|Walking through the cattails in search of an exotic omnivore.|
The first time I visited this place, it was, in my mind, a mudhole in the middle of the desert–an oasis of funk and flotsam where cows wallowed and bull snakes slithered underfoot, inciting brief moments of panic at their initial appearance.
And the fish?
They were ... an entertaining diversion, a slightly guilty pleasure. But they weren't a serious target. They helped pass the time until the backcountry shrugged free of a winter's worth of snow, and I could wander into the hinterlands in search of real fish, fish that sipped dry flies with a purpose and that lived among tall timber, sweeping meadows and snow-capped vistas that marked the top of the world.
The smell of sage drifts over the still water–the cows aren't here yet–and, off in the distance, where the sage meets the riverside wheat field, I can hear the curious call of a cock pheasant. Sandpipers dance along the shoreline, their shrill chirp a panicky warning–they eye me carefully, and make sure I don't wander to close to their nest.
The sun is a welcome source of warmth after a long, cold winter, and I've come out of hibernation in hopes of coinciding my visit to this place, this gorgeous place, with that of a unique creature.
Native to Asia, and considered by most to be a scourge on the native fish of North America, I've come to respect ... no, that's not right ... I've come to revere this exotic omnivore that prowls these waters. No longer a diversion or a pastime. No longer a trash fish. Carp are ... amazing.
They're filthy. Not terribly attractive, at least at first. They make a mess of things... they stir up the water, spawn by spewing eggs and milt around in a twisted piscene orgy and eat damn near anything. They're like the fat uncle who comes to stay for a week and takes over the guest room for a year, walking around the house in a grease-stained wife-beater and dingy boxers while scratching his crotch and belching. The kids like that uncle, though. He's funny. He's entertaining. He let's them watch movies they shouldn't, and he uses language they shouldn't hear.
That's a carp. An embarrassing relative you love anyway.
And, just like that endearing, yet crass and inappropriate uncle who comes to visit, they appear without warning and disappear just as fast.
As I sit on a bluff overlooking the flat and soaking in a spring day that, until now, had been inexplicably missing, I watch the water, hoping the burly bottom-feeders decide to swarm into shallow water on this first warm day of spring. The shallows are thriving with life–damselfly nymphs abound in the clear water near the edges of the cattails, and crawfish are crawling from their mudholes and prowling near the bank. The shallow water warms quickly, which is why the carp will eventually find their way here to feed and soak up a little sun of their own.
But so far, nothing. No breaching females, no v-shaped wakes of cruising behemoths just under the surface ... no tails. Just quiet interrupted by songbirds and the hoot of the occasional merganser.
The sun feels good, though, and I have all day. I lay back and stare up at the pale, blue Idaho sky–tumblers of white clouds drift across the horizon, pushed by a subtle breeze. The skies along the Snake River Plain are always dramatic, always in motion, but here, next to the water, they appear to go on forever.
I fall into that age-old quest I first undertook with my grandfather all those years ago, when we'd lie back on a streambank after a lunch consisting of a bologna sandwich and a Coke and find creatures lingering in the sky, disguised as clouds. I spot a dragon with a broken wing. An old man with a walking stick. And fish. I always see fish.
Then I hear the splash. It's a deep, booming splash, not the slap of a trout or the purposeful attack of a smallmouth. It's as if a low-flying aircraft just jettisoned a suitcase over the flat. I don't sit up. One splash, while encouraging, doesn't mean much.
Then a second splash. A third. I take my eyes off the sky and sit halfway up, my elbows resting in the coarse grass. Another splash, and I see the source this time, a hefty, golden mass of carp that shakes her tail as she reenters the water.
The carp are in. The carp are in.
Slowly, with practiced patience, I stand and purposefully grab my fly rod from its rest on a clump of fragrant sage. I sling my chest pack over my neck, and fasten it behind me. More splashes come from the water, and I know that within minutes, the flat will be lousy with cruising cyprinids on the prowl for a spring feast of crustaceans and insect larvae. I'm in no hurry. This is a moment to savor.
Sweet Christ, the carp are in. I look to the heavens... there's that cloud that looks like a fish again. Wait... are those barbels? Is that a down-turned maw, and a big black-on-gold eye?
I walk slowly to the water, and now I can see cruisers in foot-deep water. I can see groups of five and six, prowling the flat, shaking free from their own winter doldrums.
I step into the water, and begin to peel line from my reel. I load the rod and make that first cast.
The carp are in.