Almosts: The Spice of Angling

An old resident of the Falling Spring Branch from a decade ago.

Anglers all, we love to catch trout, and most assuredly big trout. The big fish is a dream believed in by all fishermen, and we are all mesmerized by the unobtainable: the one that got away!

Think about them, those moments that truly stand out as the most exciting memories in your angling career. I’ll bet a majority of them involve a huge fish that managed to escape before you got your shaking, dripping hands upon him. No matter how many trophies you have landed, those that didn’t make it to the net are the ones your dreams, or perhaps your nightmares, are made of.

Like any angler, I can recount plenty of them…

The first time I fished Ohio’s Conneaut Creek I was working my way upstream and fishing each likely spot I thought might hold a steelhead. The lip of one gravelly tailout looked unimpressive, but it was right in front of me, so I popped a cast ahead before I stepped out of the deeper, faster water below. Though the water was clear, I never saw what hit my fly, but whatever it was shot straight across the river like a bullet, and broke my 2X fluorocarbon leader on a straight pull. My best Conneaut steelhead weighed 13 pounds, but I will forever wonder about that unseen chromer that left me shaking with a broken line!

I remember the spring day I took a walk down a heavily fished reach of the West Branch. A fast moving storm had passed through just before I arrived, the thunder still rumbling off in the distance, and the sky black. There wasn’t a soul out there, as everyone had abandoned the river during the fierce downpour. The next few moments of solitude still live in infamy for this fly fisher.

Looking toward the river as I walked, I spied an enormous bulge in the surface out past midstream. I glided straight toward the river’s edge and stalked slowly into the pool. Before I could cast to the location that got my heart pumping, another bulge appeared closer to my position. My mind raced: another fish? A moving fish? I pulled line from the reel in time to see that monstrous bulge come a second time. I lifted the rod and placed my Blue Quill parachute gently above my target, and leviathan came to it like manna from heaven!

Oh what a battle! He leaped clear of the surface three times within thirty feet of me, ran me twice into my backing, then jumped again. Eyes wide, I had no doubt this brown trout was well over two feet long, and he was mine, lying on his side on the surface fifteen feet away as I reached for the net. I am sure you all know the sickening sound, the heartbreaking feeling of that little ping when a hook gives way. I will swear that fish was easily 28 inches long, perhaps longer, but I will never, ever know. I’ll never forget that moment either.

Just this past season I was surprised to see some trout cruising and sipping something small while good mayflies drifted past them. One of my sulfurs had been hot, and I offered several perfect presentations to one of those cruisers to no avail. It was late in the spring, and the weather had been hot, so I cut off my sulfur and knotted a silk bodied black ant to my tippet. One cast and the fly was gently accepted; then lightning struck as I raised the rod!

The old bamboo took an awful bend, and my Hardy reel screamed at the run he made, deep into my backing. The fish was powerful, and headed for the submerged boulders near the bank. I stuck the rod as high in the air as I could, the blank now “u” shaped with the strain, but the tippet held. The strain turned him thankfully, as the bamboo had no more quarter to give. I retrieved backing and fly line grudgingly and wondered what was coming next. The reel’s next chorus answered my inquiry, as the unseen foe nearly emptied it again. Gradually his runs grew shorter, though his power never seemed to diminish. At last he was within twenty feet, though still holding deep enough that I couldn’t see him, and then, yes that sudden and awful ping!

It is a wonderful feeling to hold them in your hands, to work the fly free and slide them into the current to revive. It is certain, victory, and the spoils are right there to be measured, photographed, admired. Ah, but those battles that are left at as best a draw!

Pat Schuler had anchored the drift boat along the shore, and tied on a size 16 caddis fly for me to fish the heavy riffle in front of us. It was one of those hot, bright Catskill afternoons on the Delaware so many years ago, and the flies weren’t showing. I made four, five, perhaps half a dozen casts, until a tiny spurt of water appeared where my fly was drifting just a moment ago. I struck hard to make up for my delay, and the disc drag reel spun so hard and fast I reached for the palming rim, sure this mystery fish would empty the reel in seconds at his current rate of departure. My thumb glanced off the spinning handle ever so slightly, and fly and fish were gone.

Back when finances allowed a prime season float trip, I fished annually with Pat. I used to banter back and forth with him, saying all I needed was a twenty-five inch rainbow. Pat would shake his head and tell me they simply didn’t grow that big in the Delaware, though he guided me to plenty from nineteen to twenty-two inches long back in those days. I will always wonder about that fish in the riffle though; always…

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