3:34am. I sit bolt upright in bed and replay it one more time. I see the flash. I feel the ping. My heart sinks, yet again, as it had the afternoon before, and a hundred times since.
It had been a fine day, to that point. Light morning snow flurries had given way to a beautiful, but chilly, day and the fish had been willing. In the shallow, faster runs I’d brought to hand a couple dozen small-to-respectable rainbows along with the nicest brook trout I’ve taken from these particular waters - a fourteen-inch chunk of a fish - a day maker, most days.
As the afternoon warmed, I moved upstream into the deeper, longer pools tucked against north facing slopes, fed by swift runs that carve deep into the hillsides. I’d actually begun the day there, but the deep shadows had clung tenaciously to the previous night’s frigid air - freezing my guides, chilling my bones, and sending me, shivering, in search of sunlight. During winter months, these stretches are afternoon water… or polar bears’.
I coaxed a couple more ‘bows from the shadowed runs - dark colored fish, dark as if they’d stolen the dusky coats from their brook trout cousins in order to survive the cool shade – and worked up the quarter mile of stream to my final stretch of the day. Above it, the water is no more than wide, shallow riffles, racing along under slender backcountry bridges. But that skinny water funnels sharply when it meets the foothill, carving a series of deep runs, half slick, half torrent, full of small hillside eddies created by the rocks and tree roots that have yet to yield to the flow’s constant wear.
Into this final run I pitched a small streamer, letting it tumble past the swirls and swinging wide just below them, perfunctorily playing out the final string of the day. Playing it out, that is, ‘till my 4wt bounced - hard. Awakened, I raised the rod tip and set the hook. It felt like hooking a log. A pause. A headshake. Then the fish rose and rolled against the flow to flash me a broad, silver side – a taunt that brought but a single notion to my brain. My net was too small.
I’ve heard for years that there are some big fish in this series of pools and that they are as finicky and picky as they are big. If the former is true, then the later certainly holds for the footpath alongside the run is well worn. Any fish growing large here has seen a lot of flies, and probably more than a little corn, and you’d have to be pretty good to loosen their jaws – or damn lucky. A stumblebum like me had little chance. Just the same, I should’ve brought a bigger net.
But it didn’t really matter, the size of my net, because this fish had no interest in occupying it. With another headshake, and a quick turn, he torpedoed downstream, leaving me grasping for a response. In a wink, he’d bent the rod double and I felt the unmistakable, sickening ping of popping 5X – that awkward, rattling vibration that even the best of rods can’t dampen – an oscillation that, like a jolt of electricity, travels the line, runs down the stick like a lightning rod, resonates in the bone and sinew of arm and shoulder, and explodes in the psyche. It was over in a flash.
I stood and cursed – not in anger, but in awe and wonder and disbelief.
How big was he? Hard to say. Twenty inches? The absolute minimum. Twenty-four? I'd bet. Bigger? Quite possibly, though I’m beyond objectivity now. I do know that I’ve never touched his like.
What happened? Old tippet? Perhaps. A stressed knot? Likely. Poorly played? You can be absolutely sure. I was outclassed and outgunned – not all that unusual on a trout stream.
So I’m awake at 3:34am, reliving those precious few seconds, again and again and again, and I write about it in desperate hope of catharsis. But, if you fish, you know better. This will stay with me – it would stay with you - for a long, long time.
Tomorrow, I'm looking for a bigger net.