffle’s current. It was refreshing and allowed him ease of movement as it broke the power of the stream into light bubbly turbulence. He parked and waited for the angler...who was noisily maneuvering into a position below.
“He’s right there!” I screamed to Gary as I splashed closer to the huge tail and back fin cutting wakes above the surge.
“Turn him into the net!” Gary yelled back, “ you’ll never tail-net him !”
“I’ll never turn him either...he’s too big!” But I tried anyway and I was right.
The lord toyed with the angler. Each time the
net approached his tail he slowly moved from harms way....then rested just a few feet upstream until the angler caught up. The the effort repeated itself and he moved again. A third time...a third move.
“He’s never gonna turn,” I reiterated loudly to Gary, as I continued this cat and mouse game.
Before I could create another strategy, the rainbow halted. I peered into the foot deep water and discovered why. The sinker above the San Juan worm had slipped between a “V” of two rocks and jammed. The trout was snugged tightly (I thought) and his forward progress halted (I hoped).
“Holy cow....the line’s snagged on a rock,” I shouted.
The lord felt the strain on his jaw and recognized the reason. His great eye
viewed his rocky stream bed grasping the sinker tightly. Now it was just between him and the four- pound test leader. He’d not panic by turning to release himself , at risk of netting. Rather, he’d use his might to escape.
“ I’m going try a tail net ...his head is snubbed...he can’t turn!”
As soon as I started I felt it would be an excercise in futility. But it was my only opportunity...if there was one. If the light leader held until I could encompass the net over his tail section, I could make a rapid sweep and let his bulk collapse into it, snapping the leader as I lifted . That’s what I figured....that’s not what the rainbow figured!
Just as the net touched his tail fin, he gave it a very slight twitch.
I’ll remember that twitch forever. It was ever so slight, yet apropos for his might. With not even the slightest jerk to his jaw that twitch moved his giant body forward, severing the leader from my main line like a frail hair. It was a slow-motion, lack-lustre departure that made me realize how inadequate my effort hadbeen. This behemoth could’ve broken from me anytime at his choosing. Instead, he gifted me an encounter of his magnificence, that will never be forgotten.
The lord had conquered.
“See how easily I leave you!” he broadcasted in unspoken thunderous disdain. “My realm is this river....you’ll never prevail. You may tap my greatness...but you’ll not capture my soul! For I am the lord of rainbows and I will never be claimed as your prize!”
I’ve played that scene a hundred times in my mind since then. Could I have reacted better? Should I have backed off allowing the snag to dislodge? Might I had Gary confront the trout from upstream to turn him towards me? Why didn’t I tie the upper fly with a heavier leader?
These hindsight options might have been successful...or they might have just afforded the rainbow another way to humble me.
What has crossed my mind in reflection is the levity with which I’ve spun this tale in the past. It has been simple to relate: ”I hooked into a montrous trout that never battled , just acted like a log on my line, and escaped due to a rock snagging my sinker.”
But, as I relate his story in print, he can now be portrayed with the grandeur due a trout of his worth.
His encounter should never be reduced to the mundane . It must in the final sense become a memorial to his guile, however spawned. He was the finned Houdini of escape and to him alone belongs the conquest.
He deserves the accolades due a champion....for they truly are a tribute to his lordship!
+ + +
My son...almost the taxidermist
Seeking a trade that could be started in his teens, son Jeremy opted to stuff fish.
At $6.00 an inch a 20-inch trout could bring a 14-year old some good change.
We made a deal with a local taxidermist to train him after school and weekends...but it fell through when the trainer decided to move to Arkansas.
“But,” he comforted,” if you bring me a nice trout...about 20-inches....before I leave, I’ll mount it for you as a training model. The rest you can get from video tapes.”
We drove that weekend to the San Juan and I placed Jeremy at a hole I’d hooked a 20-inch rainbow the month before.
“Just cast over there and let it drift,” I directed, after I’d tied on my famous San Juan Worm/nymph.
I saw the cast, turned my back and was jolted by his yell.
“I got one...Dad...a nice one!”
I couldn’t believe it. He had caught a 20-inch rainbow in less that 30 seconds. We wrapped the fish in a towel and drove 200 miles back home. Our job was done...now it was up to the taxidermist. And to this day, it is the only fish I have on my wall. Jeremy traded taxidermy for Apple computors and makes a lot more than $6.00 an inch!
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