What made O’Kelley a marvelous fly fisherman was not his flies, vest or rod. Neither his technique nor his choice of trout streams and holes in them were exemplary. Tenacity made him a world-class angler. He looked obsessed when he fished. Like an alcoholic after a first drink, he was unable to stop once he started. He fished until he coaxed a trout from its hole or night fell or until it was absolutely time to go home (or get in trouble with his wife).
“They’re in there,” he said one day standing knee deep in the North Platte River near the Platte Wilderness. He was casting into a dark-blue whorl next to a boulder-size chunk of granite. “They like it there,” he said. Above us, the Snowy Mountains yawned and hawks screeched.
We crunched across a wide gravel bank where French Creek punched the North Platte in the side. O’Kelley was a real journeyman. His cast was clean and his line maneuvering practiced. In his pocket-size aluminum fly box, rows of Adamses, coachmen, stone nymphs, wooly buggers and scuds formed a neat phalanx on the road to trout lip, or death in spruce branch or willow thicket.
He slid the box from his vest and beamed craftsman’s confidence in his work. He held the box beneath his arm while he folded a square of bicycle innertube over the leader and tippet and drew them through to straighten the curls. He trimmed the tippet with fingernail clippers he kept pinned to his vest with the rubber. Then, he looked into his fly box like peeking into his mother’s purse.
I could see him asking himself questions anglers are supposed to ask themselves: Is the day warm or hot? Is the water temperature good? What insects have hatched? Has it snowed or rained upstream? Is the water clear or turbid? Then he breathed deeply and did what most ordinary fly anglers do—he chose whatever he liked in that moment. He tied the fly on and began to cast.
He worked downstream away from me, in his own world. At first, I reveled in sounds and scents of river. But after hundreds of flailing casts, I lost the feel and reason for trout. I moved from dry flies to nymphs, going deeper. Finding no luck there, I dropped shrimp and zug bugs. Soon, I was mad enough to try to make a trout strike by clubbing it with a jig. But my line remained slack. I felt as if I was standing in a vast, fishless void.
I looked at O’Kelley about 300 yards downstream of me, calm amid the sky and trees and river. I watched him a while and was soon taken with the August sky. My casts became fluid, my fly choices respectable. I didn’t tangle flies in weeds, and I lost only one fly to brush in the stream. The world began to shrink to a flowing ribbon a foot either side of my line.
I flipped stones with my feet, sending up clouds of sand and humus. I watched the swirls flatten and disappear downstream. After a time, I pulled two golden trout from behind a midstream boulder as an evening thunderstorm raced over the hills. In no time at all, the wind began to throw pines and aspens off the bluff into the river. The trees splashed and jerked as they floated downstream then rolled to a stop in the shallows running through the river curve below the bluff.
I never left the water. Waves lapped into my hip waders. The storm whipped spray from rain and river into my face. I feared the storm would roll me over like the trees and wash me deeper into the mountains to throw me like Jonah on a gravel bar for the mountain lions and hawks to find. I couldn’t see the bottom under the waves. I was one misstep from drowning. I loved the storm even if it frightened me silly. I stood, my fly rod bent onto the wind, my hand on my hat, my shoulders thrown back and my chin forward. I didn’t even try to get out of the river.
The storm faded as soon as it arrived, like a dream. The water calmed, and soon the aspens swayed in gentle breeze backed with late afternoon sky. I couldn’t see O’Kelley anywhere. I fished on, feeling tired but good.
An eight-inch rainbow and a tiny brown later, the sun dodged behind sagebrush and grama. Cassiopeia rose in the Milky Way. My casts curled my line out across the whole river, plunking my Muddler Minnow against a granite cliff and into the river. The minnow seemed to snag a rock under the bluff about every third cast. With so much line out, I had no chance catching a trout on purpose. But I kept casting against that granite. Wind in the pines sounded like lovers courting on the sly.
The stars became bright enough to shout, and the funny snag turned into a rainbow that fought from one side of the river to the other. It threw punches over and between rocks, into the bushes, down into holes and over gravel. O’Kelley splashed up out of nowhere. He pulled his net from his back and helped me land that trout—a 16 incher whose life pulsed through my hands as I held it up to the stars.
I was shaking when I put that trout back into the river, letting it wander back into the bushes, over the gravel and into its hole under the bluff.
“Let’s call it a day,” O’Kelley said. “I waited a long time for you catch something decent so we could get out of here.”