Fish Stories: Skunked


It’s March 1st, a Friday, and I called in sick, partly because I heard the ‘bows in one of the Cape kettle ponds had started to wake from their groggy sleepwalk, and partly because March 1st  is generally the time of year in which I’d do anything to feel the tug on the end of a fly line (and partly because I felt like I was just barely peering over the edge of a deep crevasse that is a nervous breakdown, due to some work things and some personal things, both of which have details that I won’t bore you with).

I was thinking that a rainbow on the fly could somehow cure an ailment of sorts; one I imagined would be alleviated once the calendar flipped to the third month, but wasn’t remotely better when I woke up that morning.

The forecast called for mid forty-degree temperatures, showers—heavy at times—on and off throughout the day with a falling pressure system and wind gusts up to thirty miles per hour. I parked a half mile from the pond and ducked under the closed gate, walking under scrub pines and big oaks, through the premature spring landscape of barely vegetated bushes, hard, snow-less dirt and cold, new air.

Down at the kettle pond, there was no rain. The water was calm and showed a matte gray under the overcast skies. Gusts of wind occasionally navigated down from the high pines and create disturbances and eddies in the water, like cyclones causing massive destruction in their own tiny scale. But in between gusts, the water stood placid and complacent and I thought about how the history of these kettle ponds, the mother and father, the glacier and stone that gave birth to these deep pockets of spring water, somehow made the forty-acre pond less disposed to rough seas and white caps in gale-force gusts.

I took my first steps in, sleepy old waders on my legs that I prayed wouldn’t leak, and began the solitary dance that is the fly cast. My wooly bugger landed forty feet in front of me toward the center of the pond. As I stripped the line, small taps began reverberating in the echo chamber of the hood of my jacket. The rain was quiet and when it spoke, it whispered. First, a crackle, like how a meteor shower might burn up in the atmosphere. This was the sound if you could hear it in space. It grew steadily into a constant sifting.


But then, the rain.

The deluge was a constant and growing roar of water on water. Heavy drops pounded my hood and my shoulders sagged under the weight. The pond was invisible under the rain and if I was drowning, I’d have no idea. I did my best to ignore the torrent, and continued casting, shuffling a few steps to my right after each retrieve. The rain continued its on-again, off-again affair, rendering the prospect of finding a solitary trout sipping an insect on the surface film unlikely.

There comes a point in any fishless outing, especially a March outing, when you begin willing a fish to strike. It’s a primal instinct of sorts, like how in golf, when you make a tee shot that seems to be orbiting toward the water trap on your left, you contort your body to the right, hoping your spastic, voodoo-like movements could somehow influence the ball’s flight path toward a safe landing spot.

trout rainbow

When you’ve gone fishless in two-hundred casts, when the skunk looms, the same instinct takes over. You envision the trout ignoring your clearly inanimate offering. You feel a phantom tap on the end of the line and deep down you know it was nothing, but you pretend that it was something just to quicken your heart a beat or two. You make a perfect cast toward a perfectly trout-sized stick and strip, strip, pause, right next to the stick’s would-be mouth. You change to a midge, make two casts, cut it off, tie on a Hare’s ear, make one cast, then change back to the Woolly Bugger.

Next is the talking out loud: “Come one now. Figure it the hell out. Let’s go. Come on.”

Finally, the dread: I hope I don’t take the skunk. Not today.

After some indiscriminate amount of time, I had traversed the circumference of the pond. The wind had died down and the sun wasn’t out, but the gray pre-spring weather was comforting in some way I never imagined it would be. The rain had stopped completely and there were birds singing their optimistic calls that I heard but didn’t see.

Back where I started, I watched the uncooperative water for a long time, holding my fly rod at my side, not wanting to waste the effort in making another cast. Out in front from where I was standing, the water dropped off and got deeper, darkness at the bottom of the clear water.

Something moved a few feet to my left on the surface. Then, a splash. A big rainbow flew headfirst out of the water, crashing through the once-still surface, mouth agape. She paused mid-air, contorted her body and showed her entire flank to me; flashes of purple, pink, olive spots, a cacophony of color and orchestral energy beating against the field of gray.

She fell back into the water with another splash, leaving ripples around me which spread perfectly and timelessly across the entire pond. The water was atmospheric again after all the cosmic dust had settled. There was an eagerness, then, to the springtime. I took the skunk. I didn’t mind.


Billy Mitchell

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