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Beneath the Surface of Kamloops Lake
By Nathaniel Gillespie
The sun on their arms was warm and the engine labored pleasantly beneath their feet. As they looked ahead, the yellow lines stretched up the incline toward the distant peaks rising steadily into the blue sky. The rhythm of the music resonated in their chests while the rush of air in their faces masked the finer details of the music, and they tapped their fingers lightly with the anticipation of a few days that held such pleasantly simplistic purpose.
It had been over a year since Gaines and Dean had found time to get together and conduct the ritual. The day had finally arrived - another road trip. Revered as the most special kind of fishing trip, the road trip possessed the clear and obtainable objectives of fishing, relaxation, and inebriation. Like being left alone for the weekend by one's parents in high school, the two tingled with the prospect of memorable tales that might unfold in the days to come. Now once again, the road imparted in them an invigorating freedom.
Gaines had heard about the lake every time he spoke with Dean on the phone over the past few months. Spawned in the interest of copper and gold, the lake had evolved into an almost legendary fishery. Dean had explained that the mining company created the lake thirty years ago as a potential tailings pond, and then abandoned it for industrial use. Like many of the other high mountain lakes in the region it was naturally devoid of trout, but it fell under the constructive hand of state fisheries biologists and their aggressive stocking program. The state stocked fingerlings from three different strains: land-locked Steelhead, the Blackwater, and the Kamloops. The biologists soon discovered that the lake was blessed with the ecology to support the growth and survival of very large fish. More importantly, it was protected by both a distant wilderness location and the kind of regulations needed to produce enormous trout. The lake had become a model reclamation story for the mining industry, but what truly separated this lake from others was the size of the fish - they were monsters. Surrounded by a spectacular alpine landscape, it produced egg-shaped rainbows of three different strains whose weights pushed into the double digits. The lake was, in essence, a fisherman's dream.
The more Gaines had heard about the lake, the more he craved to hold one of the Kamloops rainbows.
"They're designed to survive the cold lakes of the high country," Dean explained, "so they're opportunistic and aggressive. Unlike their Blackwater cousins who feed exclusively on insects, the Kamloops bows eat anything they can fit in their mouths. They'll gorge themselves on minnows and scuds. With a good food supply, the fingerlings can grow up to a foot in a year. They're hogs." Gaines had seen them in the magazines. They had broad shoulders with flanks that shone magenta and silver, and when you held them the fat of their bellies hung over your fingers like pudding.
"You know," Gaines said softly as much to himself as to Dean, "hooking into a big Kamloops in a float tube out under the Sun. You can't ask for anything better than that."
Gaines felt a certain satisfaction with his hopeful words and the way the road lay before them. The car rounded a bend and a large white sign identifying the turn-off road stood incongruous and angular against the green continuity of the landscape. The two turned and silently nodded to each other and the car turned and skidded down the hill. Crossing the boundary from asphalt to gravel somehow made the famed lake more palpable. As the car took the dusty curve, white replaced the pines in the windshield, like a giant curtain being drawn across the stage before them. The whiteness of the dam soon consumed their entire field of vision, and Gaines had to bend down in order to see over the top of the dam from inside the cramped car. A small yellow object stained the perfect whiteness of the chalky monolith. It was a dump truck, appearing as if it was nothing but a play toy on a child's sand pile.
"Jesus, that's the tailings pile? They're not kidding around," said Gaines.
Gaines remembered that Dean had said this was the biggest copper mine in the country. Beyond the dam, Gaines could make out a white cavity etched into the background, like a fungus on the green back of a spring Chinook. It marked where the entire side of the mountain once stood, giving some sense of scale to the vastness of the mine. Dean shook his head. "Amazing what man can do, eh?"
The two leaned to the side as the car weaved around small boulders and the deep ruts carved by the work trucks. They were quiet and they stared into the green windshield once again as the mountains grew measurably before them. Gaines felt an uncertainty seep into the cracks of a world of fishing and contentedness that only minutes before had enclosed him tightly. He wondered aloud again about how these mystical rainbows could be caught.
"Well you know," said Dean, "the fish feed on dragonfly nymphs all year, but the big damsels have already come and gone. Chironomids won't really be on for another month."
"We gotta be able to get some with Woollies," offered Gaines. "You know you can't go wrong with a big black Woolly."
