It was easy to see what they were fishing with. They were fishing with Dachshunds. And the wee canines weren’t happy to see us. They barked their displeasure. Down at the end of the gravel road, a lean, fifty-ish fellow sat with rod in hand, watching a red and white bobber.
I guessed he might be peeved like his pooches at the thought of sharing his spot with three out-of-towners.
“Having any luck,” I asked.
“No,” the angler said. It was about the baldest fib I’d ever heard. As evidence, a 14-inch rainbow lounged on a stringer at the waterline.
But you don’t call a man a prevaricator on his home water when you’re drifting through. Not unless you’re ready to draw your weapon.
I sized him up. Ranch-tanned and whipcord-tough. He carried a six-foot spinning rod like it was a part of him, its business end rock-steady. And just now my four-weight fly rod was out of reach, cased in the back of Marc’s truck. I let a suitable amount of pause fill the space between the angler’s answer and my observation.
“Looks like you got a nice rainbow there.”
“Yep,” he allowed. “I got a couple of crappie and a catfish, too.”
It was as if he’d said to meet him in the street at high noon.
The night before, we’d had the unfortunate synchronicity to pitch our tent next to an RV Gandalf with a generator, a flatscreen, a rock concert on DVD and a self-imposed curfew of 2:00 am. About the time he went to bed, a quartet of good time rock-and-rollers pulled in next to us. They built a fire and caught up on old times till the birds woke up.
After a sleepless night and several hours crossing desert and mountain, we were just glad to be here. A boy wants to fish but he wants to know that the lake is big enough for everyone, even three drifters without a red and white bobber between them.
Willow Creek Lake, just outside the city limits of the town of Heppner, is not what you’d call a major angling destination. But locals like the 110-acre impoundment for its proximity and its piscine inhabitants. Bass, bluegill, crappie and catfish are the mainstays. May and June are the best months for trout.
This local wasn’t eager to have us on the bar stools next to him.
“I reckon we’ll try it down the lake a piece,” I said. “Maybe fish those shallows there at the east end,” I said.
“That’s a good spot,” he agreed.
Marc Ladyga was first into the water in his belly boat. I followed, flapping backwards on duckfoot flippers. Adam Brooks cinched on his flipper and promptly broke it. I cut 16 inches off my belt for a makeshift strap and he was back in business. We were some source of amusement for the locals. We tried to keep out of their lines.
Armed with my fly rod now, I used a clear intermediate line and a beadhead peacock and brown leech. Marc tied on a black Woolly Bugger and caught a crappie, then I caught a crappie, then Adam caught a crappie. Several more crappie followed.
Emboldened, we started along the shoreline, just outside the casting range of the locals. It was high noon. In a few minutes, we were out in front of our friends with the Dachshunds and the red and white bobbers. “Got any more trout?”
“We caught another one,” The fellow said. “You?”
“Crappie. A half-dozen so far.”
We kicked by. A half-hour later, a rainbow pounded my peacock leech. Fish always feel bigger in a float tube. I figured he was 18 inches until I saw him. He was a 14-incher with the girth of a bigger fish and he wanted to fight. Soon after, Marc put the steel to a nice rainbow. We turned and twitch-trolled back along the shore.
“Any trout,” The fellow asked.
“We got a couple,” Adam said.
“We got another one, too.”
Standoff. For a brief moment, I considered. I could tie on a tandem rig and run two No. 14 Callibaetis nymphs on a 5x tippet. I’d kick back and forth just out of range of that red and white bobber and maybe I’d catch two trout on one cast. I’d done it before and had the notches on my rod handle to prove it.
But I remembered I had a wife and three daughters waiting at home. Was it worth the fight to the finish – till one of us had his limit? And are there any winners in a showdown?
We put our float tubes away, holstered the rods and pointed our horsepower toward the sunset. I looked back down at the lake. Wind blew a riffle on the water and a fish rose and sipped something near the bank. I could have taken him.