The shakes, and why we love big trout

by | Nov 28, 2018 | 24 comments

I was about thirteen when it first happened.

Dad and I had fished all morning and afternoon before walking back to camp to meet my uncle. His weather-worn pop up camper sat thirty feet off a seldom used dirt road. It made us a home among the wet leaves from the previous fall and around the small ferns of early spring that poked through the forest floor.

After supper, Dad and his brother seemed settled-in around a warm fire. And when I announced that I planned to go upstream and fish until dark, they each consented with approval.

“You go get ‘em,” nodded my uncle.

I finished my last spoonful of homemade chili and tossed the paper bowl in the fire. Then I grabbed the fishing rod, slung the faded green creel over my shoulder and aimed for the water. I had a good hike through hemlocks and mixed maples ahead, and I set a course far upstream, to where Dad and I had finished a couple hours earlier.

READ: Troutbitten | Right Here

After the walk the fishing was spotty, and I caught only a handful of small trout in some soft side water. But I pressed on. And as the evening aged, I jumped ahead to each of the better places on the small stream. I raced against the fading daylight and graying skies.

It was northern Pennsylvania in Potter County, and somewhere along the length of a tributary during run off, I landed the best trout of my young life.

When I hooked him, I felt a tremendous release of emotion. Satisfaction merged with adrenaline. My yearning for such a moment finally came to a close as the big wild brown trout slid onto the bank. I killed the trout with a sharp rap at the top of its skull, because that’s what I did back then. I knelt by the river to wet my creel, and when I placed the dead trout in the nylon bag, the full length of its tail stuck out from the top.

Then I began to shake. The closing of anticipation washed over me. The fruition of learning and wondering for so many years left me in awe of the moment I’d waited for. I trembled as I sat back on my heels. With two knees in the mud of a favorite trout stream, I watched the water pass before me. I breathed. I thought about nothing and everything all at once. I felt calm inside even as I stared down at my wet, shaking hands.

When a gust of wind pushed through the forest, I stirred. Finally my lengthy revery was passed, and I stood tall with my lungs full of a strong wind. Then I walked back to camp.

READ: Troutbitten | What happened to Laurel Run? The story of a stocked trout stream and a fisherman

— — — — — —

How many of these moments does a fisherman collect? None of them are forgotten. How much of our history is built around these times? None of them fade. A fisherman remembers.

You might think that the first of anything would ingrain such an impression. But it doesn’t. Yes, fellow anglers tell me stories of the first trout they caught on a fly tied with their own hands, or of their first trout on a dry fly. These are strong memories, but they don’t inspire the same passion in us. They don’t make us tremble. Only big trout do that. And every one of my fishing friends has the best stories about a trout that gave them tremors.

The shakes happen when time and effort is involved. It’s always the culmination of seasons or years spent chasing something rare — something legendary.

READ: Troutbitten | Legendary

As the years have passed, I’ve slipped in and out of the deliberate pursuit of big trout. Sometimes, I chase the biggest fish and understand that I won’t catch many. Other times, I couldn’t care less how big the trout is, and I just want to catch a fish. But the reverence for a legendary fish is always there. It’s like that for all of us. No one stares at a top tier wild trout and goes, “Meh . . .”

But we don’t shake with every big trout caught, either. Repetition makes us numb when the rarity is gone. When we catch a few eighteen-inch trout, we look toward the next benchmark. When we catch a handful of Whiskeys we want the next Namer.

But along the way of our angling life, the first accomplishments of these benchmarks provide shots of encouragement and adrenaline. These quivering moments are the peaks along our journey.

So as we age in this fly fishing life, most of the benchmarks are accomplished. The glow of our exuberance wears thin. It takes more to impress us. But we keep fishing regardless, because life goes on, even after the thrill of living is gone (Mellencamp).

The good trout I caught at camp that day was the first time I got the shakes from a fish. And in my thirty years of fishing that have followed, it’s only happened a dozen times more. I can tell you the stories around each one of those trout.

— — — — — —

The last time a fish gave me the shakes was this past August, the final week of summer before my boys went back to school. It was just shy of midnight on a cool and cloudless evening, with a waning crescent moon in the northern sky on a river that flows east. And after a decade of night fishing my best rivers — after searching and hoping in the dark — I finally landed a fish that I named Edgar P.

