I'm not quite sure what possessed me, but I decided to fish the Haw yesterday. Now, that may not seem all that surprising to many of you as it's something I do all the time, but usually not a couple of days after it's tickled flood stage. But spring fever has taken a hold on my soul and the forecast of a perfect North Carolina day in the mid-seventies dictated a walk to the river. And no walk to the river is complete without the 6wt. I told Mary I probably wouldn't fish because of the dicey conditions, but we both knew better.
As the river was muddy and high as a Starbuck's mocha mucho grande, I figured my best bet was to find the bigger, slower pools and dredge the depths with a big, dark, leech-like pattern. Hoping for big bass and anticipating stiff water, I tied a short, stout leader - three feet of 20 pound test monofilament butt section and three feet of 15 pound tippet - and then added a fat, yellow eyed, #8 Murray's Marauder.
I passed by many of my favorite spots, almost unrecognizable as the floods receded, and went to an upstream stretch of slow water, 75 yards of slick river sitting below a set of shallow rapids. Without my waders, I decided it was as good a day as any to begin my wet wading for the year. Besides, my light hikers might give me an idea of what life without felt soles would be like here on the Haw. One step was enough to realize that shin deep was plenty in the surprisingly chilly water. I maneuvered myself into enough clearance for a decent cast and, with a quick flip, tossed the Marauder into the depths and began to retrieve the bug with short, snappy strips.
To my surprise, I snagged bottom almost immediately. Great, I thought, one cast, one lost fly. I usually know all the hangs on this section of the river, but all bets are off after heavy rains roll new surprises downstream and I had apparently found a recently deposited submerged limb. But as I considered how best to deal with the snag, my rod began to bend and my reel's drag twitched a quarter turn... then another, then a half, and then began to slowly unwind with a steady tic-tic-tic.
Stunned by the subtlety of the first cast bite, I paused, then set the hook, hard, and felt the gratifying weight of a heavy fish - heavy enough, in fact, that it didn't immediately react to the set. I dropped the tip of the 6wt a bit to try to turn the fish, but it picked up speed, heading upstream, taking fly line at will. As the drag complained with increasing urgency, I began to worry that the 15lb leader was enough and noticed that I was rapidly getting to my backing.
As the Albright knot that held yellow fly line to white backing left the reel and started up the rod, disaster struck. With my usual proficiency, I had apparently wound the backing on my reel too tight and it snagged. In slow motion, I watched the fly line snap at the Albright (I can only surmise that I had nicked it when finishing the knot) and continue, unteathered, up the rod. But with disaster came a bit of luck as, just as the line popped, the fish reached the upstream rapids and turned, giving me an instant to reach out with my left hand to grab the retreating yellow strand.
Grasping the final foot of fly line, I quickly twisted my hand a couple times, wrapping the line around my wrist for a more secure grip. As the fish paused, I stumbled back towards the shore and tossed my now useless rod to safety. But before I could insure it had landed unharmed, I was yanked off my already unsteady feet by the fish's second run. With a face full of dirty water, I tried to recover while the fish tried to pull my arm from it's socket. The notion that I needed to recheck the rating on my tippet material crossed my mind before I refocused on regaining my footing, but the vibram soles might as well have been banana peels on the slick uneven bottom.
The next several minutes were a blur and consisted mostly of my stumbling on slippery Haw rocks in whatever direction the fish wanted to go, trying to avoid the deeper water, and clearing muddy muck from my eyes. In time, I began to gain ground, hand winding the tiring fish closer and closer, but having no clue as to what exactly was on the other end of the line. Cold and winded, I could finally see the connection between fly line and leader and, as I leaned out for it, the fish gave one last urgent tug, catching me off balance and pulling me over once again, face first towards him.
Blinded by the dunking, I surfaced on hands and knees, sputtering, and found myself nose to nose with the biggest catfish I have ever seen. I'd heard stories of such cats here in the Haw, and have caught a few small ones over the years on white woolly buggers, but I'd never imagined such monsters existed here. For an instant, we stared at one another, his beady eyes eighteen inches apart, if they were a inch, and his midsection as broad as my shoulders. Unspoken between us was the question of who had caught who.
The answer was not long in coming as the cat began to slowly swim away, then quickly turned to circle me, wrapping me in my own fly line. As I struggled to get up, he swam around me, again and again, hopelessly tangling my feet in the line, to the point where all I could do was flounder about to keep my head above water.
When I was played out, the big cat began to drag me and I prayed he wouldn't take me deep. Instead I was pulled towards the spot on the shore where I had tossed my fly rod, seemingly hours ago. There he stopped, looked at me one more time, and with a quick flip of his massive head, broke the leader cleanly at the fly's knot and returned to the deep, muddy waters. I was left shaken, but alive, and thankful that I'm not the only one who practices catch and release.
Happy April Fools
Day, my friends.