It was cocktail hour at the fishing lodge and our conversation turned to the subject of memorable trout. This was a group of experienced, well-traveled anglers, and their accounts of the previous year’s “best fish” were impressive by any standard.
One man told of a 14-pound brown in New Zealand; another of a private, expensive stretch of Oregon water where the rainbows averaged five pounds. Another recounted the conquest of an 11-pound trout in Alaska. This nudged my own experience. I had recently returned from Alaska, and though the trip was primarily devoted to salmon, I managed a day of floating the Chosen River, where I threw cumbersome mouse patterns up against miles of fast-moving bank water, cast after long cast, until finally a long shape detached itself from cover and submarined toward my “fly,” engulfing it in a splash. After a brief spurt, the fish, half-choked by the deer-hair mouse, turned surprisingly docile. I hauled it in, more or less a deadweight in the current. We guessed it at nine pounds, a vivid leopard rainbow with a wide side-band so glowingly pink it verged on fluorescence. A beautiful fish, but somehow, as a total angling experience, disappointing. So when my turn came to recount my “best trout” of recent memory, I heard myself saying, “A 17-inch brookie.”
A couple of the men laughed, as though going along with a joke. I said, “No, really,” but somebody broke in.
“You mean the best trout you caught all year was only a couple of pounds? Come on.”
I opened my mouth to reply but another man said, excitedly, “You want to talk about big brookies …” and launched into a report of his trip to the Nipigon in Ontario, where brook trout in the four- to six-pound range were not only possible, they were common.
Later I took a fresh drink and a cigar out to the deck and watched cliff swallows swoop and dive-bomb over the dusky river. Since I had mentioned the brookie I began thinking of it again, seeing it in my mind. What fish itself–though it was a beauty–but all that it stood for, what it represented in my own life as a fisherman.
The trout had come from a little stream that runs behind a friend’s cabin near Bozeman, Montana. My first experience on this creek, 20 years ago, had been a disaster. The water was (and is) steep and fast, full of short, choppy riffles and plunge pools and abrupt bends, burrowing through a thick canopy of leaning cottonwoods and bottomland tangle. My friend Norm lent me his favorite rod and offered advice on flies and presentation. Then he turned me loose. “You’re gonna love it,” he said.
Two hours later I returned to the cabin, beaten. Flycasting had been hell itself Even with the little six-foot rod I was constantly backcasting into trees, losing throwing knots leader. Worse, since the water was both clear and shallow, the fish could see me coming. What few decent drifts I managed were over evacuated ties. The little stream was a beaut, and from what Norm told me, it pulsed with trout; but I couldn’t fish it worth a damn. When Norm asked how I’d done, bright expectation in his eyes, I did what I have never liked to do or been very good at: I lied. “Just got a few, nothing large.” His eyebrows lifted in surprise. “That’s really odd,” he said. “I must have hooked 16, 18 fish yesterday on the same dries I gave you. Wonder what turned them off.”
The next year I fished the little creek again, twice, and again did badly. Two mornings of lost flies, clumsy approaches, lousy presentations and knots in my leader. On more open water I was a pretty good flyfisherman; here I was a klutz. Worse, I would not admit my incompetence to Norm, who was older, an expert small-stream angler and something of a mentor. His approval was important. I didn’t want him to know how inept 1 really was; and so, though we fished together often on larger waters, I shied away from fishing the creek with him. This added to both the irony and the folly of the situation: To break the cycle of failure I needed instruction, but I was too proud and ashamed to admit it to the one person who could have helped me most.
So it went for years. I would fish the dread, lovely creek once or twice a season, always alone and always badly. I did begin to take an occasional small trout or two, but overall the gushing, hazard-strewn water was too much for my skills.
Just Have Fun: Then for various reasons I did not fish the creek for a long time–seven eight years. In that interim I did a lot of trout fishing, traveled widely and, more or less without realizing it, grew as a fisherman. One summer day I found myself at Norm’s place with a morning to kill and the little stream calling, as it were, for attention.
I rigged up a wispy six-foot graphite rod with a 3-weight line, climbed into my waders and shuffled down to the water; telling myself. “Just relax and fish it as well as you can. Have fun.”
