casting trout
Image: Daniel Root

All of which explains why Kaufmann’s guides choose to lead their two-day fly-fishing crash courses here several times a month. After all, lots of biting fish make it easier for novices like me to gain more self-confidence. Three hours later, however, and despite the fact that I had begun to nail the basic casting technique—lock the wrist; power the rod from the elbow; halt the arm at 1 o’clock on the back cast; pause; let the line straighten; and then swing the rod forward, halting at 10 o’clock—I still hadn’t landed our intended quarry.

I’d fished a pool where we had spied some generously sized fish taking shelter from the current. No trout. I’d worked a nice “foam line,” a rollicking seam of river schmutz that traps fledgling bugs in its froth (and which Donaldson likened to a conveyor belt of fish food). Skunked again. As we bobbed along toward the park’s northwest border and its last boat ramp, where we intended to exit, I feared the worst—a troutless day.

But then Donaldson eyed one last chance for redemption—a spot near the river’s northern embankment where a tangle of alder and maple branches lurched over the slow-moving water, turning it black with shadows. This place, he explained, would be a good spot to find fish avoiding the late afternoon sun, so he moored our craft on a sandy bar, where I clipped into my waders and followed him into the murky water. Some 60 feet away, we could see trout breaking the surface with hair-raising kerplunks. “Those are big ones,” Donaldson said, followed by: “All right, this is your final exam.”

At the moment, as I watch him untangle my foozled cast that nearly hooked us, it’s apparently a test I am flunking. I cast again, but it falls short. I strip out more line, tighten my fingers around the rod’s cork handle and whip it behind my head. The line springs to life and unravels some 40 feet behind me. When it finally straightens, I snap the rod forward and send the tiny caddis fly tied to the end of my line hurtling toward my prey.

“That’s a good cast. Now keep your eyes on it,” Donaldson says, referring to my fly perched daintily on the water. And even though my miniature piece of jetsam is merely a speck on a vast moving wall of water, there’s no mistaking the feeling when a fish rises and strikes. Beaming, I lift the rod skyward to pull in a young, 10-inch steelhead trout.

Eager to repeat the moment, I let my line straighten in the current and cast again. Within minutes, I snag a slightly larger trout. “Now you’re catching trout!” Donaldson yells proudly as I reel it in. Just before setting the fish free, I imagine the day it will return to its home waters as a mighty 12-lb fighter.

And later, over a few celebratory Twilight Ales, if anyone happens to ask, I imagine I’ll tell them the fish were all enormous and all my casts unfurled like ribbons dancing over the river—and that I’ll definitely be back again.