Chris (his blog here) beat me to the blogging punch and posted some info on our recent trip to the Ozarks for some wild rainbows. The question came up during the trip, "When does something become native" while we wondered how native these wild trout had become; we concluded little except that life in a stream seems to generationally run on a spectrum consisting of Stocker-Wild-Native categories. Regardless of exactly where on that spectrum we were entering, we were definitely throwing flies at the farthest-right point yet.
We set up camp on Sunday night, having left earlier than our days-off began and arriving late that night. As usual, the dark made navigation on basically unmarked roads in no-signal territory interesting. We found it despite the area's best efforts to hide the campground. Per tradition and universally understood rules, immediately after setting up house we checked the water. Seeing this-and-that and being close to water again made us both ready for morning light which would bring a better view and, hopefully, wild trout.
We quickly identified a small #24 Mayfly hatch and I switched to a matching pattern; a few casts later I was in shock that I was actually connected to a non-stocker trout. The joy of the moment surged through me, and barely being able to concentrate and contain myself I stripped in this modest rainbow. This was one of two highlights of the trip for me; I stood in awe of this little fish who had come to make Missouri his home.
In my excitement, trying to snap another photo, I dropped at least 50% of my camera in the water. It turns out that it was not an operationally crucial 50%, but definitely an imaging 50%. The next few photos I snapped were eerily foggy. There was a chilly fog on the water, but not as much as it looks like. The air temp was in the low 50s when we got on the water and in the upper 50s nine hours later when we got off it.
The small Mayfly hatch came and went throughout the day, but definitely peaked around 11am. Multiple large clouds worked their way downstream over our heads. Barely visible in this snap is one of those clouds; it looks like dust or snow, but it is tens of thousands of #24 'flies. Surprisingly, the fish were not highly selective on dries and seemed to take anything light-colored regardless of size. I was happy to tie on larger flies and had great fun watching trout hammer my #16 Humpy.
We moved downstream for a full 8 hours, even wading through a section that stretched our wading abilities and mettle. I was sure I was going to get my leg chomped by something or get a foot stuck and go for a bath--Chris did draw some blood on a boulder--but we successfully passed via a hell-walk on land and death-wade in water. I said to Chris several times that this had better become worth that travail, and was getting seriously discouraged that it was not.
As we rounded a bend, we were met with a glorious riffle and an equally gorgeous run above it. After missing a few fish in the riffle, I worked upstream and found a small slot beside the bank. A mid-length cast and a short drift ended with a small splash, and my fly was instantly traveling in a faster than-current manner. And much faster. The fish gave a quick and cumbersome leap to show its head and size, and then took off downstream like Rocketman. I had about 20' of line stripped out for the cast and drift, and that was quickly pulled from the water and through my fingers as the fish put himself on the reel. A shout for Chris got him wading toward me from the riffle where I later learned he caught nearly 40 trout.
He arrived on scene to see the back and forth battle between my Konic's drag and this wild rainbow. A handful of runs and a few long standoffs downstream (he was a smart guy--never having once swam upstream, only down) passed and we were both ready to bring the fight to an end. He gracefully let me bring him to hand, raise him for release and photo, and be rod-measured. What a fat 'bow!
I gave him some spa time, and while I still think he was being a little over-dramatic, took off strongly after a few minutes rest, cradled in my hand all the while. I've now had two of these moments of reviving a large trout after a real battle; it has proven both times to be an experience of indescribable happiness, satisfaction, and even romance of nature. The world is blinked away in an instant when a big fish is hooked, seems to irrevocably vanish during the fight, yet somehow returns in a new, refreshed, and rewritten way during release.
All the fish I caught were not big; I enjoyed the vibrant beauty of countless 5-7" fish that I have yet to have really show up on a camera well. Outside of the moment, everything is faded off-stream that was once brilliant when there.
At the end of the second day--the last day--we were satiated. We had fished the majority of the good sections of the stream and seen more than our active imaginations prepared us for pre-trip. We were exhausted from being surrounded by the scenery that, at its core, held truly wild trout. I think I can speak for both of us in saying that it felt as if by fishing and catching in that stream, we had enjoyed an honor, being ourselves a rare presence on water that is both wild and admirably refined at once. As tolerated intruders we tried to take it all in, but so much is unavoidably left behind, and found again only when our line falls back to the water.