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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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.
T R O U T B I T T E N