From its conception, we figured we were in for the best trip of our lives. In the end, that trip changed us. It changed us unexpectedly, and it changed us for the better.
My best fishing buddy, Chris, and I had planned the trip weeks ahead, and talked about it no fewer than once a day during those weeks of waiting. We set up camp on Sunday night, having left earlier than our days-off officially 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, we checked the water immediately after setting up house. 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 cream #24 Mayfly hatch, and I switched to a matching pattern; a few casts later I was connected to wild McCloud rainbow. The joy of the moment surged through me, and barely being able to concentrate and contain myself, I stripped in a 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.
The small Mayfly hatch came and went throughout the day, but clearly peaked around eleven in the morning. Multiple large clouds of the hatch worked their way over our heads and downstream. 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 yellow Humpy.
We moved downstream for a full 8 hours and 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 a deep section via a hell-walk on land and death-wade in water. I told Chris several times that this had better become worth that travail, and I was getting seriously discouraged that it may not. It did promise to take us into even wilder territory, and should wild trout live there, we couldn't help but wonder what lay ahead.
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 downstream 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 faster than the current. 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 with this fish who seemed determined to teach me what “wild” meant in this territory. A handful of runs and a few long standoffs downstream all 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. That, I knew, was the scaled, gilled embodiment of “wild.”
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 a few of these moments of reviving a large trout after a real battle; it has proven every time 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.
Not all the fish I caught were big; I enjoyed the vibrant beauty of countless 5-7" fish that faded in photography. Outside of the moment, everything is faded off-stream that was once brilliant while 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. 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.
Driving home, we continually reflected on the moments, now memories, that passed before us on the water. A change began to settle into our fibers. I understand now it is an inevitable change that is one you are found by, never the other way around. That change, or at least its beginnings, is the realignment of yourself to the stream. You begin to view your own life as relative to the water, those inhabitants, that passion. What was once merely a part of life becomes life itself, and all water becomes “home water.” You feel, at every re-approach to the water, that you are coming home. You are changed to one who comes fishing, never again one who goes.
All this, and yet still this trip is not my best trip. There are, in some sense, trips that are higher quality than others, whether that be in the number of fish, the size of them, the company (or lack thereof), the setting, or whatever one trip's distinguishing features are. No doubt, some trips are better. This trip during which we were changed was a better trip, a very better trip. Best, though, it was not.
The best trout trip is ahead. It is always ahead, luring you forward into the next trip. And while the “best trip” remains locked in the future, just out of reach, it never lies. Every trip has that moment where you know it's fading, having lived its life and about to be over. Once a trip begins to languish, hopefully gracefully, the next trip is born. Possibilities are suggested. Rumors are aired. Old hankerings are brought up. In that intermediate period, the next trip speaks and you hear, “I am the Best Trip, come find me.” And we go looking.
At this point, one cannot help but begin to see the tangible significance of conservation. The “next trip” depends entirely on it. Organizations, such as Trout Unlimited, work and speak for the preserving the habitat of the trout and for the trout itself. No doubt, the effort in itself is worthy; they are both beautiful things which instill humility, appreciation and responsibility. There is more, though, to conservation; there is the preservation of all “next trips” that, otherwise, would vanish as quickly as the trout. Conservation is the air that next trips breathe in, and is later let out as a softly spoken invitation.
We go on that next trip not because we are gullible, not because we are foolish, but because we have been changed into one who knows that best trip will come. It won't be the trip of a movie or even a great book. Standing wearily, maybe even frailly—but comfortably—as old men in water we call home, in a way beyond what we care to understand, a life of trips will be woven together into a single story--one long and brilliantly faceted trip. It becomes, in the realest sense possible, the Best Trip, for it is the trip of a lifetime.