Once each season I take a special fishing trip with my friend Tom Morgan. Because he is in Montana while I'm in Cheeseland, it is a spiritual journey. No worries, the communication is effortless. His gentle voice is there at my shoulder when I need advise. Adding to the Joy Factor, our outings usually produce an unusually outstanding fish.
You know how fast and loose I am with trout advice. More than you may want at times, but the price is probably all right, and the refills are free. With Tom it is different; his is a quiet wisdom. It comes with a confidence that it is offered only after careful consideration.
This year has been a difficult one for finding big, healthy fish on my home river. It seems there are fewer big fish overall and that almost all of them are slim to the point of being worrisome. Further compounding the situation has been the increased angling pressure all the way through June. That's why I held off on my journey with Tom until the hot weather, high weeds, and better educated fish to take their toll on the hordes of recent fly fishing converts. It is amazing how quickly the weeds reclaim what was once a well-beaten down angler highway.
When you comment to me about how slim the pickings are on your favorite stretch, I'm quick to advise that it is time to break out of your rut and explore some new water. The end in mind of course is to scout out a new "tank" or at least find some nice size fish that aren't in full time mono shock. There is nothing like a few big, fat virgins for putting the buzz back in your trout fishing. Well, this tale is about what can happen when the entire formula for success comes together. For a brief snapshot in time, you find yourself in the zone. It is also all about choices, including a decision to take some of my own advise about not pounding the same old path. As you read this, hear all the choices that influenced the outcome and you'll have a better idea who is really driving the bus in our lives!
Fishing with Tom you don't get a lot of advice, but it is worth taking note of when offered. For the past two years he has been talking up his new #3 rod and kindly sent me a prototype to play with. As you may know, I'm hooked deeply, to the point of irrational dependency, on his #2 and hate to waste prime fishing hours experimenting. So, I hadn't spent much quality time with his new rod. Since I was heading out West in a couple of weeks and knew that there will be no choice but to use heavier rods, an action plan gelled around capitalizing on the hot, windy weather to fish hoppers with Tom's #3 rod while at the same time exploring new water. Great way to get my arm in shape and since Tom is one of those dry fly purity guys; I'd keep the flap to a minimum by staying on his side of the surface.
Now, over the past twenty-five years my wading boots have left their mark on just about all the stream bottom of my favorite river worth fishing. This usually makes exploring new water a matter of semantics, where the changes over a couple of years create new situations. However, there was one stretch that old time fishing pal Bob "Booker" Reynolds had mentioned years back that had stuck in mind. I remember him saying that it had big fish potential and it sight-nymphed well. Somehow I had not taken the time to sample it. Okay, okay, in the interest of full disclosure; it is a long walk in. Besides, I had never done that well in the area, although Bob had had several heart breaking experiences there. His invitations for going there, mostly for in the early morning, were skillfully deferred under the guise of needing to take care of booker business elsewhere (a "booker" is a twenty inch or larger trout). Mostly closer to the road!
What the hell, the recent months had been exceptionally generous with big fish, so I looked forward to enjoying a day of good spiritual company and some pure fishing for fun, which is what you get when the fish are on the lookout for hoppers. As Dave Whitlock would say, it was a "Hoppertunity" Day. The first riffle quickly produced two slashing eats and in the next, three fish in a row ate on successive casts. One was a nice brookie; the rest determined browns up to the mid-teens. Tom mumbled something about this was what real trout fishing was all about. Difficult to debate when you are laughing so hard. Further adding to the moment was being able to set-up on these hopper blasters with all necessary force, knowing that the 4X would hold. Actually, it felt like bleeping cable after months of nothing but 7X. Everything was working out nicely. Secretly I was concerned about my ability to set the hook on a light tippet with this rod. It is a real gun compared to my # two rod that he made for me. The additional power was downright scary to me. Just the day before a nice, but not too big, brown took long term ownership of my favorite hopper along with a couple feet of my 6X. Hey, it just isn't good form to be breaking off fish when you hanging out with the guy who designed the rod. Talk about pressure. Yet we were off to a great start, so we pushed on around the bend to discover what destiny would offer.
