I stared downstream into a short s-turn of the stream channel pinned on one side by a steep, rocky valley wall and a bank of large sycamore trees on the other. The sycamore trees, with their white flaky paper like bark, stood like weathered pillars of an ancient castle. Between a rock and a hard place in a stream system, you often have a deep pool. The volume of water delivered during an intense storm event piles up water upstream of the confinement, depositing fine sediments above the hard points. Anything not secured with tremendous weight or strength is evacuated from the narrowed channel downstream without prejudice. Debris from upstream fallen trees and broken branches accumulates against the banks of the stream as the pinballed water presses the debris into the banks, preventing it from being washed downstream.
These are reaches where kayakers can get dumped and be in trouble quickly, where wading is hazardous to an angler’s health. All the things that make it dangerous for people in the stream, make it desirable for fish habitat. With plunging flows and rapidly changing current seams, there are food sources, cover, oxygenated water, and, most of all, good depth to make an appealing home for the biggest and baddest trout of a stream system.
An uptick in temperature before a cold front came through, coinciding with a lightly scheduled Saturday, and I knew where I wanted to head. In winter, there is less available bug life on the menu for trout in most rivers. Trout’s metabolism will slow significantly, but they still need to have the occasional meal. I was hoping to fish this gnarly pool and see if I could pull out a large brown trout to eat a streamer. I had fished it before and caught a few trout of good size, but I had a feeling that something bigger lurked in the depths of this pool.
I tied on a heavy black streamer and scouted the position for my first cast. A large boulder extends from the valley wall and creates a large shelf along the bottom of the pool. The water was clear enough to see the top of the boulder and a large shadow beneath the rock. The first four casts dropped the fly on top of the boulder and short strips slid the fly off of the edge to drop into the shadows. No takers. On the fifth cast, I placed the streamer near the downstream edge of the boulder. Stripping over the ledge, I paused before a series of short strips. After the second strip, I saw two white edges of fins emerge from the shadow. This was a big one. My heartbeat raced as I pulled another small strip. The fins moved quickly, and I saw the white inside of the mouth as a large trout engulfed the streamer.
The strike was quick and strong, helping to set the hook as my panicked hands feebly strip set the fly. I was awkwardly on the edge of a steep point bar that transitioned to another deep pool to my right. If the fish went downstream, I’d be above my waders if I followed. All the debris caught along the roots of the sycamore trees could easily cut my line. The fish was strong and big, likely the largest I had ever caught on this particular stream, likely 18 to 19 inches in length. I navigated the fish away from the debris; it pulled back toward the stone ledge. I turned its head and directed it toward me. The fish was tiring, and I grabbed my net. The soft edge of the point bar began to deform below my feet. As I took a step upstream to securely stand on coarse gravel, the large fish bolted downstream and jumped in the air. The line went limp. It had thrown the hook from its mouth. The white fins slowly turned and disappeared into the shadow.
I lost the fish. A very big fish. I released the tension for a second, and the barbless fly slipped from the fish. Larger fish generally fight harder and are harder to catch, so they are memorable. Since I have been fishing more often over the last 6 to 7 years, I’ve caught only two fish above 20 inches and about ten fish 18 inches or larger. I have hooked and lost one fish that was over 20 inches (it was longer than my net by a couple inches) and several over 18, including the fish yesterday and a beautiful brown at Penns Creek. The memories of the lost fish have stuck with me. I remember all the larger fish I have caught, but the losses are more vivid memories. I may be prone to pessimism, and I ruminate on how to improve with all things I care about, but this seems out of balance.
Why do the losses linger and hurt so badly? What is it about the larger fish that connect to memories so much? Some of it is ego and the desire to tell good stories, but the focus on the size of fish and the loss of fish seems misplaced. Talking with my wife this morning at breakfast, she suggested “The One That Got Away” as it connects to Valentine’s Day and romance as well. Pining over lost love or lost opportunities or the lost fish sometimes can motivate us to improve or work to not feel that way again, but it also prevents us from seeing all the blessings we have received in life. I have many things to be thankful for, and I appreciate that I have my best catch ever as my wife. I won’t spend too much time thinking about the one that got away. Now that I know where he lives, we will hopefully meet again.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Happy Super Bowl Sunday!