It had been a hell of a year.
In March, just as Appalachia began to spring to life, I was there, casting dry flies to Rapidan brookies. I hiked up to President Hoover’s Brown House—his mountain retreat during the Great Depression—and fished the cold, clear water among the barren dogwoods and redbuds of Shenandoah National Park.
April. South Texas. Redfish and a surly guide who actually yelled at me—yelled, I tell you—for my pathetic saltwater cast and my insistence on actually fishing inside the 30-foot radius of the flats boat that he deemed unproductive. I figured, with a 25-knot wind in my face and, with a little luck, a 50-foot cast that could be accomplished only with a few creative gyrations and whispered “Our Father,” I was going to fish that Clouser all the way back to boat.
Yell all you want, Cap’n. This trout bum is just glad to be wearing shorts and fighting through a piña colada hangover. It’s snowing at home, and if I wore this get-up outside my front door, my nipples could cut glass.
It rained and snowed the month of June throughout the home state of Idaho, but it didn’t stop me from venturing into the Clearwater backcountry, where I didn’t fish for redbands or west slopes in the froth of Jack Creek, by I did step in wolf shit on a the five-mile hike out. In my waders.
August. Back down south and into the Louisiana marsh where I finally learned to double haul. It was hot and sticky. But the redfish didn’t seem to care.
Hell of a year.
But, as I stood in the dark water of the Otherside River, my stones in the punch and the cold rain coming down in fits and starts, I knew I was “out there.” This remote land looks today like it looked when the first Europeans showed up looking for gold and beavers a couple hundred years ago. Electricity comes thanks to a diesel generator and a DeHavilland Otter got us to the lodge from the “airport” in distant Stony Rapids.
My guide, a Dené native named Louie Isadore, sat passively on the bank watching the crazy American try to catch an Athabascan whitefish in the wilds of northern Saskatchewan. With a Japanese Tenkara rod.
Fish were rising everywhere. Big fish.
“Yuh,” he said. “Whitefish.”
Hmph. Effing whitefish. Wondering why I cared, but knowing deep down that, after five days of cruising the surface of Lake Athabasca and catching northern pike, Arctic grayling and a massive walleye, I lacked only the whitefish and the lake trout to achieve “the slam.” Lake trout could be had, thanks to an early spawning run of the big char charging up the river, and I figured I’d get mine in time. But whitefish. No telling. Maybe they’re here. Maybe not.
Louie said whitefish. I believed him.
But an hour later, after cutting back a size 14 elk-hair caddis to just the nubs in order to resemble the emerging bug these crafty whitefish were obviously eating, it hit me.
“You sure these are whitefish?” I asked again.
Bullshit, I thought. What does this guy know? He’s only lived here in this far-off, all-but-uninhabited place his whole life.
So, I did what every fly fisherman does when rising fish won’t cooperate. I went deep. I pulled a ghost-white ‘bugger tied on a lead-head jig hook out of my box, tied it to the 4x tippet and flipped it into the depths with the Tenkara rod. I high-sticked the heavy bug through the run and felt what might have been a tug … or maybe just the bottom. The damn thing weighed a ton. I lifted the rod to be sure. Nothing.
I repeated the “cast” a couple more times and, just as I was about to give up, the rod doubled over. Yep. The bottom. Definitely the bottom.
Then the 10-foot stretch of level-line began to move upstream.
“Louie,” I said, disturbing the guide from a daydream and his cigarette. “I got one.”
The rod, a 12-foot stretch of telescoping graphite with 10 feet of leader and no reel—that’s how the Japanese on Honshu fed their families for centuries—was now the shape of a horseshoe. I was pretty sure I’d hooked the world’s largest whitefish.
Louie scrambled down the bank, the cigarette pinched between his lips. He was ready.
But the fish wasn’t ready. I walked up and down the bank, trying to coax the bottom-feeder to the top, but every time I managed to make a little headway, the beast would dive and put a dangerous bend in the supple rod.
“Whitefish fight hard,” Louie advised. “They’re strong.”
Indeed, I thought. Very strong.
Finally, I managed to bring the fish close enough to the surface, where Louie got a good look. His eyes went wide.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s a lake trout.”
He crawled up the bank and was back in a flash with a big net.
Louie netted the big fish, likely the first ever laker ever landed with a Tenkara rod. Despite the feat—the fish was at least 28 inches long and probably weighed close to nine pounds—Louie was unimpressed.
“You know,” I told my guide, “you’re the first guide to ever put a Tenkara angler on a big Athabascan lake trout. Ever. In the world.”
“Yuh,” he said. “I know.”