Joe laughed and at the same time lifted the fly rod and set the hook. A larger trout fought free of the water, dancing on the surface.
“Ain’t she a beauty?” Eben Ramdown pointed at a slim fly rod balanced on a display stand beside the rod rack in the Mooseleuk Mercantile. “It’s a brant new rod from Orvis. They call it the Mooseleuk Model. S’posed ter be the best thing since sliced bread fer freestone streams an’ brook trout!”
Joe eyed the shining rod speculatively. “Pack rod, ain’t it?”
“Yup. Six piece. Nine foot fer a 5-weight line. Breaks down an’ fits inter this itty bitty carryin’ tube that’s only 20-inches long. Rod’s made outa some new kinda material that will stand a lot of abuse an’ some heavy tuggin’ by big fish.”
“I dunno about pack rods,” Joe said guardedly. “Don’t seem like they could make one with decent action, all them pieces stuck together.”
“I hear they’ve made some great strides in pack rods in the last few years.” I noted with approval the deep forest green finish set off by gold and red windings. “And it would sure be easier toting into the back country than a big, long 2-piece.”
For Joe, fly-fishing was no more important than breathing and his battered old Orvis Trident 7-weight had caught trout and salmon over half the state and eastern Canada. He gingerly picked up the new rod, flicking it up and down, feeling the flex into the butt and noting how quickly the tip stopped its gyrations.
“You know,” he said thoughtfully, “that don’t feel too bad. Fer a pack rod, anyway.”
Eben, sensing weakness, plunged ahead. “That’s a Battenkill reel on it all loaded with weight-forward line. Little bit o’ red yard tied on the tippet. Whyownt you take her out back an’ giver ‘er a cast?”
I opened the rear door and Joe stepped out into the acre of field that comprised the Mercantile back yard. Patches of snow still lay here and there but for the most part the area was covered with short brown grass packed flat by the retreating snow cover.
Joe stripped line off the reel, then made a couple of false casts. A smooth flex of his forearm sent line shooting across the yard to land, feather soft, at the edge of a small snow patch. I could tell he was impressed with the accuracy and light touch and didn’t want to show it. He lifted the rod tip, double hauled on both the rear and forward strokes, and so much line rocketed out that I found myself staring, open-mouthed.
For a moment Joe just stood there, left hand at his side, the rod held horizontally in front of him. Then he sighed. “All right, Eben, how much?”
From the back steps the storekeeper rubbed his hands gleefully. “Now Joe, don’t I always use yer right?”
As we walked back along the main street of Mooseleuk, Grafton Chortle fell in beside us. “Whatchergot there, Joe?” He eyed the short rod tube with interest.
“New fly rod, Graf,” Joe held it up proudly. “Lot easier to carry into them back country ponds an’ streams. It’ll fit right into a light pack.”
“I dunno,” Graf shook his head doubtfully. “Prob’ly ain’t much stren’th in all them pieces stuck together. Still, if anyone kin make it work, it’d be you, Joe.”
Joe looked at the short rod tube a little uncertainly. “Maybe yore right, Graf. Don’t know jist how strong it’ll be, but she sure casts right. Guess I’m gonna find out.”
As we headed for Joe’s camp Graf kept pace. “Say, you fellers goin’ in to the Eddy this week? I figger to head in tomorrow early. Always some big trouts on the edges o’ that fast water jist after ice out.”
“Yep,” Joe replied. “We’re headin’ in tomorrow, too. Might as well go together, Graf. She’s a long hike an’ they’s still some snow in the woods.”
The Eddy was located on the upper East Branch of the Little Salt Pork River, far from any road. The river tumbled over a series of jagged rocks before pouring into a large, eddying pool about 75 yards across. The current took a 90-degree bend before emptying from the pool into another evil set of rapids.
In the high water of spring runoff large brook trout hovered around the edges of current in the Eddy, one of the few resting spots in the East Branch’s wild run downstream. Each spring me and Joe, often joined by Graf Chortle or Chip Buttstock, made at least one trek over the rugged four-mile trail to the Eddy. Usually our efforts were rewarded with several hefty trout, the first fish of the open water angling season.
The next morning the three of us trudged along the faint trail toward the river. Much of the route was over bare ground but occasionally we had to fight our way through drifts of deep snow. Graf, thin and wiry, didn’t sink down as much as me and Joe and he laughed good-naturedly at our floundering efforts.
“C’mon, boys,” he grinned. “Don’t make me hafta carry yer. I’ll have enough trouble totin’ out all them trouts I’m gonna catch.”