What a surprise, the next sweeping bend had it all, depth, snags, big rocks, and an extensive riffle above to provide lots of groceries. Couldn't bring anything up on the hopper, even at the head of the run where it meets the riffle dumped into the bigger rocks. I would have pounded it with a nymph to see who was home, but didn't want to listen to Tom whine about not sticking with the hopper plan. Another time. Above the riffle was a long smooth stretch that looked inviting. As I eased through the last of the riffle and into the bottom of the tailout above, a dark form on the bottom stood out, smack in the middle of stream, lit-up by the bright sun. No doubt about it, a very nice fish. However, I was in a difficult situation, directly behind the fish about forty feet. The risk of spooking it was too great to try sneaking around either side. Trees behind me limited my casting angle to a nearly straight over the fish shot. No movement to the hopper, not even a fin quiver and no comment from Tom when the 6X tippet went on and the nymph box was pulled out. This was now serious business. A couple of test casts revealed that there was a sprinkling of lesser sentential trout just upstream and to each side of it. They intercepted each presentation, but eventually spit it out. The drill according to Tom, now suddenly a nymphing expert, was to pick a fly with the right density to quickly sink it into the strike zone of the big fish without having to throw it upstream so far that it came in range of the juveniles. Good advise, so I picked a medium weighted LFB(Little F'ing Bug pattern). A couple of hold-your-breath casts while sorting out the exact range, them the real pitch. Good as gold and with a little help from the wind to hook the leader away from the fly, it looked promising. The dark shape swung over into the drift line of my nymph. When everything felt right, I did anticipation strike and was rewarded with an angry headshake, then a great, high speed leap. A big blur of golden yellow flanks was followed by a sizzling run. Very pleased to have survived the strike on 7X, I gave chase. The extra leader strength and the added power of the mighty three weight were an unbeatable combination. Soon at hand, it was gratifying to feel the heft of a well-proportioned booker of slightly over twenty inches. Not fat, but fit and one of the prettiest of the season. This was turning into quite the day. Yes, indeed.
Two more spirited connections confirmed that we had stumbled into virgin territory, at least for serious, light tippet, sight-nymphers. My pulse rate climbed and my palms started to sweat. This was going to be sweet. And it was, but not every good fish spotted cooperated and very few of them on the first drift. Yet, most eventually ate. They were fit and there were many. Hey, we all work had for moments like these and I liked showing off our local stuff a little for Tom. So, I worked each good fish carefully. This was primo fishing. Nothing huge, but in part the numbers made up for that. The two big snag piles across stream looked like they could hide even bigger stuff. I could easily imagine a major cruiser sliding out into the current and setting up on station. Not today, though. The afternoon melted away.
Shadows lengthened and my thoughts darkened as I tried to recall how much stream we had covered on the way in. It seems that the older I get, the more the trek back to the car has become distasteful. Maybe it is the finality of it all. As is usually the case when it comes to hot stretches, there wasn't much in the way of a developed path. That meant slow going to reach the car. And of course I left my flashlight in the car. Remember that I'm a sight fisher, we don't fish after dark like some dry fly guys do.
Out of habit on the return route, I kept scanning the water while slogging through the thick bank weeds. Before going more than two hundred feet, my wading shoe brakes slammed on before my conscious brain realized what had happened. Right in mid stream was an eye stopping major hulkster, maybe twenty feet below the first big snag pile. While Tom was reeling his chin back up into a speaking position, the cruiser swung over and made a half hearted attempt to shag an eight-inch trout. Promising sign, I thought! The little fella boogied for the rocks in the shallows. Struggling to stay calm, I stripped out my line and checked for back cast room. Very workable. First cast with the LFB was reasonably on target considering the circumstances and all the adrenaline racing through my veins. For a breath-stopping instance the form moved to where the fly should have been, but turned away at the last moment. Then, almost as if a delayed reaction, it shifted into cruise mode and took off slowly, powered by a huge, nearly black tail. Whoosh, out comes the breath along with an emphatic Shit, Funk, Dam! What a fish; what an opportunity lost. This wasn't the first time this season that I had seen this behavior before. It is as if they sense something wrong, but aren't immediately sure what. Then, their brain tumblers seem to eventually fall into the right recognition slot place and they move away from the perceived threat.