The main question then was the caddis, and in particular the giant sedge. With its moth-sized tent wings, the giant sedge hatch was almost as legendary and untouchable as the rainbows themselves. Experiencing the giant sedge hatch was like hitting the salmonfly hatch, the flying ant hatch, and the New York Lottery in one shot. The two agreed that maybe with the unlikely nexus of events, the variables of wind, temperature and air pressure would harmonize for just a few moments in their presence, and the giant sedges would skate on the surface like ripples on a breezy afternoon. And then, the fishing would be phenomenal.
Even when they had exhausted the lake's possibilities, the two could never run too far from thoughts of fishing. Times sustained on fishing trips had defined their friendship. Not only did fishing arouse those youthful, hopeful feelings the two sought eagerly, it offered a certain comfort because it was both simple and familiar. Thoughts about fishing possessed an inherent safety and sturdiness because they represented such an intimate place in their past. No matter how quickly the time had passed, the end was nothing more than a reassurance that another trip was in store. Their transient adventures were cyclical and therefore strong and sturdy in their promise to occur again.
Suddenly the lake was before them. The two emerged slowly from the car, their backs and legs stiff from the journey. They surveyed the lake. The surface seemed surreal in its beauty, with a slight chop to it in the afternoon breeze so that the water was a shimmering canvas of blue that glittered with golden shards of light as it reflected the sun and sky above. Gaines grinned in anticipation and looked across the expanse of water until he met the profile of his companion beside him. Dean was squinting, and he saw how the lines on the side of his face radiated from the corner of his eye, as if designed to draw one's gaze to the curve of his lens that was a mirror of the blue water. Dean's stare was trained on the dozen or so objects that disrupted the expanse before them. The men in their donut-like tubes sat on the sky blue surface, their arms moving precisely like scientists with instruments probing the depths of the hidden world below.
Gaines stepped down the slope to the water's edge. Their elevated view of the surface belied the actual color of the lake; up close it was not blue but a rich, eutrophic green that seemed synonymous with fecundity. He moved along the lake's edge, brushing over the long grass that reached out and hung into the water. As he followed the line of a fallen spruce from the bank, he noticed how it bent at an angle with the refraction of the light where it reached into the lake. It appeared as if the trunk had snapped and now lay broken where it had struck the green water. Beside the trunk, a beetle, unable to break from the surface tension, spun a pinwheel pattern in the water. Despite the single-minded determination in the frantic blur of its wings, it could not raise itself form the surface, fluttering relentlessly in the same tight circle.
Just then the silence was interrupted with the flat pop of a splash as the surface broke under the heavy weight of a fish. A rainbow had just taken off about a hundred feet out, shooting through the air like a salmon.
"Holy God, what the hell was that?" Gaines yelled over to Dean.
"That, my friend . . . was huge."
The ripples scattered and melded into the gentle rhythm of the undulant surface. Gaines trained his eyes on the spot where the fish had shown himself and then vanished without a trace. It was like the fish was showing off to the new visitors, flaunting his size and strength, daring the two to kick around the surface and troll the depths of his lake.
They walked back to the car and dressed and strung up their rods. Back in the city the two had acquired a map from a buddy Dean had guided with that summer. He had shown them that there were two ridges on the lake bottom, creating three troughs running the length of the lake. They figured that the fish would probably cruise along the edge of the ridges in an elongated S pattern, and that the heaviest traffic would collect at the ridge points. Waddling like overweight men in their flippers with the float tubes held at their waists, they stepped into the water and strapped themselves in. In the glare of the late afternoon light, they could see there was no one else by the second little peninsula that jutted out by the far shore. Turning to face the car, the two pulled out their lines and tilted back, kicking slowly toward the point.
Dean liked fishing with two rods, and with one in each hand held out to either side, Gaines thought that he looked like some manpowered trawler setting out lines for halibut. Gaines liked to use one rod; it was simpler to have only one thing to worry about. He tied on a chartreuse Woolly Bugger and trimmed the tail. He figured that despite its remoteness, these fish had seen a lot of dragonfly patterns, and probably had not had too many striper flies thrown their way. Quickly spinning the line in his hands, he tied on the fly and flipped it into the water, stripping line out to make sure that the fly drifted far back in the distance. Gaines' line cut through the water as he tugged it in cadence with the kick of his flippers. Peering into the green depths below him, he tried to envision a giant rainbow following his fly. It was nice to be fishing together like this again.
