I approach from downstream, making daring casts into the brush pile, probing a dark network that’s shaped by collected seasons of tangled roots and half trees. A heavy current crashes into the pile and is redirected outward, and I wade into the bottom part of that channel. Formed by the unyielding force of the river, there’s flow, depth and protection here — the perfect combination for a rogue trout.
I’m exploring miles below what’s considered “trout water” on this river. It’s something I like to do in the months when these wild trout procreate. Fishing the bigger, deeper water is my way of staying away from spawning fish. After the summer heat, this water is cold again, and if I’m lucky, some good sized trout will have migrated back in. I’ve never seen any redds this low on the river and I doubt I ever will. Spawning takes place many miles above, and mostly in the tribs, so I’m not surprised the fishing has been slow, and that’s alright by me. This kind of fishing isn’t a numbers game; it’s more like hiking with a fly rod. No one’s ever around, and I usually hole-hop from one trouty looking spot to the next. I target the prime water with nymphs in each location, and then switch back to streamers for the flat stuff in between.
These aren’t spawning fish or club fish. Down here they are just lucky fish, and that’s what makes them so much fun. For me, this is the game — finding rare, big river wild brown trout. Sometimes I don’t even think it takes much skill — just patience and persistence — because anything can happen at any time.
The brush pile produces nothing, but that’s no surprise. It’s the kind of spot that’s either gonna give up a bunch of average fish or is dominated by one big brute, and if you don’t find him in the right mood you’ll come up empty.
I come up empty.
So I turn my back to the bank and wade onto the ledge facing a great rock …
— — — — — —
Somewhere in the persistent flow of indexed memory a singular moment surfaces above the rest. Another river in another life — fifteen years ago.
It’s nearly dusk on a June evening in 2001, and I’m standing with my back to another brush pile watching Sulfur mayflies lift off and take flight from the riffles. To my left, in some backwater, I see tiny rings formed by trout slurping mouthfuls of expired insects. Sometimes the fly fisher’s favorite bug runs into itself — hatching mayfly duns dry their wings and lift off from the same launchpad where their brothers and sisters lay dead and spent, following their mating and egg laying duties.
When the hatch coincides with the spinner fall, trout notice, and remarkable things can happen.
Wearing waders, long sleeves and a big smile, I’m cold and getting colder because I’ve hardly moved my boots in the last hour. One trout after another is fooled by a simple #16 Adams, and whether I cast blind or cast to rising trout doesn’t seem to matter. I guess this is what catching fish “hand over fist” means.
Then I hear a noticeable pop to my left. I look upstream to see a ring much larger than the rest, and I make a cast to the tip of the brush, just twenty feet away. Then another slurp.
What follows is the most adrenaline-filled ten minutes of my fishing life.
My gear is suited to brook trout and small tributaries. The short, light rod bends in half and my simple click-and-pawl real shakes as the fish tears line from the spool. Later, I understand that the cheap reel has no counterweight to offset the handle. It feels like the reel will explode in my hands. It was never intended for such a fish, and the powerful fight is tremendous.
I’m shaking, sweating and disoriented when I finally land the biggest wild brown trout of my life. I look up at a colorful sky and gasp for breath.
Among the last glimpses of sunlight, I lay the wild brown trout next to my rod. And with a small, streamside rock I scratch a mark in the lacquer before slipping the fish back into the river and watching its tail kick off into the darkness.
— — — — — —
Do you know how many casts I’ve made since then, in fifteen years of fishing trips all across this state and beyond? I’ve even gone through phases of chasing big fish for years at a time, trying to find another wild trout that large. Sure, I’ve caught a bunch of Whiskeys and a few Namers, but at that size, the difference of an inch or two is massive.
Fifteen years and more have passed since that fish blew me away. And I remember thinking at the time, “Wow, this is pretty fun, I bet I’ll catch a lot more trout like this if I keep exploring.”
I surely haven’t met another fish like that, until …
— — — — — —
My back is to a brush pile again.
I’m about to switch to nymphs, but I toss a few more casts with the streamers; I’m taking my time, enjoying the scenery and the solitude. I throw a long, arching cast all the way into the stall behind the great rock. Letting it sink for a bit, the line bellies in the current while I start my lazy strip — just a soft, twenty-inch pull followed by a few seconds of pause — nothing to scare trout or get them too riled up and territorial — just a look of available food for any trout feeling opportunistic.
I imagine my three-inch sculpin pattern is a little off the bottom as I make the fourth lazy stip and feel a thud — a jarring tight-line jolt that stops time. In slow motion, I trap the line and set the hook into something heavy.
I’ve waited a long time for this.
And then chaos. No more lazy anything.
I pull hard. And when I realize I have the momentum, I keep pulling — maybe just to get a good look at what I’m attached to. I see gold, yellow, brown and something big — really big.
I still pull, and just before it reaches the surface, my trout flips the momentum with a series of rolls.
She splashes on the surface and tangles in the line. So I rush downstream toward her, rod tip high as she jumps, and she somehow rolls back out of the tangle. She then dives deep into the water and swims hard for the brush pile. Clearly, she knows the area.
I’ve lost too many good fish in brush piles.
Up to my waist in swift water, I lunge toward the brush ahead of her, stripping frantically to recover line, staying tight and keeping the rod high. Somehow, I win the race to the brush and cut her off. She puts on the brakes with me in front of her, and she looks up as if to say, “Well, you bastard.”
She pivots, and time stops again.
At my feet in waist deep water is the size of a trout I haven’t seen in fifteen years, and it’s on a ten-foot leash extending from the tip of my rod.
She swirls in slow motion, but I lift and she rises, hovering a foot below the surface and poised for an imminent return to the depths of the great rock.
I recognize the moment — an opportune chance to make a quick fight out of a big fish. I grab my net, lift the rod with all the remaining pressure I can manage and take one swipe down into the water.
She’s surprised again.
With her head in the net I lift the frame to the surface. Her back half doesn’t fit, so I drop the rod and grasp the tail in one hand and the frame in the other. I just landed my biggest trout in fifteen years.
I stand there beside the brush pile, looking up at the white sky, and I exhale slowly.
Fifteen years ago, I shook with adrenaline as I held that twenty-six inch wild brown trout. This one was a half-inch shy of that mark.
Life has changed in those fifteen years. I knew next to nothing about the game I was playing back then. Every amazing moment was the first.
I miss that innocence. Fifteen years ago, after releasing the enormous trout, I stopped fishing and walked out to share the tale with my friends. This time, I released her and she swam into the brush pile — then I kept fishing. I also didn’t share the story with many friends. There’s a collected burden of secrets I feel I must keep — for myself and some others.
There wasn’t much adrenaline this time either. I’ve learned from prior mistakes, and I now fight fish with calculations instead of blind instinct and luck.
I miss the way it was fifteen years ago, but I don’t know how to get that back. I don’t think I can. Knowledge and experience have permanently dulled the emotions of these times — even for a moment this rare.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N