The Breath of a Kingfisher’s Wings
I had started in just below the wetland, in a spot where enormous grasses cascade over the stream banks and trail in the water.
The only way to get the fly in there is to choose a spot where there is a slight gap or curve upstream, make a daring cast, and let the current take the fly into the slither of shade beside the bank. I had done that with a dry dropper: an elk hair caddis, with a pheasant tail nymph of sorts strung below it, New Zealand style. Those bankside haunts had produced no fish. Not this time anyway. Neither had the odd deep slot where the current bubbled over rapids and then rippled over a scoured channel.
A little further up I went through a side channel where I have spooked fish before, but never landed them.
Just above that, wading through a wide area of pocket water, I came across the shucks of two Stoneflies on the downstream side of a boulder. I stopped to photograph them.
I had been hunting for these for weeks, using a bug net and shuffling my feet in rapids before inspecting the sample in a white tray. After all that effort these two just presented themselves to me when I had a fly rod in hand. Sometimes the lines between work and fishing are blurred.
As the sun came and went, and small flurries of warm breeze ruffled the water surface, I would lose sight of the dry, then find it again on the water. The clouds started to obscure the sun a little more often. There was a greying on the western horizon. The weather forecast had predicted a storm in the early afternoon. From the moment I started, it was as though the egg timer was running. Having worked through some magnificent deep pools, with a third, very small, but dense fly now tied a few inches below the first nymph, I was still empty handed. A sticky humidity had descended and there was a rumbling, first ahead of me where I had been watching the horizon, and then, surprisingly, behind me. I turned my head, to see that the more imminent threat was closing in from the east.
After a few more casts, I reeled in and considered my route. There was a tight barbed wire fence between me and my vehicle, which I could see on the hillside about a kilometre away. Added to the barbed wire was a strand of electric. These fences are not easy to get through. There was a gate off to the left, and a stile up ahead alongside Bird Pool. I reckoned the cattle gate would give me a more direct route. I started pacing up the river bank to a logical point at which to depart and go up the hillside. In the five minutes it took for me to get there, the weather lifted just a little, and I changed plans, choosing to walk up the river bank where I could watch for rises. When I reached Bird Pool the weather looked heavy again, but I was closer to the vehicle now, so I elected to risk a few more minutes and threw a few casts in the pool.
I have never done well there. The white water cascades off the south bank and flows away across the pool, meaning that only the near seam can be fished. The rest of the pool is a futile and frustrating drag avoidance puzzle which I have never solved. I lingered and worked at the puzzle as I always do. Then I reeled in and climbed the stile, ready to cut back up the pool. I paused again feeling a reluctance to leave the river. I looked at the sky. It had changed again. The cloud was higher. There was now a storm moving away from me to the south east. I couldn’t be sure whether it was the one which had been in the west, or the one in the east, but the field had changed in an instant, and I reckoned this storm, whichever one it was, was moving away. I again curved back to the river, and made my way up to the Forest Runs.
Now I found myself standing beside the second deep run. The lower one is good when there is a decent flow. Today was decent flow, and I had plied my dry and nymphs with the utmost care and concentration through that first run, without result. Now I was at the even deeper and more appealing run: the one that didn’t require good flow to look unquestionably promising. I took the flies from the keeper and got to work.
Up ahead of me on the right bank, was a forest tree that had collapsed into the water just where it slowed. There was a good sized Brown Trout under it. I couldn’t see it, but I know Brown Trout, and there was no question. It was under there. I took some chances with my casts, getting the fly in close, and letting the current guide them in under the obstruction, millimeters from the snags. I held on in anticipation and with a great confidence that proved to be unfounded. There was not a touch.
Thunder rolled again. I decided on a few last throws with alternative methods. I cut off all three flies, cut back to a stronger, shorter tippet, glanced around as though to see who was watching and extracted my little film cannister. My clandestine vault of the uncouth. I extracted from it, a brown version of my Taddy Bugger. It is tied on a jig hook, with a slotted bead, a small dense tail of the most bulky marabou I can find. The tail has two strands of flash in it. The body is dubbed, and the hackle at the front is from an old hen badger cape. I strapped it on, moved to the top of the run, and let the thing fly out across the current. “Five swings”, I told myself, “then I am gone”. On the second swing I brought the fly around just above the obstruction which I had just fished from below with my nymphs. Jiggle, jiggle. I could picture the marabou tail working its magic.
The fish took hard and confidently. I brimmed with self-assured vindication, and then quickly settled into a state of nervousness brought about by the painful knowledge of how many fish have simply come unstuck of late. I held my breath and concentrated as I worked to bring the fish under control. Holding the rod high, I outpaced it downstream, getting below it, and to a point where I could climb into the stream. I netted it there, and relaxed, a smile spreading across my face. I removed the fly and studied the fish as I held it in the submerged cloth of the net. It was a broad fish; something of substance in my hand. I lifted it a little and cast my eyes down its flanks. I put it at sixteen inches. It had magnificent blotches down its lower flanks, which tended more to orange than red. I put the rod under my arm, lowered the net, and reached for my phone in my top pocket to get a picture before releasing it. As I positioned the phone and got my finger over the shutter, ready to capture the moment, the net tilted slightly, and the fish darted off between my legs and was gone.
Later, I would think back to the escape of the fish, and in my mind’s eye consider it a fish that had gotten away. The fact that I had no picture of it, tricked my mind with a sense of loss.
Minutes later, I stood above the third run, swinging the same fly expectantly, when there was a tiny rush of wind that ruffled my shirt. In an instant a tiny blue kingfisher passed under my elbow, and flew under my rod, departing at breakneck speed straight down the river ahead of me. Its brilliant blue colour flashed in a patch of sunlight way below me, against the contrast of the deep green forest on the far bank, and it was gone. I found myself smoothing my shirt against my body, as if to straighten it out after the commotion, and I said out loud “Gee, that was close!”.
Had the kingfisher existed?
Had that fish existed?
There were more patches of sun.
Had the storm even existed?
I fished on, in a reflective mood. There was a short pull in the sweep below Pinetree Pool, but surprisingly nothing to be had in the pool itself. Up near the next stile a fish flashed at the fly as I reeled in to move on. Why hadn’t it taken a well-presented nymph, and instead gone for a reeled in dragging fly? I shook my head and looked at the darkening sky. The storm had not returned, but it had been replaced by a heaviness of the atmosphere that was palpable. One last pool, I told myself: The Black Hole.
I approached with care. There are good fish at The Black Hole. I know there are, I have seen them. I have caught them. I put the Taddy Bugger back on. I could sense that it was called for here.
I dropped the fly daringly close to the overhanging sage on the far side, and wriggled the offering back to me. On the third retrieve a Brown ascended vertically from the depths and pounced on the fly before I could lift into the next cast. It thrashed around, as Browns can do. I descended the bank with the net outstretched, as the fish crossed the rim into the net bag, the fly pulled loose. It thrashed and before I could lift it, departed the way it had come. I measured it in my mind. Fourteen inches. That one would go into the log book.
As I stood re-tying the fly, the buff spotted flufftail called its mournful electric call. The sound resonated in the heavy air. Then a black cuckoo called in the distance. Next a roll of thunder rumbled off in the distance. It was warm and oppressive. Two more casts produced a strong take, and then I reeled in, and I was striding across the eragrostis field.
The first raindrops spattered on the windscreen as I started the engine. The storm that followed was vicious.
The afternoon was gone, like the breath of a kingfishers wings.