By Silas Gray
The Joplin Globe
My arm was burning as I slipped even further down the muddy bank. The side of one shoe was already wet and the other was headed that way. My fly rod was bent so severely that I was fighting the big rainbow with the handle alone, and the fish was showing no sign of tiring.
It had started off as a peaceful December afternoon. I’d been working south of Joplin and had finished up just after noon. With the temperature in the low 50s and climbing, the fish were calling.
Luckily my fishing gear was still in the truck from the day before, so I headed for the water.
There’s a trout stream not far from town. It’s not a big-name fishery, so it’s rarely crowded. Also, since I can get there and be fishing within two hours, it makes for a great short-notice destination.
My first stop was up on the northern end of the stream. Downstream from my parking spot was a shallow run with a nice set of riffles that normally holds a few small rainbow. Upstream the water snakes through some large boulders and is much deeper and normally holds nicer trout. I’d planned an easy day of fishing from shore and catching small trout from the more open access points. I chose a light one-weight fly rod with two-pound tippet. There was a nip in the air, so I added a jacket before slipping on my fishing vest. I then strung up my rod and tied on a nymph pattern before heading through the brush. No need for waders since I’d be fishing from shore.
The sun was bright and the water clear as I stepped through the brush and peered over the edge and into the stream. A dozen fish scattered. This wasn’t going to be easy.
I moved upstream to the deeper water and boulders. Luckily, these were shaded nicely by shoreline trees. Standing back, I carefully cast over the edge staying hidden as well as I could. My caution paid off as I hooked into a nice 12-inch rainbow trout. I released that fish and caught two smaller ones as well as two chunky sunfish before the action stopped.
I worked my way up along the stream as best I could, searching any openings that I could find in the thick vegetation to find sections of the stream that were open enough to fish. Had I put on waders and stuck to the water I would have done much better. However, I was in tourist mode.
My luck changed again when I reached the first bridge. There were fish and plenty of them just upstream of the bridge. I cast a little too eagerly, and the fly hit hard with a loud splash. However, the trout weren’t aware of my presence and immediately surrounded the sinking fly. My poor cast hadn’t allowed enough slack in the line and the fly swung back unnaturally. The fish scattered. A few of the smaller ones came back for a second and third look, but there were no takers.
I stepped back, rested a moment and then made a proper cast. The fly landed softly and this time a nice 12-inch rainbow snatched it as it fell. After landing and releasing that one, I landed two more. Not bad for this stream.
By this time, three larger fish had arrived. It looked as though they had come to see what was going on. I cast carefully and one of those three brutes took it. A little over eager, I set the hook way too soon and pulled the fly from the fish’s mouth.
After choice words, a short walk and a few moments spent stooped over staring at the ground, I walked back to the water’s edge. This time a really big rainbow came into view. Swimming boldly and so slowly, it was mesmerizing. It seemed interested in nothing.
I led the trout by three feet with my cast. Without flinching, she swam ahead. I watched as if in slow motion as the big fish sucked in the fly as it dropped. I somehow managed to wait, perhaps aided by shock, for the proper amount of time before lifting the rod gently to set the hood. The fish changed immediately and charged off folding my rod in the process. Luckily, after the last fish, I’d replaced my bent and worn fly with a new one and swapped my frayed line for fresh, and these held.
The water was deep but open except for the shoreline. Downstream was a riffle that could have been a problem. The reel’s drag system worked well as I played give and take for 20 minutes with the fish. I somehow managed to coax it away from snags and back from the riffle several times. Since it was larger than my net, I didn’t want to rush her. I was tiring faster than her and my arm was burning. A larger rod and waders would have been nice.
I was at the water’s edge with one shoe already wet. Luckily it had been stopped by a strong root protruding from the bank some minutes earlier or I would have been in the water by now.
It was on the third try to net the fish that I was successful. The head slipped into the net but the bulk of the fish was still out and it took two stabs. Luckily the tippet, the fly and my arm held and the fish was mine.
At about that time another angler came over the hill, and I called him over. We’d fished together before. The rainbow was fat and broad and easily exceeded the 20-inch mark on my rod. We spent the next several minutes carefully reviving the fish. Although she seemed ready to go, I wanted to make sure she was OK before she swam away.
I spent another hour there catching two more fish but mainly resting and watching as the big fish swam free. I rubbed my tired arm, unstrung the rod and headed for the truck. Catching a 20-plus-inch rainbow trout from my little quiet getaway creek was an unexpected surprise and one heck of a Christmas present.