By Nick Simonson
Dark brown water rushed over the small Texas crossing on the tributary feeding the last of the late-spring melt into the big river a mile below. A week ago, the pool formed below the rocky step was encased in twenty feet of shoreline ice that prohibited all but the longest cast of my sink-tip fly line and scooting out onto the cracked and melting cover was unsafe at best. Now, free of all but the smallest stretch of winter’s remnants, the water churned with foam and boiled with the congregation of polka- dotted red fins of the northern pike stacked up below the run.
Setting a red Lefty’s Deceiver into the notch of the shock leader clip, I gauged the roaring northwest wind and waited for a lull before hauling back on the rod and sending a curl of fly line behind me which was quickly rippled with a resurgent gust. After a couple of false casts and a switch to a Pat Neshek-style sidearm sling to get the offering under the gales, the streamer splashed down at the end of the main current and swung out into the slack water alongside the flow. Looking down into the rocks, I set my boots against their angles and steadied myself. Distracted by the balancing act, I was slow to catch up to a strike that jumped up the line and through my eight-weight on my very first drift.
Strip-setting the hook, I briefly felt a connection that dashed away from my vantage point and then sent the six-inch fly zipping back at me out of the water. Unraveling the line from around the clips on the shoulder straps of my waders and picking the streamer
from where it landed in my bootlaces, I regrouped and sent another cast in the same direction and slowly stripped the fly back along the edge of the current. The long tailfeathers of the pattern undulated seductively under the surface and the sparse krystal flash and strips of tinsel that finished the fly caught the bright sunlight and shimmered as the classic red-and-white bucktail served as a gaudy target for the aggressive predators piled up in the dingy water below. Slowly, the sink-tip line pulled my offering under the surface and it disappeared from view.
In a small pocket to my right, I watched the staging pike shoot up into the rushing flow, vibrating their bodies violently in an attempt to clear the rocky stopping point. Their electric effort was met by the immovable stones that had been piled many seasons ago and the thin spread of water was not enough to sustain their bulk, which for some of the charging fish was eye-poppingly significant. After each unsuccessful attempt, the fish would flop back into the main flow, regroup and a few minutes later, try it again, with the smaller pike making more frequent jumps than the bigger ones behind them. From time-to-time on the edge of visibility, the ghostly form of a large female pike would rise, some well over 40 inches, and with each apparition my heartrate would jump.
Cycling through a number of colors and patterns and quickly getting into smaller pike in the two-to-five pound range on the Deceivers, I connected with a heavy opponent on a hard hookset of a shiny silver model. Unlike the hard-running hammerhandles, this fish
stayed low and bulldogged the current as I released the drag and let the weight of the creature pull the line off my reel. After a few minutes, the beast rolled up, snout first, with the streamer embedded in a very un-pike-like jaw. It was a buffalo, and a big one.
Having never done battle with the species, let alone on the flyrod, I played the fish carefully, eventually rolling it up over the small clump of submerged cattails and into the waiting rubber mesh of my small landing net, which it filled with its bulk. I smiled as I freed the goofy-looking opponent and it slid slowly into the current at my feet.
Wiping the slime off the silver streamer, I unhooked it from the leader clip and grabbed a bright pink bunny leech with purple tinsel accent from the big-fly box stashed a few rocks away from my spot in the flow. The wind rippled the four-inch tail as I held the fly up, got in position and flung it backward with the start of a cast. After absorbing the surface water, the fly slithered out of view and into the curl of the flow. A hard thump set the tone for my final battle of the short outing.
Ripping hard on the line and slamming the rod back horizontally, I felt a positive connection followed by a sprint that covered nearly two-thirds of the sixty-yard pool before me. The line peeled off into the backing and I held the rod high in an electric arc that pulsed and pounded with each violent headshake and run made by what I was sure was a pike on the other end.
After a few minutes of far-off runs, I made gains against the fish and she rolled to the surface with the bunny leech decorating the far corner of her mouth like some punk-rock piercing, showing it off with a shake before diving back down and charging away again. It was easily my biggest pike on the fly, and one that, had I a tape measure handy, could have challenged for an all-time personal best. Pushing those thoughts from my mind I continued to steer her around and through last-season’s flooded vegetation and in-and-out of the current which she used to her advantage every time. The minutes ticked by, and the large fish finally began to tire, but all the while mustered solid runs that tested every bit of my reel and drag management skills.
As the runs got shorter, I realized the nearby net would not be able to handle her length as I steered her into an opening a few feet away. Worn out, she slid in between the two clumps of flooded cattails which bent with the current and I stretched my free hand out just enough to grip the thick shoulders of the pike and corralled her in the net. With a thrash, she sent water into my face and tried for an escape, but I had just enough leverage to lift her up and out of the stream.
The fly came out with a twist and I attempted a couple of selfies with the soaked lens of my waterproof camera preventing any shot that did the fish justice. Hastily I turned her and her belly full of eggs out into the water, and she made a one-eighty, tucking into the small slack area in front of me then slowly fading into the depths. It was a suitable finish to an exciting day of spring fly fishing for a familiar adversary, and a perfect proving ground for a long winter’s worth of flies created just for that moment.
(Featured Photo: A large female pike fell for a bright pink Bunny Leech and provided a fun fight to cap off an afternoon of fly fishing on a small stream. Simonson Photo.)