A huge, swirling boil broke the smooth, dark surface where my fly was, and I pulled back hard to set the hook. But all I did was yank the fly and line out of the water. I had made no contact at all with the fish. It had been a reflex action, and I stood there swearing at my ineptitude.
When a steelhead makes a boil like that you should always wait until you feel the weight of the fish before you set the hook. Sometimes a fish will make four or five false passes before finally taking it. I had fished long enough to know that, yet I had reacted like a beginner.
It was likely that the disturbance I'd made yanking the fly out of the water had put down the fish. Then again, it was at least possible that darkness had been on my side. The only way to find out was to remain quiet for 15 or 20 minutes and try again.
Still furious, I reeled in and sat on the rock, chilled by the cool night air and the water in my waders. Too lazy to empty the boots—most of the water was soaked into my clothes anyway—I thought about my steelhead.
At least 20 minutes had passed when I stood up to cast again. About 15 yards below the island the Whitewater rapids began, sounding louder now in darkness. I cast about 10 feet above the ledge, mended the line once more and brought the fly over the ledge, just as I had before. The fish took it at exactly the same spot, although this time there was no surface disturbance. Instead I felt a sudden heavy weight at the end of the line, and then, instantaneously, the fish ran hard downstream, over the lip of the slick and down into the whitewater, the reel note rising as he picked up speed.
No sound I've heard is more pleasant or exciting than the high-pitched, smoothly mechanical shriek of a running line from a Hardy Perfect. This fish took the entire line out and then 80 or 100 yards of backing behind it. When he finally stopped, somewhere down below the rapids, the nylon backing slanted downstream at a long and dangerous angle, and I could tell from the dead, heavy pressure on the rod that somewhere down there the line was wound around some rocks.
I realized then how foolish it had been to wait until dark to try for the fish. My only real chance was to get downstream as quickly as possible, to recover line and disengage it from the rocks as I went, to catch up with the steelhead before he began another downstream run.
When I jumped off the foot of the island, the cold water was a shock. I held the rod in my right hand and swam with my left, my legs out ahead of me in the current. My waders filled with water at once, but because the water inside waders weighs no more than the water outside them, they were no hindrance to staying afloat or even to swimming.
Within seconds I was into the rapids, bouncing along, trying to hold the rod high, angling to the right as best I could. My feet jarred hard against a boulder, and, sliding by it, I grabbed hold with my left hand. I found that I could stand in the waist-deep water on the downstream side of the boulder, and I reeled as quickly as I could, hands numb and trembling, feeling the rough vibrations as the line passed over rocks. After a minute or so I could see the end of my fly line, but I couldn't get it back onto the reel. I was about halfway down the rapids, with the line now angling toward a large boulder at the foot of the fast water, close to the opposite bank. When I leaned back hard on the rod, trying to free the line, I finally felt the living weight of the fish again. Then there was one heavy lunge, and the line went dead. The pressure—and the fish—were gone.
I swore again, but my heart wasn't in it. I was almost grateful that the fish had escaped. Below the rapids were all kinds of deep channels, slippery ledges and sudden drop-offs. To play a difficult fish in unfamiliar water at night was foolish. But even as I reeled in the slack line, I was thinking ahead. The steelhead would continue upstream, and I had a better chance than anyone else to catch it. I was probably the only fisherman who knew for sure that it existed, and certainly the only one who knew where it was.