He ate in a shallow riffle, ten feet from the brushy bank where I’d pitched the fly, and I fought with him for fifty yards downstream. We finished our struggle together, beside an enormous midstream boulder, the edge of which gracefully ramped into the soft current on the backside. And after I released Edgar P., he remained in the lazy seam behind the rock, working his gills and holding a position with his massive tail. I watched Edgar in the red light of my headlamp. We spent some time together. And when I leaned back on the edge of the rock, I began to tremble.

Meet Edgar P.

It wasn’t the same as when I was thirteen. The shakes were more like an exhausted buzz, like an overload of caffeine when you haven’t eaten enough food to accompany it. But I sat in wonder once again. I sat with appreciation for the trout in front of me. I reflected on all the moments leading up to this one. And I was thankful again for a life on the water.

That’s what a big fish can do.

** I’m sure you have your own stories about a fish that gave you the shakes. And these are often the best stories. Please share your story in the comments section below. **

Fish hard, friends.


Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky



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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. Your big trout story sounds a lot like mine. I hooked a 25″ Brown trout at the bridge in Hale Eddy on the WB of the Delaware in very thin water about 10-12 feet from the edge. HE took me about 30 yards down stream and thank God decided to face into the current. I was able to wear him out and bring him to hand without hurting him. The saddest part for me is that I always carry a camera but forgot to put it in my vest that day. I was alone and just like my only hole-in-one, I was completely alone.

    • Hey Mike
      It gets better. That was probably a wild fish as NY/Pa do not stock the WB, lower EB, or main stem.
      Biggest I’ve seen was just shy of 30″. They are not easy but keep going…and take your camera.

  2. It was like my entire body was connected to one of those old hand buzzer gadgets. I was 15 and I was shooting for the 14-16″ Brookie that I knew was under the log. What I got was my first 5lb. Brookie. An old vintage glass rod, a decrepit streamer, …no net. It should be a wonderful memory but it’s bittersweet; I couldn’t kill that fish fast enough. My how times change. The next day I caught his ‘little’ brother: a 3lb’er. I literally levitated for a week. Retelling the tale at school gave me the shakes all over again. I thought I had arrived, I thought that there was no more to learn …and all before I had a drivers license. Look at me! I still get the shakes but they’re decidedly more reverential and dignified, I hope.

  3. The biggest fish I ever caught was 1″ bigger than Greg’s!

  4. Good story that tells the tail of Edgar P, a young man, and how many of us feel when we land a big one!

  5. Oh, I’m 52, and I still get the shakes when I catch a big one! The thrill is NOT gone. That’s due in part because I still have youthful exuberance though I am no longer a youth. It’s also partly because I did not fly fish as a young man, so I don’t have a hundred notches on my net handle, so to speak. A big fish is still a thrill.

  6. Just 3 days ago had the afternoon off work, hit my favorite local freestone stream. High gradient, very small water, a 10″ fish is a trophy here, mostly brookies but here and there a wild brown is still around who has survived the efforts to eradicate them (they were competing with the native brookies). There is one beautiful plunge pool, small but deep with a fallen tree partially in it. I always thought that it held a large brown because there were no minnows ever in it, unlike the other plunge pools in the stream. Impossible to fish because you hang up on the submerged tree the first drift every time but I always throw a cast in there and hope one day it will work.

    Well it finally worked. The tag fly hung on wood as usual, but I let my anchor fly just sit there suspended deep for 10 seconds for the heck of it, swaying in the current. Then a fish hit the anchor fly, breaking the tag off (tied in with 5x tippet) but managed to stay on with 4x tippet to the anchor. Had to wrestle with out with a flimsy 10′ 3wt but it was a monster brown, the biggest I have ever seen in the several freestones around here that still hold ’em.

    No one saw him, there are no pictures (except the one which will stay forever in my mind), and no one will ever know the stream or pool he lives in…except me, and that’s how I like it.

  7. It was 50 years ago and it wasn’t me. Paul and I (we were maybe 15), were fishing the Amawalk. Paul hooked a really big Brown and he was so excited he jumped into the stream and grabbed it.

  8. Happened to me Sunday on the Battenkill. Rewarded with a stunning wild brown I didn’t expect to catch. Shakes indeed. The 5 landed after that did not have the same effect!

