The faux bug landed with a smack on the water. The water was clear and moving slowly. Almost all of the rocky bottom structure of the river was visible out to the where the bottom dropped off into the greenish depths of the river channel. And the shade. The shade, we knew, was where the secrets were waiting in ambush.
Not a second after the bug hit the water did I see the flick of a dark tail propel a body of unknown proportions several feet into the shade towards the bug. The fly disappeared in a subtle, but violent, swirl, and Ethan Martin, owner of TaleTellers Fly Shop in downtown Lynchburg, set the hook perfectly. Instantly, the fish took off. And I mean bolted. All of the slack line in Martin’s hand was eaten up almost immediately. There was no dramatic, slow headshake. Just instant regret and power. Was it a carp? I never saw its body.
After it finished its downstream run, the surge of energy and rage turned for deeper water, into the greenish abyss adjacent to the shallow shelf where it had been hunting. Martin’s rod doubled, and the fish just seemed to hang up on the bottom. My body began to fill with that cold, unsettling feeling of impending letdown. Martin pulled up on the fish, and the rod just bent harder.
I pulled on the right oar and spun the raft so we had a more direct view of the fish, rolling in deep water. I contemplated swimming for it, images of a big smallmouth lodged way up under a ledge, sawing away at the tippet, soaking into my brain. By then I knew it was a big smallmouth, and I had had many of those in the boat. I didn’t want to break it off, but I really didn’t want to lose the bug.
Then, almost in answer to my silent pleading, the fish rose up in the water column. We got a great view of its great length as it flashed a few feet below the surface. Martin startled cackling with delight. I wasn’t far behind him. The bug was lodged perfectly in the corner of its mouth, so I relaxed, knowing that the tippet wasn’t being abraded by the fish’s row of sandpapery teeth, and confident in Martin’s fish-fighting ability.
Several tense moments later, I netted the great fish, and we had a celebration of Martin’s biggest smallmouth to date, and my return to the upward wave of confidence that one who guides fishing trips rides day in and day out. I popped the bug out of the fish’s mouth, checked the integrity of the tippet, and tossed it aside.
After snapping several photos, our attention turned back to the bug. I tied it on knowing Martin would get a big take on it, and had said as much to him. Something about its color and profile has fooled many a big fish in the last three years, and it has battle scars to prove it—a roughed up, almost cloudy epoxy coating; chipped away lacquer where raw cork is visible from its mid-air rendezvous with rocks and its encounters with fish. But my best soldier had survived yet another battle and come out on top. It was still in my possession, and my sense of confidence in it was made even stronger.
I’ve got several other flies like that one killer bug, but they don’t fish exactly the way, or as well, as that one does, and they definitely don’t have as much mojo. And I refuse to fish any of the others while their leader is still in fighting shape. Since it is a topwater bug, I’ve been lucky enough to have the bug come lose and float back to the water’s surface after being broken off on a fish, where we’ve been able to row over to collect and tie it back on. Even when stuck in trees, I’ve always been able to retrieve it, no matter how high up.
Now, I’ve got a hopeful rising star in my hands that’s yet to be fished. The build is not of my own invention, but the design and concept is the result of a lot of research, tinkering, and experience. This morning it rides on my dash, in an area protected from the heat of the sun, right next to my old standby killer bug. I’m excited about it, and I know that if I get a distracted driving ticket on my way to the put-in, it won’t be because of texting or the usual array of distractions, but because I can’t take my eyes off of that bug. And I know it’ll work, because I have confidence in it. It’s just a matter of how well.