As they reached the edge of the cove the wind had slowed to a whisper. Dean positioned himself a few dozen yards to the right of Gaines, his extra rod lying prostrate to his side. The two cast toward the shallows in search of the sunken ridgeline, letting their flies sink and then counting silently in increasing intervals of five seconds so that they were sure to explore the various hidden depths. They then stripped the line back with delicate twitches, trying to convey to the flies some semblance of organic vitality. Gaines methodically cast and counted from ten up to thirty, altering his retrieves during each cast-three short strips, three long, three short, three long.
Gaines felt the first strike. It was a hard pull just after the first strip. The fish nearly took the line from his hands, and he quickly got the fish on his reel. He had lost too many big fish by trying to horse them in his hands, and he concentrated on keeping the fish out of the shallows.
"Hey, Dean I got one," Gaines announced, waiting the requisite minute or so to tell his friend of his fortune. His reel whined its shrill song with the line rushing away from him as the fish ran toward the shore. Before long, Dean sat beside him, following the nervous line as it careened across the surface of the lake. Gaines' forearm ached and his left thumb was cramping from pinching the reel to slow the escaping line. The reel was still losing line to the fish, but now it sang in low-pitched, staccato clicks. Slowly the strength against the line diminished and he was able to retrieve the slack as the fish tired. After a few minutes Gaines held his hands high above his head, putting his free hand on the butt section of the rod so that he could apply more pressure to the fish, and slowly he steered it to his right. As the fish hovered between them, Dean grabbed it in his two hands and hoisted it up onto his tube.
It was a rainbow, long and skinny with an oversized triangular head. The fly hung from its curved and rubbery jaw, and the fish seemed to sneer back at them like a boxer daring them to make a move for his face. It wore a brilliant vermilion stripe along its otherwise silver flank, and save for the broad tail, the fish was almost snake-like in appearance. Gaines scooted over and unhooked the fly and measured the fish. Not wanting to handle the fish too much, he turned on his camera and snapped a shot of Dean holding the fish in the typical pose. He wet his hands and took the rainbow from Dean and held it in the cold water. The fish was tired, and Gaines revived the fish for close to two minutes before it lumbered back into the darkness below.
"I think that was one of those land-locked Steelhead strain," said Gaines.
"Yeah, those Kamloops are much fatter, and if that was a Blackwater bow it would have had more spots."
Gaines thought back to the fish they had caught on the Madison years ago, how some of the rainbows wore that same sneer that had always given him a hollow feeling in his stomach. Whenever he held a fish with such a battered visage, he wondered how many times that fish had fought to stay beneath the surface. He thought back to the first time when he had held a fish that he knew someone else had held before. It was in Wyoming, a ten inch rainbow that had a strangely pug-shaped snout that seemed more like a hairlip. Gaines had always prided himself on being strictly catch-and-release, yet sometimes he got that same uneasy feeling he felt as a boy when his father made him clean the lithe little trout he had taken from the stream across the road. That was a feeling that he had tried to elude for may years.
The two continued to fish the edge of the cove for a while without further excitement. The light had grown sallow in the evening so that the water looked like unpolished silver, with the trees receding into the black backdrop. The caddis hatch failed to occur and the surface was as peaceful as the summer twilight always seems to be. Gaines suggested that they should try the cove near camp and then head back. They kicked over toward the camp and began working the shoreline, thinking that fish might move into the weedy bays to feed with the sun retreating. Twice, for a brief moment, Gaines thought he felt that familiar tug, only to have his adrenaline rise and then disappear on a dead line. Dean remained strikeless, and decided to try his luck at the point one last time before it got too dark. "Yell if anything happens," said Gaines over his shoulder as Dean began kicking back to the far shoreline.
And then like someone had pulled a switch, darkness replaced the gray light. Faint stars dotted the sky and the lake was quiet, surrounding Gaines like a thin layer of glass. Gaines thought to himself how being in a float tube at night gave him an eerie feeling. It always felt like he was floating in deep water, or that for some reason he only realized that the water beneath him was deep at night. Maybe it was because he couldn't see his flippers just beneath him. Being insulated from the water by his waders, he could lean back and almost imagine that he was floating alone on the surface of some dark ocean, whose depths extended infinitely below him and whose shorelines lay hidden beyond the curve of the horizon. It was strange how alone he felt when he couldn't see if there was anyone around him. But it was cold, and he was anxious to get back and find Dean. Cupping his hands to his mouth he yelled Dean's name four times across the lake, each time straining his voice a bit more. He heard nothing in
Gaines leaned back and began kicking. Dean had probably had gotten skunked and had returned to camp to meet him there. He knew that in the darkness there was no sense in trying to gauge the distance to camp, but at least he could still make out the faint silhouette of the notch in the mountain that marked the direction of where the car was parked. It was too much effort to constantly turn around and see whether he was deviating from the straight-line path back to shore. Besides, the air was cold now so that his ears stung, and he tucked his head down into his fleece collar to stay warm, concentrating on working his legs so that his quads ached. Kicking blindly, Gaines felt his flippers press against the soft mud of the shallow water by the bank.