Big as this one was and in only three foot of water, relocating was no problem at all. I found it only a little ways upstream and did my best stealth routine to get into position. Switched to a late season orange caddis pupa...had my new friend swing over a couple of feet for a close up inspection on the first cast, but no lip action. Second cast triggered the cruise mode again. This wasn't going to be one of those easy virgin deals; this fish knew the drill. Kind person that he is, Tom didn't suggest going dry! Another relocate, this time downstream. Great angle and best opportunity yet. Big whoops, over shot it badly. This time the hulk is gone, dusk is settling in, and I can't see it anywhere. No comments from over my shoulder. Had destiny closed the door? Oh well, it had been a magic day and there was a big reason for a replay visit.
Excited voices downstream. Shit, I thought, making matters worst company is here. Out of the corner of my eye I see a chunky looking guy in jeans go sliding down the bank and into the stream with a huge splash! Live entertainment; what a bonus. Could he be mocking my stealth routine? Then I noticed the spin gear and knew that we had an unwanted audience for the rest of the evening. So much for secrecy. A little magic quickly faded from the day.
Back to the challenge at hand; getting one last shot. Anxious minutes later, I caught a hint of movement in the soft water near the opposite bank. Yes! The fat lady hadn't sung yet; she held up directly across stream almost on the bank. With a tongue of faster current between us, this was the worst position yet for making a decent presentation, but with fading light this was it. Out of habit I ran the tippet through my fingers....double-dam...a wind knot several inches from the fly. Quick time check: 7:35. Decision time: cutting out the knot would result in a shorter than I like tippet; leaving it in with a fish this big was certain disaster; no time to tie on a new length. So it was clip it out and retie. May as well try the same caddis pupa it showed interest in earlier I thought.
Took a one glance, intuitive gauge of the situation, two false casts to get on target, and then made the pitch. The slight plop of where the pupa hit indicated that I should be on track if the faster current didn't screw up the drift. Regretfully I have no visual recall for what happened next and what triggered me to strike. It must have been as base-brain, autopilot thing, but I struck with authority. There was no pop of the tippet and the rod took on a serious bend. I could feel Tommy beaming with pride. The connection made, but what now? Oh let me land this one, please.
Furious head shakes jolted me back into the moment. No happiness on the monster's end of things. Then, a mad rush toward me followed by a surge downstream and into the tailout. Each sweep of the tail carved out major whirls as it powered by me. Big sigh of temporary relief. What was a fantastic stroke of luck with a major snag only thirty feet upstream. Considering the anxiety I've had with snags lately, maybe I was destiny due. Soon as it cleared my position, I moved to the center of the stream in an attempt to block it from the trouble upstream. Glare on the water kept me from tracking it's path, so I kept focused on where the leader entered the water and repositioned accordingly. The first couple of attempts to bolt upstream were easily foiled by moving to head it off. I calmed a bit and my confidence meter climbed a notch. Then it feinted right, only to then quickly reverse and streak to the left. The dark hulk was now in full control. A rising sense of futility took over. All I could do was swing around to face upstream and put on as much pressure as I dared. No way was I going to slow this rocket. Turning Point decision time. Tom may have been trying to offer help, but I was deep into the Monster Zone, where there isn't anything else. I decided to sprint upstream, that is as much as a fifty plus guy in rubber pants, knee deep in water, with fading light can sprint. The big shape was traveling approximately one hundred and three times faster than I was. Then it did one of those dangerous and terrifying catapult-spin type leaps, crashing back into the water only a few feet from the logs on its left. It looked even bigger out of the water, a lot bigger! Thankfully we were still joined somehow, but with each second, I was fully expecting that sickening slackening of the line that comes after the tippet frays through. My heart raced with happier expectations as the light colored fly line streaked past the first dangerous snag pile and in route to the next snag some 100 feet further upstream. Go figure!! Time for mega Morgan butt power. I twisted the drag knob on the #5 Hardy System reel to full on and leaned into it with all the force I dared, gradually letting it pull me upstream until I was well above the first snag. Then I dug my heels in, determined to slug it out from there. Gradually its upstream progress slowed. Then I started to gain a few inches of line at a time. Soon, with leader butt in the guides, we reached a stalemate. Although my arm was beginning to ache after fifteen minutes, I could see that my monster was working much harder than I was. Suddenly her gills flared, jaws flexed wide and out hurled the parts and pieces of a small fish that hadn't been quick enough. She had been well feed, before now that is.
