When I lived in Twin Bridges, I often drove by a small spring creek that looked interesting enough to fish some day. It was a small stream without much volume, eight to twelve feet wide, and, in most places, lined with willows and birches. A pool had formed above the road I drove over as the culvert held the water back, and below the road the stream dumped into a small pool. Below this pool, the stream ran swiftly along with willows on the left bank and a well-grazed pasture on the right. In this area, the stream was shallow, unlikely to hold fish, and the stream bottom was entirely covered with silt wherever the current slowed as a result of many years of over-grazing along its banks by livestock. Occasionally, I would stop to look for fish. Several times, I spotted fish above the road and once in a while a few insects on the water surface, but it didnt look very promising as a fishery.
Despite the apparent lack of the stream appearing to be a good fishery I thought that someday I would explore it. When I decided to explore the stream it was a bright mid-summer day late in the morning, when the sun was high so the visibility into the water would be best. Because it was a small stream, I took an eight-foot, 4-weight Winston glass rod, my favorite rod at the time. Wearing only hip boots, I began walking upstream, and where it was open, I kept well back from the stream in hopes of spotting fish before they saw me.
The stream meandered slowly back and forth and was, in most places, almost completely lined with willows, which made fish spotting nearly impossible. When I could see the stream, the bottom continued to be silt covered with only a small amount of aquatic vegetation showing up here and there. After walking nearly half a mile, the stream started to open up on my side giving me much better visibility into the water. It had been a pleasant walk through an almost manicured pasture that had been closely cropped by sheep.
So far, it had been a big disappointment for fish spotting, for I saw only a few small ones. Walking a little farther, I finally saw a nice brown, weighing perhaps two pounds, holding under some overhanging brush. Carefully watching the fish as it held gently in the current, I tried to figure out if I could make a presentation. There was just no way, the brush prevented any cast or drift I could imagine, so I reluctantly continued on.
I rounded a bend and saw ahead of me a low dam that was four or five feet high. I slipped up on the dam and carefully peered over it. The dam made a small pond that was shaped like a question mark with the widest portion of the pond at the bottom. It gradually narrowed as it reached the top where the stream ran in. At its widest, it was probably forty feet and its length maybe one hundred feet. Behind the pond from me and on the right side was a steep hill about twenty-five feet high sparsely covered with low grass. Running along most of the pond at the bottom of the hill was a line of willows and alders. Just to the right of where I stood was a large clump of willows.
As is my habit, I stood and watched the pond for perhaps ten minutes to see if there were any feeding fish. None. When I had rigged up my rod, I had tied on my favorite attractor fly, a size 16 Royal Wulff. I made eight or ten casts to different parts of the pond with no success. I eased up onto the dike and looked into the pond. I was looking south with my Polaroid sunglasses and could easily see into the pond. The water was clear with very little vegetation on the bottom giving me a clear view. I saw three or four small fish, but nothing of real interest. A good part of the pond was too far away to see so I headed for the hill to gain some elevation to get a better look.
The dam had been put there to raise the water level high enough to feed an irrigation ditch that flowed out of the pond to my right. On the far side of the ditch were several small-sized poplar trees. Walking towards the ditch, I noticed one of the trees had been cut down by a beaver and had fallen across the ditch just as it left the pond. At this point, the ditch was eight or ten feet wide, and a pad of moss about four feet high had built up in front of the downed tree.
Approaching the ditch, I glanced over at the moss and froze. The water under the moss was only about eighteen inches deep and clearly visible on the bottom was the shadow of a pectoral fin as big as three of my fingers held together. There was a huge fish hanging right under the moss! I couldnt have been more than fifteen feet from the fish, but, fortunately, the pad of moss prevented the fish from spotting me.
I stood frozen to the spot trying to figure out how to cast to the fish. With the poplars on the right and willows on the left, my only chance was to cast over the moss. Carefully, I crept up to where I could make a short cast and knelt down. Im sure that I couldnt have been more than fifteen feet from the top edge of the moss. My hands were shaking as I unhooked the fly from the keeper. I knew there would most likely be just one chance at the fish. It would be almost impossible to pick up the fly without hooking the moss and spooking the fish.