  9. What moon phase do you think is the best for brown trout? I just started keeping track of the phases. I only fish in the day but ive found the fishing has been terrible on each full moon.

  10. Great story and a beautiful Brown. Glad you put him back for another day. Tight Lines!!

  11. I guess it was in the mid 90’s. I was spin fishin near Downsville on the East Branch Delaware. Water was very high, looked like Yoohoo and was spilling over the top of the dam. I was fishing a side channel that was there only due to the high water. I casted a small lure called a Rebel (silver and black) across the channel and got it snagged in some brush. When I got the lure free it landed barely 6” from the bank. After about 2 or 3 cranks on the reel, KAPOW !! I was was hooked on a 26” wild brownie. The knees were knockin and my heart felt like it was in my throat. Took me about 5 minutes to land her. Biggest red dots I’ve ever seen. Sad part of the story is that back then I was a meat fisherman. Sorry fellas.

  12. You never lose it—–I’m 88 and have been fly fishing since the early 1940’s–about a month or so ago my best friend and I were fishing my home stream, the Beaverhead, and we were catching some nice brown trout on nymphs as the was no hatch at the time. I finally hooked and landed a very heavy rainbow. The fight to beach him was electric with surges, leaps and runs. When I finally held him up so my pard could take a photo or two my hands were shaking. I think this was in November and I put a photo on the Troutbitten Group facebook page.
    I still relish (and get the shakes) from the big ones –and hopefully more this year.

    • Hi Bob,

      I’m jealous that you never lose it.

      For me, the effect has worn off. As I described in the article above, and in the linked article as well, those shakes have evened out. And I’m often disappointed by my lack of big-moment excitement, as I look back on the experience. Something has replaced that crazy emotion, with age and a whole lot of time on the water. It’s good in its own right. But I also miss the huge adrenaline rush. Because that was fun.


  13. I was 12. I was with my fishing mentor, an old man I was connected to not by blood or relation but by a passion for the outdoors that he saw within me. He had mythical stories about lake trout that were so large they would pull his canoe around the Small lake he lived on. I figured these were old man fish stories. One may morning I learned he wasn’t lying . It took 45 mins before I even saw the fish and on first glimpse my knees rattled so hard I thought they would buckle. We landed the fish and I guesstimated the fishes weight at 50lbs. Luckily my father was there with a scale providing a reality check. It was a 22lb lake trout and 3X the size of anything I’d caught or seen previously. I was hooked. I just hope I can be there when my little boy meets a fish that gives him the “shakes”.

  14. Largest wild brown I ever saw was 40 years ago on a semi-private section of the McMichels creek, near Stroudsburg. Semi-private meant it was private but there was a reasonable chance the landowner either didn’t care or would not catch me fishing. I was fishing a rapala, this was before I became a fly rod nut, and a 30″ brown (estimate, but the largest trout I ever saw) followed my lure all the way back to my feet. He didn’t take the lure, never hooked him, but I went back after dark for two weeks (I heard big trout feed at night), but no sign of him ever again.

  15. The last trout that I was hooked to which I think would have been a namer swam off with my fly in its jaw. My fishing partner Cole tried valiantly to get it into the net twice. It wasn’t ready and broke me off in some heavy water. I shook for a while after that encounter. Later that day, I got a hooked to a solid whiskey and Cole scooped it perfectly. Had the shakes again for the second time in one day. That first fish still haunts me.

  16. A couple years back, I was stripping streamers in 12′ of water on Lake Crowley in the Eastern Sierras and having a fun time catching 14″-16″ rainbows. After having caught some larger fish in past seasons, I decided to upsize my streamer and see what happens! I was float tubing the main channel in the north end of the lake when my streamer got slammed on the edge of the weed line. I immediately knew I had a big fish as it headed for the weed beds! After 15 minutes of struggling to get it out of the weeds, it finally headed back out into the channel and pulled me with it! After several long runs, taking me down to the backing, I was finally able to bring it to net! A nearby guide in a boat who had watched the struggle, came over and helped me measure it and take a photo and then release it! It was a 26 1/2 cutthroat with beautiful colors and my personal best! My anticipation every time I’m on Crowley now is out of control! I’m shaking just thinking about it!


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