I soon realized that something had changed. Not the creek, which was the same plunging roar, as tunneled and crisscrossed with bottomland tangle, as uninviting to a flyrod as ever What was different was my sense of the water For the first time I could see how it should be approached. Instead of stumbling and splashing ahead, thrashing the rod like a horsewhip, I knelt and shuffled and even crawled along the hank and the shallow perimeters. Instead of trying to throw high, branch-clearing backcasts, I reached the rod tip over the channel and, using a horizontal waggle, flicked out short, low throws that dropped the dry fly onto cushioned pocket-water and narrow bankside slicks. Almost immediately I began catching trout. Brookies and rainbows; decent creek fish eight to 10 inches long.
An hour into it, at a deep bend, I got into a good one. I guessed it at 13 inches–a veritable lunker for this stream. About then it struck me: t had fished all this time without losing a fly, without a serious hang-up, without throwing knots in my leader, without thunder-rips of foul language. With—could it be true?–real pleasure.
True Test: Then I came to the toughest section of the creek, which I had never before even tried to fish, a stretch virtually shrouded in overhanging branches and leaning deadfalls. Upstream and across, tucked two feet under a leafy branch hanging inches off the surface, was a dark sluice of quiet bank water. It looked nearly unreachable, and was made even trickier by a lip of fast current. Even if I could shoot a fly under the tight overhang, the lip-current would create immediate drag. A perfectly cast fly might have two or three seconds of natural float before it was ripped downstream, probably spooking every fish in the vicinity. A trophy-trout lie/fever there was one.
I crawled within 30 feet of the target, reached the little rod as far out over the water as I could, then falsecast with a wristy side-to-side waggle of the tip. The line uncurled back and forth, scarcely a foot off the surface, barely clearing the tangle of overhanging branches. My first cast landed short, in the fast water. I let it drift back, stripped in the slack and tried again. This time, miraculously, the fly zipped under the branches, past the bordering current and plapped down in the dark bankside slick. A fish rose instantly and smacked it. I set the hook.
A shockingly powerful trout surged downstream, vaulting into the lower plunge-pool, actually stripping line from my reel. I played it gently, gape-mouthed. I could not quite believe its size. The greenish, spotted flanks seemed preternaturally huge in such diminutive water. I stumbled downstream, chasing the fish and applying finn but restrained pressure, terrified of mishandling the light tippet; afraid the barbless hook might twist out any moment.
Finally I worked the trout in. For a few minutes I simply stared. I did not have a measuring rule–did not usually care that much for exact sizes and poundages–but this fish was special.
Then an idea hit me. I peeled back my shirt-sleeve, found a felt-tipped pen in a vest pocket, then slid my open palm and forearm under the fish, aligning its nose with the tip of my middle finger. The trout’s cream-tipped tail reached nearly to the inside bend of my elbow, I tried to mark this point with the pen, but it had gotten soaked and would not write. So I scratched the tip up and down, hard, scoring a red slash in my skin. I took another moment to admire the lovely trout, then I let it go.
When I got back to the house Norm was out on the deck, waiting for me. To his, “Well, how’d you do?” I first told of the 13-incher. His eyebrows rose. “A darn good fish for this creek,” he said.
“But there was another one,” I said, “even better.” Again his eyebrows lifted. I peeled back my sleeve and pointed to the welted red line on my arm. “From here to here,” I said. “Nose to tail.”
This time the eyebrows shot as high up as they could go.
Norm hurried into the kitchen and returned with a yardstick. Lined up fingertip to welt, a full 17 inches; as far as he knew, the largest brook trout ever caught in the stream.
Norm was delighted by the story of its capture, and especially enjoyed my measuring, technique. “Anyone who’ll mortify his own flesh for a trout,” he said, laughing, “is my kind of guy.”
“Best day I ever had on the creek,” I said. “And one of the best fish I’ve ever caught in my life, bar none.”
Norm smiled and patted my shoulder. “You finally got it figured out. I’m glad.”
A year later, as I stood on the lodge deck, looking out over the darkening river, Norm’s last words rang in my ears. Had he been on to my little secret, my shameful ruse, the whole time? For all those years? I laughed out loud. The 17-inch brookie was turning out to be more special than even I had realized.