Hazel Eyes and Summer Sundresses
By Reid Bryant
First published in American Angler Magazine, September/October 2013
I attended college on several occasions, the last and longest in a tiny town in a corner of Vermont, in a region known locally as the Northeast Kingdom. In the couple of months when snow wasn’t flying, I had some amazing fishing, often for native brookies in the freestone streams that crisscrossed the spruce-choked hillsides. An added bonus, however, were the big rainbows and browns that haunted the bottomland lakes, cruising the thermocline and inhaling, I can only assume, taco-sized perch. These trout were elusive and cagey, very difficult to take on the fly… except, that is, in the latter part of June.
In the latter part of June, Hexagenia mayfly nymphs burbled up in the lakes and ponds to hatch en masse, much to the delight of fish and fishermen. The hatching mayflies were roughly the size and shape of Tinkerbell, and in response to their arrival, the trout suffered devastating lapses in judgement. In the latter part of June, we the Northeast Kingdom fly fishers had the rare sport of taking honest-to-God, two-hand trout on the fly, and if ever there was an opportunity for a fisherman to look like a hero, then the hex hatch was it. I might add here that looking like a hero, especially on the water, was of utmost importance to me then.
It was Kimberly Carr I was trying to impress that summer, and she was worth it. She was blonde and beautiful, raised in the sugar woods of the Green Mountains, and tougher than me by a long shot. She had no idea of how pretty she was, which made her all the more so, and it was that very homegrown humility that had me all but unglued. She met me at the put-in at dusk one night, wearing a blue sundress that just wasn’t fair, with thin straps that traced in parallel the tan lines over her shoulders. She waded barefoot into the shallows and took the bow seat in my old canoe, tying on a hex emerger with what looked from my vantage to be a shoestring bow. I shoved off, happy to have her out on the lake where she couldn’t dance out of reach of my charms, and I strung up my own rod as we tracked towards deeper water. The fish were beginning to sip, and big snouts bulged a surface that was greasy slick in day’s end. I stripped out line and let my fly trail, and asked for Kim’s tippet that I, the knowledgeable angler, might properly affix her fly. While I re-rigged, Kim cracked a beer, and leaned back with one hand against a gunwale to watch me. I have to say, it felt like something just to be so close to her, and as she stretched her bare, tan legs out towards me, I poked away but missed the hook-eye repeatedly.
On a preceding evening I’d given Kim some casting instruction at the local swimming hole. She took to it at once, and I must say I was more than willing to elucidate the nuances of the casting stroke by snuggling up behind her and taking her rod hand in mine. In the nearness of the moment, her hair smelled like lilacs. She laughed as I guided her back and forth, introducing her to ten and two, wondering whether her giggles were the with me or at me sort. In the end I decided it didn’t matter, as long as there was daylight remaining and I could continue to hold her there, as close as close can be.
So, with the emerger firm, I handed the rod back to Kim and watched her flop the fly this way and that, quartering over the bow. She never even put down her beer, just laid out the twenty or so feet of line without paying any attention. The nighthawks and bats swept low to snatch rising Hex’s as the water all around us began to churn, but I don’t think Kim even noticed. I, meanwhile, stripped in, and began a short dissertation on fly selection and soft presentation and the necessity of targeting a steadily sipping fish. My voice took on the throaty baritone of he who’s in the know, and I flexed a little as I began to work out line, double hauling with a vengeance in hopes that she might discover that I, after all, was the consummate North country sportsman. Whether she did I’ll never know, for it was about then that we started catching fish. Kim hooked a rainbow, a scrappy fourteen incher that took the fly while she was digging around in the cooler for another beer. She got another of similar size while untangling a knot in her line, and yet another, even bigger, while dipping her little brown toes in the water. I, meanwhile, was laying out an easy sixty feet with laser accuracy and catching the most remarkable array of junk fish you ever saw. Yellow perch, embryonic smallmouths, rock bass… even a goggle-eyed shiner that croaked and burped while I struggled to unhook him.
Kim watched me. “Nice.” She giggled, and her hazel eyes danced while she leaned against the gunwale once more. “You’re quite a caster. Is that the secret to all of this success?”
I didn’t respond, threw my grunting trophy overboard, and wiped shiner slime on my shorts. Kim gave me a sidelong smile and started stripping out line, her brown arm held close to her side as she hauled, hauled again, and chucked her emerger a good eighty feet. It was a hell of a cast, one I couldn’t have made, and with two quick strips she was into something monumental.
Out there over the water, daylight had faded to obscure the details, but something was thrumming deep towards our bow, while fly line ripped at the surface. Kim, beer pinched between her thighs, nonchalantly gathered slack at her feet. Directly ahead of us, not ten yards off our bow, the rainbow cart-wheeled and splashed down, and my heart skipped more than a beat, while a serene, sundressed Kim waved a hand at the swarming black flies. The trout was an easy five pounds, and quick enough to have emptied a lot of slack into the belly line which Kim, giggling, seemed altogether unconcerned about regaining.
“Holy Smokes! STRIP! STRIP! STRIIIIIIIIIPPPPPPP!” I shouted, frantically trying to pivot the boat that Kim might not have to complete a full turn in her seat. She cast me a cold glance and, much to my dismay, set the convulsing rod in her lap. “Could you please shut up while I play this fish,” she admonished, a furrow creasing her bow. “If I’m not mistaken, you’re being a bit of an ass.”
The fight was something to see, and she managed gloriously, pulling hard and low along the surface and throwing line at the fish as it tumbled and bore down deep. She giggled the whole time, and finally brought the trout athwartships, and I was already thinking about how to handle it best for the taxidermist. This was the fish of a lifetime, and as it heaved there beside us, my hands shook so hard it took three stabs with the net to secure it. I was breathing shakily, muttering “ohmygodohmygodohmygod” under my breath, and I hoisted the fish to lay at Kim’s feet. She grabbed it and cradled it on her lap, where it wriggled around and worked its mouth in spasmodic gulps.
“Hold it there… I’ll get my knife,” I was already thinking that we’d hustle to the gas station in town and get it on ice as quickly as possible. But while I bent over in my bag, rifling for an instrument with which to dispatch the brute, I heard a soft splash, and turned to see Kim bent over the water, her hands submerged in the release of that huge trout.
“What are you doing! Are you crazy? That was a wall-hanger for sure! No one releases a fish like that!” The emotion was proving too much for me.
“Whatever…” Kim replied. “I catch way bigger ones with my dad. Anyways, let’s split. It’s just about dark, and we’re almost out of beer.”
And so, with the heartbeats slowly sorting themselves out through all the fibers of my being, I fell wholly and desperately in love. Much to my joy and dismay, it’s where I remain, watching a barefoot girl fish circles around me as the seasons roll past, a girl who giggles lovingly while hazel eyes and summer sundresses cast their hex upon me still.