My heart was pounding as the fly flew back and forth as I carefully measured the casting distance. With as much delicacy as I could muster, I released the line, and the fly gently settled down not more than a foot beyond the moss. The fly moved just two or three inches before it disappeared in a gentle sip. In my minds eye the take seemed like it was a slow motion movie. I knew that the worst thing would be to strike too quickly before the fish had a chance to completely take the fly. What seemed like forever passed before I set the hook.
As I remember it, nothing happened for what seemed like a long time, and then the moss erupted in a huge swirl as the fish headed into the safety of the pond. I know its surprise was total. Its doubtful that it had ever seen a fisherman much less been hooked by one.
Experience had taught me to get in as open a place as possible to play big fish so as to better control their movements. I ran through the ditch holding the rod up to make sure the line was clear and moved to the right bank of the pond to get more room.
The fish was strong, but not wild. It made a powerful, but slow, run towards the narrow part of the pond, but I was able to stop it before it got to some brush along the side. I carefully worked it back into the center of the pond. Luckily for me, there werent any obstructions in the main pond for it to find its escape. I was very anxious to get a good look at it to see how big it was in case it broke off. After a couple of minutes of tug of war, the fish began to tire and come up from the bottom where I could get a good look. It was a brown trout of at least five pounds!
The big brown continued to fight back and forth, but my steady sideward pressure began wearing it down. It would make a better story to tell about wild thrashings, spectacular jumps, and other narrow escapes of the big fish, but thats not what happened. I gradually worked the fish towards me, and it gently rolled on its side. I laid my rod down and slipped my hands under my biggest trout ever on a dry fly!
Not only was it big, but it was also beautiful. An old male with a pronounced kype, it was as perfectly proportioned as if it had been painted. The sides were golden yellow color with big red spots that were radiant. The best part was its size; it easily weighed between six and seven pounds!
I was overwhelmed by my feelings. This was in the middle 80s, and I had been fishing for almost 40 years. I had seen a few fish of this size, but I had never caught one on a dry fly. It just felt so satisfying to see and hold such a magnificent fish. After a few moments contemplation, I carefully removed the fly and slipped the brown into the water and watched it glide away into the darkness of the pool. The big brown had given me one of my greatest angling thrills and, except for my memory of it, that was all that was left. Only the trout and I knew our experiences.
I sat down on the bank to reflect on my good luck. Catching such a magnificent fish on a dry fly from such unlikely water was unbelievable. You just never know where you might find such a magnificent fish. With all of the fabled waters in southwestern Montana that I had fished for years, it seemed crazy that I would find the biggest fish in such a quiet, out-of-the-way place.
It was time to go. The brush along the pond on my side prevented me from continuing on so I headed back to the dam where I started. I almost headed back to the car, but I decided that I would walk along the pond to see if I could see more big fish. As I walked along the east side, I scared out another big fish and several smaller ones. A patch of willows prevented me from continuing up the bank, so I went around them. I could see a small stream coming into the top of the pond and, because it was somewhat in the direction I wanted to go, I started upstream.
Once again, the stream was shallow with a clear sandy bottom and was maybe ten feet wide. Along my side, cattails lined the bank making it hard to get a clear view of the stream. I hadnt gone more than 20 or 30 feet before I saw through the cattails another brown lying right out in the open in not over a foot of water. I was much closer to this fish than I wanted to be. Slowly crouching down, I very carefully worked back until I was perhaps 25 feet below it. I quietly slipped through the cattails, and, keeping my body mostly hidden by the cattails, I slowly knelt in the water, blending in as best as I could.
Now that this fish was clearly visible, it looked even bigger than the first one! I must have knelt there at least five minutes trying to figure out the best way to approach it. From my experience, fish like this that are just lying in the open on a bright day, not feeding on anything are the toughest. One strategy that had worked well for me in situations like this was to cast my fly just to the side and just below the head of a fish. This way the fish can see the fly, but the leader doesn't pass over them. It was worth a try.
This was the most exciting moment I can ever remember fishing. Right before me was the biggest brown trout of my life. Even bigger than the one I had just caught! It was just the trout and I. There wasnt a ripple on the water or take rings to mask the fly delivery or any other distractions. Just the fish sitting there looking out at the world wary of anything out of the ordinary that would send him into hasty retreat to the cover of deeper water. It was a contest between me and the fish to fool it into thinking that my fly was food. A pure and elementary challenge.
