Just found something I wrote last spring...pretty sure I never posted this, but if I did...well, the 5 people that read this blog can skip it.
I call it the Death March for a lot of reasons. One is as simple as it sounds...it is a long fucking way out and back! Mixed in there are some other, less obvious reasons. First, part of the walk is that nasty, softball sized cobble...you know, the kind that makes you roll your ankles, slip, stumble, and general force yourself to face the fact that you are not as agile as you once were. Second...you occasionally have to slog long distances through waist deep water, and it is dead water too. You don't see carp there so you push through it hard, moving fast and burning your thighs. The gravel bar on the other end of the dead water always makes it worth the effort though. Lastly, the return trip when you are not really fishing can be a monster. The distance you travel when on the hunt is always deceptive, and it seems a lot farther when walking back, facing the aforementioned softballs, deep water pushing, and even some side hill and rip rap leaping.
All in all, the Death March is not for the faint of heart.
It can be especially nasty in August, when the temps might hit 105 and the sun bakes down, burning through your buff. The wind never blows in August, and the carp are monstrously difficult in a dead calm. One plop too close, one drag and drop with too much wake and they bolt off of the gravel bars and pockets like rockets...20 lb rockets. On multiple occasions I have landed four carp over 20 lbs on the Death March, perhaps why I keep punishing my body and my skills with this water. The big fish don't hang out where you can easily reach them, so you need to put in the work. You need to wear out your boots, and return home with raccoon eyes, dehydrated, tired, but often exhilarated.
Last year I slogged along the Death March, solo. Hunting for big fish, passing up shots at "ordinary" 9-10 lb carp. I was after the 20s...the big gravel bar fish that you only find when your time and path happens to intersect that of a big carp, sliding into the shallows to feed. These big girls don't hang out up there...they come in with a purpose, complete their need, and then ghost off into the deep, safe water. You need to walk to find em...and hope. But if you wander around long enough, it will come together.
I spotted the tail first. Bigger than my hand and slapping gently at the water from side to side, pushing its face between the cobble and rocks, digging out clams and nymphs and having a grand old time. This was a big fish, 100 feet away and happy as they get. Carp on the fly is about decisions, and I needed to make quite a few at this moment. How to approach this fish? Do I have the right fly? How close can I get? What is my best angle?
The options ran through my head but came back essentially a big zero. This, was going to be tough. There was 100 feet between me and the fish. 100 feet of nasty, slippery cobble that limited my stealth options. Only about 6 feet of water from the shore to the deeps was fishable...it immediately dropped into 5-8 foot of depth, so sneaking out deep and to the side wasn't an option at all. This was going to be a straight stalk...right up the bank at the fish...careful footstep by careful footstep until I was in position. I ran through the first three rules in my head.
1). Know your forage.
2). Don't cast until you can see its head.
3). You gotta make em move.
Then I got after it. I put one foot in front of the other, slowly. I went as slow as I could force myself to go, then slowed down even more. I used the trees on the bank to break up my outline and I moved along. 80 feet out...the fish was still happily feeding. 60 feet out, and I can make that cast but rule #2 popped into my head, so I kept creeping. One more step and a real problem suddenly emerged. 20 feet away, just 35 or 40 feet from my fish was a small, actively feeding carp. No chance of sneaking by this fish, and I had zero interest in catching this fish. I stopped and pondered this situation for a minute. Immediately I knew I had to spook this carp, but I couldn't spook it hard for fear it would make a ruckus, and take the big girl with it into the depths. I rejected the idea of lining the fish, or doing anything that involved me getting any closer. Instead...I slowly stood up out of my crouch and inched to my left to make my profile show against the sky...ever so slowly. I stood there, exposed, but not moving. The small carp stopped feeding, and turned and swam off with great dignity. It knew something wasn't right, but hadn't hard spooked. The game was still on.
I crept closer, muttering "rule #2" under my breath. 50 feet...40 feet, I nearly stopped here but the fish was still mostly a general shape in the glare, only truly visible because of the tail continuously slapping the surface. At about the 30 foot mark I could see the rounded head, gills, and the occasional white mouth as the carp munched something dug loose from the cobble. I made my cast, landing the two fly rig about 5 feet past the fish, right on line. I quickly lifted my rod tip and dragged the flies into position, just inches from the still feeding fish, and I let them drop to the bottom. As they sank, I counted to five in my head to gauge depth, and at five I saw the white flash of a mouth, right about where my San Juan worm should have been...I set the hook.
I nearly lost the fish right then. Most 20 plus lb fish are dogs, but this guy blasted out into the river in an instant and I almost got in my own way. Fly line peeled off the reel, backing next and I looked out to see a barge way out in the river. I laughed at the idea of this fish catching the barge, then reconsidered the laughter as backing continued to disappear. Eventually, the fish slowed, and I towed her back in to my waiting net. 36 inches, 26 lbs...a real, serious athlete.
It was late in the day, and the Death March had once again done its job. I was busted...beat up, aching and tired, but this last fish had been worth the work. I sat on the bank for a few minutes and watched the barge, listened to the river and replayed the take in my head. The stalk, the cast, the distinctive white mouth flashing as a well fooled carp eats...all good things, made better because they didn't come free.