He stepped onto shore to find the campsite empty. Still in his waders, he gathered up some kindling and blew on his hands so that he could feel the twigs with his aching fingers. Building the teepee of twigs, he lit the fire, and warmed his hands as the wood crackled and popped. Then he heard the soft splashing of feet in the shallows. He walked to the bank and saw Dean shivering, but he couldn't tell if it was from excitement or the chill of leaky waders. Dean, unblinking, looked at Gaines and spoke first, "I got one," he uttered in a low voice. "I yelled for you the whole time. Didn't you hear me?"
No, he hadn't heard Dean at all, Gaines thought. Gaines couldn't understand how that was possible. Sound was supposed to carry on a lake. Usually he could hear every damn word a guy said two hundred yards away like he was right along side him. He saw that Dean was pointing down at the orange clumps spattered on the tube. "She just spewed them all over my lap. She must have been just dying to drop them. God, what a mess."
And the story unfolded how he landed the prize. Dean had kicked back to the point where they had fished earlier. On the second cast he hooked the big hen. She took the fly with a soft bump, then his rod bucked so violently that he almost lost it. Pulling line off his reel, the fish headed straight toward the middle of the lake. Then, turning back again, she raced toward him, leaving a wide arc of line that curved in a crescent around him, so that he had to reel feverishly to get in the slack line. He made the line taut again, and he felt her rising slowly toward the surface, as if she to investigate the force of resistance against her. She must have gotten a good look at him, because she screamed back toward the heart of the lake, taking him again into his backing. But Dean had patience and a loose drag setting, and ultimately he was able to wear her down. When she finally conceded, he carefully put his right hand on the rod below the first farrel, making the rod stiffer and using the strength of the
graphite to muscle her those last few feet toward him, so that she lay suspended in exhaustion beneath him. Dean quickly reached down with his right hand, and as he rolled her onto the tube and into his lap, a string of eggs streamed from her swollen white belly. He had yelled for Gaines, but nothing answered him from the darkness.
Gaines stood in disbelief that he missed it. A five pound Kamloops rainbow. Gaines had not seen a fish that size in years. They had planned the road trip for close to a year, thinking that they would fish together the whole time, that they would share each little twist to the story. But they separated only for a few minutes and the moment had come and gone. And he had missed it.
Gaines walked over to Dean and knelt by the tube. He thought about what the fish must have looked like, fat and strong and shiny. He grabbed some of the gooey mess and held it in his hands, rolling the eggs in his fingers until the connective tissue dissolved into an oily residue. Looking at the perfect spheres in his hand, the illusion of the mystical lake disintegrated before him. Without an inlet or outlet stream, the trout were essentially caged. She and the other females produced eggs each winter, and without a place to lay them, carried them through spring and into the summer and fall. Denied the opportunity to spawn, the fish simply reabsorbed their milt and eggs. Without having to dedicate their energies to procreation, they were able to grow larger and larger. They grew until they became, in a sense, unnaturally large. The lake was the fertile home to three strains of beautiful rainbow that existed entirely because of man's influence. Gaines plopped the sphere into the water, and thought that it sank heavily to the bottom with the weight of a poignant irony. He bent over the icy water to clean off his greasy hands and turned back to camp.
As the chill of the night air sank upon them the two moved closer to the fire. They had hung damp socks and long johns on sticks to steam beside them, and they roasted their hotdogs and passed around the whiskey bottle to shield one another against the cold mountain night. As the fire grew small, the stories of past adventures grew stale and Gaines turned back toward the lake. In the flickering light of the fire, the eggs looked strange and incongruous on the edge of the float tube, like orange Mardi Gras beads left on the smooth surface of a lonely boulder. Their spherical shape had seemed so perfect. Gaines wondered if he and Dean would have time to fish again before winter, and he stared at the clump of eggs as they lost their fluorescence in the dying firelight.
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Document last modified on: 01/06/2007