Sunday, July 17, 2011

The King of Badger Lake

Fly fishing for me has always conjured a certain image in my mind...

Of a mystical Montana river winding purposely through an old pine forest. Swarms of insects fill the air, whirling about in a frenzy just above the waters surface. A lone man stands knee deep in water near the bank, and unlike most men of our age, he seems to belong. His earth-toned clothes and full brimmed hat match the shade of the evergreens, and compliment the deep orange bark of the huge Ponderosas. He holds a rod in his hand that he rhythmically whips back-and-forth, sending a line soaring gracefully through the sky, like a leaf on the wind, over his head and out to to his front, and back again...

If that sounded eerily like the movie “A River Runs Through It” it's because that's what I'm describing. Brad Pitt as Paul Maclean, fly fishing Montana's famed Blackfoot River in one of the classic guy movies of all time. It also happened to be my only concept of fly fishing.

Fly fishing on Badger Lake

So you can imagine my confusion after I was invited by the President of the Spokane Fly Fishers, Mike Berube, to go fly fishing on a lake, and from a boat. It wasn't quite what I had pictured in the minds eye, and being a total rookie I didn't have any gear. Again I was reminded of “A River Runs Through It”. The scene where the story telling brother-in-law shows up late for fly fishing, drunk with a can of worms.

Not that I was planning on showing up drunk with a can of worms, but I didn't want to be that guy. You know, the guy with no gear, who doesn't know what he's doing, who the others have to babysit. Luckily Mike was nice enough to supply most of what I needed: pontoon boat, flippers, life vest, rods and reels, flies, and a “crash course” in the art of fly fishing

It was a beautiful day on Badger Lake. A few clouds drifted lazily through an otherwise clear blue sky, and a slight breeze blew over the calm lake. Mike started me off with an Olive Willy fly and a sinking line. Still too shy to attempt a cast I was sure would make me look like a buffoon, I dropped the fly in front of my boat and released more line as I paddled across the water.

Not much action on the water. No fish jumping. I passed (and almost crashed into) several anglers from the club. “ Any luck?” I would say. “Had one on, but he got away” they would reply. It would be a reoccurring theme.
An hour went by and no bites, and as the sun crept toward the western horizon the lake was quiet except the sound of chatting fly fisherman. The Spokane Fly Fishers take trips together like this frequently. Throughout the year they fish some of the hot spots the region has to offer, like Badger Lake, Williams, St Joe River, Clark Fork, and even the mythological Blackfoot. With about 300 members they seem like a tight group. They talked about flies and lines, and fondly reminisced about fishing trips past. They asked politely about the wife and kids. They admired the beautiful day and were thankful for the sunshine. They wondered where the fish were...

That's when I heard it. A huge splash behind my boat, so loud that it startled me awake from my contemplative state. I turned around to see a large bird of prey lift off from the waters surface. It was big. A wingspan of four feet easy. It beat its powerful wings and climbed back to the sky, where it circled once and landed on top of the tallest tree on the lake shore. It sat there like a king on a throne, head turning from side-to-side, surveying his domain.

The King of Badger Lake

We watched the Osprey throughout the afternoon, circling the lake and diving in on unsuspecting trout. A dozen times it hit the water at high speed, sometimes coming up with a fish, and sometimes not. “At least someone is catching fish” I thought. Then it occurred to me. If the Osprey is catching fish then they must be at the surface.

I switched to my other rod set up with a strike indicator and a Bloodworm to fish near the surface. My pathetic cast landed only a few feet from the boat, and as I was paddling my feet to put some distance between me and the fly, a fish hit. I pulled up on the rod and a magnificent trout sprang from the water, the sun glistening off rainbow colored scales. Heart racing I reeled and jerked the rod. The fish fought like hell, repeatedly leaping into the air in a desperate attempt to break free. For a brief moment I felt like the old man in Hemingway's “The Old Man and the Sea”. I'm not that old, Badger Lake isn't exactly the sea, and a small rainbow trout isn’t exactly a marlin, but that’s how I felt. As I drew the fish ever closer to the boat I could hear Mike hollering, “Hold on Mike, I'm coming,” but before he could reach me with the net, my marlin spit the hook and disappeared.

I blew it. My moment of glory undone by my clumsy handling of the unfamiliar rod and reel, and a tenacious fish. As the sun faded and the temperature dropped, the action on the lake picked up. Trout who seemingly lay dormant throughout the day suddenly sprang into action, and everywhere I turned they were jumping. I would like to tell you that this is when the slaying started, but that was not the case. There was only one trout slayer on the lake that day. He wasn't fly fishing, or trolling a spinner, or sinking a worm from a lawn chair on the shore. He was spying fish from the treetops and diving from the sky like a bolt of lightning from heaven.

In the parking lot at the end of the day, a few of the fly fishers were chatting over cold beers. The talk was of why the fish weren't biting. Someone theorized about a full moon and a mix of low and high pressure systems. “The osprey did alright,” I said. The general consensus was that he caught at least five. I thanked Mike and shook hands all around. Alone with my thoughts on the drive home, I kept coming back to the Osprey. He gave us all a fishing lesson today. He was the King of Badger Lake

Badger Lake