The feeling of standing alone in the middle of a postcard-worthy scene, catching the biggest trout of your life — so far — doesn’t really hit for a few days.
But when it comes, it’ll marinade your brain in bubbles of glacial runoff and caress it smooth with thin wisps of white rabbit fur.
It’ll leave you smelling the sweetness of rotting salmon flesh, melting snow and a barebones river drying out before the big summer sweat. You’ll taste the crisp April air and the clean tippet in your teeth after five months of suffering through days of darkness and nights of snow.
You’ll feel alive again, rod thumping as a darkness dances in the distance, reel singing sweet.
At once you’ll be reminded of what that heartbeat feels like. Different from the ones you’ve known, but familiar like a smelly wool sock stuffed in the bottom of the hamper.
And this, my friends, is life back in the river rodeo.
Don’t count it by the drop of snowmelt, or by the cast, mind you. Count it by the knowledge that you’ve arrived on the other side of winter purgatory, ready for a season of trout fishing in the place where people save their whole lives to come fish.
A place that belongs in a watercolor painting, or at least on a stamp, and in a place that I know well, but not so well I’ll ever really want to leave.
A place where you want to drink the water not because it would quench, but because you seek the wild, unkempt and primal taste of it. Here, in other words, the more you drink, the thirstier you become.
On this day, April 15, 2013, I have caught a rainbow trout, the biggest I have held in my hands. I do not know it’s exact length, but rarely can a tape measure indicate the meaning of a trout.
On Oct. 15, 2012, I caught a trout hardly worthy of mention. A young buck chasing after a dead egg at the Russian River confluence. This was the last trout I would catch before snowfall and I crawled into my cave to consume my summer catch of frozen salmon and halibut.
I did not dream of trout this winter. I was, for the moment, satiated with my summer of fishing. Not a bad rookie season straight up from college to the majors. I hit a few homeruns, a single here and there and quietly faded with a bunt and a stolen base as the manager signaled me to the bench.
I hit the showers, so to speak, and did not think twice until an acquaintance mentioned an angler he saw land what must have been a 30-inch rainbow at the ice’s edge the weekend before.
The guitar string had been tightened two cranks too tight and popped. The air compressor had not shut off and the scooter tire had blown. The ice broke cleanly and a flood of dopamine hit my frontal fish cortex. Trout receptors were flashing, my eyelids loosened and this junkie needed his hit.
I released this large trout of mine, as I do all that I catch. He was thin and I am still plush. While I was put up cozy and warm for the winter he was growing lean. It pained me to see how hard he fought with such little energy left in his belly.
I glanced down and saw that his jaw had been torn badly when he was young and he had grown into his disfigurement. I dropped to my knees, snapped a few photos, but you can’t capture a feeling.
With one hand I felt the smooth, fragile scales covering his body and, with the other, the cold water numbed my palm. I always feel I am squeezing too tight no matter how gentle I am. I released and he ran.
I wondered where he would go, if he knew what his actions had done to the chemistry of my brain and the tug of my heart. I could feel the blood pumping from my core, through the point of my elbows and along my wrist as the feeling returned to my hands.
The moment passed and again I was alone. Yeehaw.
The River Rodeo column will continue to appear in Tight Lines monthly through mid-May when it will become a weekly feature. Email Brian Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.