Content to keep the fight at close quarters, I concentrated on pulling straight back from whatever direction she headed; that used the full strength of the 7X tippet at an angle that would sap her strength the most. Once the power surges stopped, I switched to trying to lift her head up. After a few minutes I could pressure it near the surface; then using her big pecs she would angle back down, which forced the tail nearer to the surface. Man, did this thing have a back, by far the biggest trout back I had pulled behind ... ever? And length too. Could this be the thirty-incher I had been after for so many years? Just maybe. Another couple cycles of lifting her head and forcing her to break the surface with her tail to power back deeper and a landing plan formed. At the end of the next cycle, my anxious left hand was there in time to grab the tail as it neared the surface. Solid grip. Next, Rod into my mouth and switched hands on the tail with my left hand locking in under her left side pectoral fins. Grip and Grin time. The unmistakable feeling of my hands being a very long ways from each other. This deal was done! A gasp from Tom's direction when I swung that way confirmed that she was major big. Slosh to the shallows. Very aware of the substantial weight that I was carrying. Out with the tape. Shaking hands drop it. She senses the blunder and suddenly blasts loose. A groan somewhere in the growing dark.
Long ago, after losing many potential bookers before getting a confirming measurement, I had become very anal about making sure that my leader is free from the rod when I haul a major fish to the shallows next to the bank. So, I wasn't nearly as concerned as Tom. Back to work is was, but her power is gone. Soon the tail is offered again and taken. More careful to block her into the shallows tighter this time, the situation calmed, although Tom continued to pace. She is so long that it is difficult to keep the tape lined up on both ends. Slow calming breaths, the tape keeps pulling out further, and further finally stretching out to twenty-seven inches. My biggest ever on this river and on 7X to boot. She feels broad and deep; tapes at thirteen...would have guessed more, but that is a lot of girth spread out over twenty-seven inches. Slip the pupa out of the roof of her mouth and settled back to admire her and to feel the mass in my hands, but she says this party is over, and drenches me with a parting tail blast. No worries about her being fit for another round later in the season
Smiles all around as we danced downstream to discover if our clumsy spin fishing friends had caught the show. Applying my best guile, I ask how's fishing... only to get a grumbling response. Going for it all, I ask if they ever get any big ones around here. "No wall hangers" is the retort. Clearly we were in crabby company and it was time to light foot it back to the car and have a proper celebration. The new Mrs. Biggs was safe from these two guys unless one of them falls on her.
A couple of days have now passed and the images remain vivid and compelling. I hope they will last a long time, but know time will fade them eventually. What a fortunate chain of events. Had only one of the many pivotal decisions been different, starting with following up on Bob's ancient advise to explore this spot and ending with when to make a grab for her tail, the day could have ended like most others, a good excuse to spend some quality time with an old friend.
Could I have landed Mrs. Biggs under the same circumstances with my trusty two weight? Maybe, but the extra power of Tom's three certainly shaved many minutes off an already lengthy encounter. It was nearly twenty-five minutes as it was. Considering how much power she had left to bust loose from my grip twice, there was a lot more strength left than with most of my bigger bookers that I have landed with the two. Something to think about more, but first I have to get this new rod out West and see what it can do with the big, nasty rainbows of the Beaverhead and the Henry's Fork. Maybe I'll ask Tom to go along if he won't make me use dry flys all day.