Normally, I would cast side to side to keep any line from going over the fish, but here there was no room. No room to measure the casting distance. The only thing in my favor was the stream was straight so my back cast would be easy.
It was time. I gently worked the line out keeping it well below the fish, made the final presentation and released the line shooting the last few feet. The line, leader, and fly rolled out and were on their way. With the extra long leader, the Royal Wulff floated down exactly where I intended. If I had walked up and set it there it couldnt have been more perfect. The fish didnt budge. Neither did I. Not a fin twitched or any other outward sign of life showed itself. The water flowed painfully slowly as the fly came towards me and away from the fish. Finally, it was far enough away from the fish so I wouldnt spook it by casting again.
I had measured the line with the first cast and knew that the next one would be the right distance. I made one false cast and shot the line towards the fish aiming for the same small window just to the right and below his eye. My years of casting and fishing this supple glass rod paid off. The rod was just an extension of my arm, even of my thoughts. The fly once again settled down exactly where I wanted it. It was as if the fish were frozen in time. There was not a movement. Not a hint that it had seen my fly. I felt really discouraged.
My hopes of catching this fish were almost gone. My two absolutely perfect presentations had not only been refused, but actually ignored. The chances of my making another perfect presentation were not good. I decided to wait a couple of minutes before trying once again. In situations like this, it was sometimes a matter of trying several times to see who would make the first mistake. If I could help it the mistake wouldnt be mine. Despite the odds, my next cast was a repeat of the other two.
The fly settled down and started its journey towards me. As if coming out of a stupor the big fish eased over to the fly and gently sipped it in. He started back to his lie before I struck him. As he felt the hook his fins shot out in surprise, and, with explosive force and a flurry of sand he turned and raced by me towards the pond. As the fish zoomed by me not more than three feet away, I could feel the solid throbs of its tail vibrating the water. I jumped up and stepped onto the bank carefully watching the line so as to not tangle it. I ran for the head of the pond so I could maintain as much control over the fish as I could.
There was some brush and other debris in the water, but, by staying even with the brown as it moved up and down the pool and by keeping strong and steady sideward pressure on the fish, I was able to keep it clear of trouble. It ran back and forth in the pond, but it wasnt a dramatic fight: just a strong study pulling with a few hard, desperate lunges. When it was tired I eased it over to the bank and slid it partially into some grass and pounced on it. I slipped the Royal Wulff from its lip cradling the huge brown in my hands without removing it from the water. The color was almost exactly like the first one as was its overall health and conformation. But it was at least a pound heavier than the first one! I looked into its unblinking eye and felt some ancient connection that has never left me. I let it slip out of my hands, and it swam to the bottom and sat there for maybe five minutes before it swam into deeper water.
What a fabulous day! The two biggest fish of my life within twenty minutes of each other in the most unlikely place I could think of.
. . .
As I walked back to the car, I noticed some wild asparagus plants and made a mental note to go back next spring to pick some and to see if the fish were still there. Early June next year found me back at the pond. Once again there were several large fish in the pond, but the moss pad was gone, so the first fish wasnt in the same place. As I carefully walked the stream above the pond, I saw the larger fish was in the same spot. I watched him for some time before walking around him leaving him in peace. The next year I made another pilgrimage to the pond. There was my old friend lying in his usual spot. I had observed this fish that I believe to be the same fish in the same spot for three years and from my observations it hadnt changed a bit in size.
Catching these two large browns was one of the most memorable fishing experiences I ever had. I wanted to keep and treasure that wonderful moment, so never again did I try to catch those fish.
Since then, I have pondered many times how old that fish might have been. The habitat seemed to be very marginal because the stream bottom was all silt; there was no vegetation in the stream, and very little water flow. I believe fish like this are very old, and, if they are caught and kept it will be many years--if ever-- before they are replaced.
Although I have told a few people about catching these two fish, I have returned many times in my mind and have revisited these two special fish. However, Ive never told a soul where they were. They deserve to live in peace and not risk having someone take them home to brag about. They, or their offspring, should still be lying there, peacefully waiting for my Royal Wulff.