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John McCoy: A tale of trout and fastballs

There comes a time in every major league pitcher’s career when he realizes he’s lost the “hop” on his fastball.

I thought of that several times last weekend during a fishing trip to the upper Elk River.

That section of Elk, from Whittaker Falls upstream, is home to some big-league trout fishing. The river’s trout, especially the battle-tested veterans of several catch-and-release seasons, can be frustratingly difficult to catch.

Family and work duties keep me from fishing much anymore, so I approached my trip to the Elk with considerable trepidation. Several important aquatic-insect hatches were nearing their peak, and I wondered whether I’d still be able to recognize the insects, figure out which bugs the fish were eating, and present the appropriate flies in a manner that would induce strikes.

When I was younger and fished a lot, those skills got practiced so frequently they became second nature. My fastball, as it were, had plenty of hop.

Last weekend, as I rigged my rod for action, I wondered if the hop had disappeared.

As it turned out, some of it had.

My casts snagged on rocks. My backcasts tangled around overhanging tree branches. I missed strikes. I played fish so ham-handedly that they broke the leader.

Gradually, though, the klutziness disappeared. By late on the second day, casts started to go pretty much where I aimed them and flies started to drift the way I wanted them to.

The happy transformation finally bore fruit as I fished a small pool surrounded by tall hemlocks.

Several trout fed actively just below the surface, swirling the water as they darted back and forth. I figured they might be taking little sulfur-colored mayflies trapped just below the surface, so I tied on a sulfur emerger and cast it along the inside edge of a current tongue. The fly disappeared in a quick rise, and a chunky 11-inch brown trout soon came to net.

Subsequent casts with the emerger drew a blank, so I tied on an old-school Partridge and Yellow wet fly and fished it just below the surface. Bam! A 13-inch rainbow hammered it.

That fly was a one-fish wonder, too, so I switched to a sulfur dry fly. A 10-inch brown slurped it eagerly.

I had a feeling the sulfur hatch hadn’t yet peaked, so I sat and “rested the pool” for a while. After 20 minutes or so, a few small, subtle rises started to appear in the downstream shallows.

To get a drag-free downstream drift I had to throw a high cast, check it so it fell slack onto the water and mend the line several times. The fly floated jauntily on the current for several feet and disappeared into a tiny swirl.

I set the hook and all heck broke loose.

Twenty inches of thick-bodied rainbow trout rocketed out of the water. Fortunately for me, the fish wore itself out by jumping five times in quick succession, and I was able to net it surprisingly quickly despite the delicate 6X leader.

A weekend that had started quite slowly had ended in almost storybook fashion. I drove back to my cabin feeling pretty darned pleased with myself.

“The old man might have lost the hop on his fastball,” I mused, “but that doesn’t mean he’s plumb forgotten how to pitch.”

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