At the river’s edge we stopped to catch our breaths. I eyed the raging water with some trepidation. Snow had piled deep during the winter and spring had been late in coming. More water than usual roared down through the rapids and filled the pool to overflowing. We would have to pick our fishing spots with care to avoid being swept away.
As Graf and I rigged up heaving spinning outfits I saw Joe pull the Mooseleuk rod from his pack and begin to assemble it.
“Pretty light for this kind of fishing, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Maybe. But this will sure give it the acid test. I’ve rigged her up with some heavy-duty leader an’ tippet. If it kin stand up to landin’ big trout in this heavy current, I ‘spect it’ll do fer anything.” He grinned as he fed line through the guides. “Besides, Orvis has ‘bout the best guarantee in the business. If’n it breaks, I’ll jist send it back an’ get another.”
We gingerly picked out fishing spots on spray-drenched rocks near the edge of the eddy. The fishing was slow. It was half an hour before anyone had a nibble, but finally Graf hooked a hefty trout. It took time and careful handling of the rod, but he gradually edged the fish into shallow water and slid a net under it.
“Lookee here!” he shouted to Joe, holding up the 2-pound trout. “This here’s what they look like!”
Joe laughed and at the same time lifted the fly rod and set the hook. A larger trout fought free of the water, dancing on the surface. I watched the battle tensely. The light rod was bent around sharply and Joe played the fish skillfully, grudgingly giving out line when necessary and gaining it back as the trout began to weaken. Finally, the fish came to net, 3-pounds of brightly speckled brookie.
“Not bad at all!” Graf grinned. “Guess that jigsaw rod has the goods after all!”
During the next hour we landed and released a few more fish, keeping one apiece for the first trout feed of the new season. Then, far out in the middle of the pool, the back of a huge fish rolled clear of the surface before disappearing into the depths. We all stared.
“Boy oh boy, that’s the granddaddy!” Graf said excitedly. “He’s gonna love this here Weepin’ Willow!” Graf stepped onto a big rock then leaped across rushing water to another, closer to the head of the pool.
“Careful, Graf!” I shouted over the roar of the water. “The spray’s making those rocks slippery.” I’d no more than closed my mouth when Graf drew his rod back and gave a mighty heave forward. Both feet went out from under him and he plunged headlong into the seething current.
Me and Joe stared in horror. Graf’s head appeared out near the center of the pool, his arms flailing weakly as the ice water rapidly sapped his strength. Then a particularly large wave closed over him and he disappeared in the wash of the current.
He’s headed toward the outlet!” I cried. “He’ll never live through those rapids downstream!”
Joe was the first to recover. As Graf’s head appeared once more at the surface, Joe lifted his line off the water, made one false cast, and shot the fly off across the pool. The weighted streamer landed with unerring accuracy on Graf’s collar and the point of the hook snagged firmly in the wool cloth. Joe reefed back on the rod and the slender pole bent dangerously.
For long moments it looked like Joe’s efforts would be futile. The strong current dragged Graf slowly toward the outlet. But Joe raced along the jumbled rocks of the shore, regaining line, pulling strongly, tipping the rod first to one side, then the other. Finally, I saw Graf ease slightly out of the main current. Joe heaved on the rod even more, maintaining a precarious balance between maximum pull and the breaking strength of the tippet. Scarcely 10 yards from the seething maelstrom of the outlet rapids, Joe dragged the sputtering Graf into shallow water. I splashed out and pulled him ashore.
As Graf choked and gagged out half the river, Joe hurriedly built a roaring fire in the lee of a clump of nearby cedars. After about 10 minutes the shivering fisherman had regained his equilibrium and sat on a rock close to the fire, cloaked in a covering of all our coats. Joe had brewed tea and Graf sipped gratefully at a steaming cup of the dark liquid.
“Boy, th-that th-there was a close one!” he chattered.
“Sure was, Graf,” Joe agreed. “Fer a while, there, I didn’t think I was gonna be able to land yer.”
“Good thing you put heavy leader on that new rod, Joe.” I grinned at Graf, whose good humor seemed to be returning. “I don’t think a 5x tippet would have landed this joker.”
Joe threw another stick of wood on the fire. “We git you dried out, Graf, and we’ll head back to town. ‘Less you wanna stay an’ do a little more fishin’?”
“Nope.” Graf drained the cup of tea. “Gotta git back to the Mercantile and talk to ol’ Eben Ramdown.” He grinned at Joe from beneath strands of wet, limp hair. “If’n you kin land a big sucker like me with that little bitty rod, I gotta have me one!”
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