May 16, 2022
As spring runs its course, the heart of baseball season is upon us.
The pros in Major League Baseball are about to wrap up their second month, the NCAA College World Series is weeks away, and high-school teams around the country are dreaming of a championship ring.
Even Little Leaguers around the country are hard at it right now, swinging at fastballs, making a great play at short, and squeezing a fly ball in the outfield to end a game.
No matter what level a diamond rat plays at, the dreams are the same. For pitchers, it’s a chance to stride to the mound and fire a fastball by a hitter waiting a few dozen feet away. For hitters, it’s the opportunity to swing away with a slab of maple—or aluminum or composite materials—and drive that ball far and deep into the night, or perhaps, the noonday sun.
Either way, a final strike or a well-hit ball will both produce the same—a roar from the crowd, a mob of teammates pounding the back, and a memory that will be told someday to grandkids.
For a middle-aged guy like me, such boyhood dreams of diamond greatness have faded, as even my knees, hips, and back tell me that I’m too old and creaky to play even church-league softball.
Canadian Trout 'Cathedral'
But if I’m willing to change playing fields, there’s still a chance to step to the plate and see what I’m made of. Especially when there’s a fly rod in my hand like there was a few years ago when I ventured to the cathedral-like setting of a British Columbia trout stream.
After a couple of days of tiresome travel with my guide friends Steve Hollensed and Rob Woodruff, I found myself in an aluminum boat at the lodge, staring at a lake filled with rainbow trout. While I caught a few on my Temple Fork fly rod, the highlight of the day was watching a bald eagle swoop down and pluck a rainbow from the water, only to be chased at high speed by another raptor, an osprey looking for a free meal.
After that warmup act, the following morning, it was opening day and time to board a de Haviland Beaver float plane to fly deep into the Canadian wild and see what a new day might bring.
Hours later, I found myself many miles in the middle of nowhere, edging along the edge of a rocky trail that overlooked some prime water where some truly big-league rainbows lurked.
For a bush-league fly fisher like me, stepping onto that slab of British Columbia rock was the big-league equivalent of digging into the batter’s box to face a high, tight fastball from Nolan Ryan – in his prime.
With a bit of a gulp, there I was, ready to swing away with my five-weight fly rod as I dug felt-soled wading boots into the rock and peered anxiously into the crystal clear waters flowing steadily below me.
While the spacious amphitheater setting of the sparkling clear aquarium pool was stadium-like, the crowd was a bit on the thin side.
In fact, the only ones with tickets to this fly-fishing showdown included yours truly, my B.C. guide Matt Sharp, a considerable-sized rainbow trout nicknamed "Harold," and the Creator watching above.
As Sharp whispered to me that summertime day, Harold, a 25-inch, 7-pound living legend of a rainbow, had cruised about for a couple of years in this crystal-clear aquatic junction where Charlotte Lake emptied into the Atnarko River.
And like most piscatorial legends taking on rookies at a venue like "Harold Stadium," he has beaten back nearly all challengers who had tried to con him with a small nymph or dry fly.
Still, I had to try since I didn’t fly all the way from Texas to this breathtaking Canadian wilderness to strike out.
As Matt and I quietly conferred and looked for the best tuft of feather and fur in our fly boxes, Harold would rhythmically move from his well-protected lair to sip an unseen morsel flowing by in the gathering current.
With his hunger sated for the moment, Harold would then retreat back into his safe haven yet again, a virtually impossible lie laced with a myriad of knuckleball currents.
Stepping into the B.C. trout fishing batter’s box, I took a few practice swings to gauge the distance, the currents, and my ability to make something happen as I perched a couple of feet above on that rock.
The enormous rainbow was in an exceedingly difficult spot to get a drag free drift of my dry fly, but eventually, I was able to gain some confidence as I dug in and fired my first cast with the hopes of one good drift into the trout's feeding lane.
As I remembered every casting tip and mending lesson I’d ever had, the first attempt produced a swing and a miss as the trout rose briefly, took a look and hesitated, and then finned back into his prime lie. The second and third attempts produced similar results as hope began to trend towards despair.
But apparently, one of those misses was in fact a foul tip that gave me another chance at the rainbow that had somehow not spooked from my wide-eyed attempts to find angling glory.
Finally, as the fly drifted into the trout's cone of vision one more time, the huge rainbow rose to my fly, sucked it in, and turned away. As the leader grew tight, I instantly raised my rod tip and set the hook.
And for the briefest of seconds, it was almost as if I could hear a crowd roar as strong resistance caused my fly rod to double over while the line began to surge through the water.
And then suddenly, as my mind screamed that the fight was on, the line suddenly went slack and all grew quiet again.
A Strikeout, But Game Not Over
Like a batter who can't believe the umpire has just rung him up with a strikeout after taking a curving pitch that just nipped the corner of the plate, I stood there in disbelief that I had a chance of which I had long dreamed … and promptly blew it.
For a long few moments, as the sound of flowing water gurgled through the opening and swept past, Sharp and I stood there silently, not saying a word. And that's good, because there was really nothing for either of us to say at that point.
Finally, Sharp told me to try again, which I did. But the moment of opportunity had passed, my chance had arrived and been lost, and Harold never showed the faintest interest again.
A few minutes later, the game was clearly over, the lights had been shut off, and I was left remembering my shot at making trout fishing's big leagues.
I’d like to think that I redeemed myself the next day when Ian’s carefully piloted float plane landed on a remote freestone river and allowed us to all hook wild rainbows by the dozen. No matter which fly I borrowed from my guide friend Rob, the small rainbows eagerly rose to take a whack at the big, bushy stonefly imitations drifting overhead.
If redemption didn't occur then, maybe it did the next day when we flew into an unnamed high country lake in the western part of B.C. and landed one of the greatest fish of my angling lifetime, a huge bull trout that measured 29 1/2 inches in length and weighed more than eight pounds.
But while those experiences helped make my first fly-fishing adventure outside of the Lower 48 a success, they never seemed to wash away the sting of disappointment I had suffered at the hands of a behemoth trout that no one could catch.
Like a former baseball player talking to the grandkids and lamenting his one shot at "The Show," I still think of Harold all these years later.
Along with that moment in time when everything seemed to stand still and there was an intersection of a huge rainbow, a stunning mountain river, and a wannabe big-league fly fisher drifting a dry fly into a pool of crystal-clear water.
From what I understand, no one ever successfully landed Harold in that pristine setting, a spot on the map that was devastated by a forest fire only a couple of years later. Shortly after that, the lodge shuttered its windows for good and the legend of a big-league B.C. rainbow dubbed Harold disappeared quietly into the dusty memories of the past.
But I had a chance, a real chance one summertime day. Unfortunately, that chance ended with a whiff into the catcher's mitt; I struck out swinging.
At the end of the day, my moment in the sun and a duel with a mega rainbow that defeated all who dared to challenge him in his domain leaves me with only memories of what might have been.
But that memory has also made me a more determined fly angler who has gone on to master far more intricacies of the sport, from expanding my horizons to piscatorial species other than trout, increasing my collection of fly rods and reels, mastering various types of fly lines, tying better knots, making better casts, and getting better at tying flies that put a few more fish—and even some big ones—into the net.
Even more than all of those lessons learned since, I'm also left with the knowledge that when it comes to once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, in both baseball and fly fishing, it's better to have been there, no matter what the outcome might have been.
Because a swing and a miss is a far more preferable outcome versus never having stepped up to the plate at all, a batter’s box sanctuary where you discover a lot about yourself, your abilities, and your dreams. Especially when there's a big league 'bow named Harold waiting silently the angling equivalent of 60 feet, 6 inches away.