Ones that get away keep you fishing

The writer shows a bright orange mop fly, its hook straightened out by a big trout that got away.

The most familiar type of fish tale must be “the one that got away.” Hopefully, readers are open to hearing one more saga about a catch-gone-wrong.

Last Friday, friends and I were fishing a beautiful stream in the local mountains, mostly a social event but everyone cast a few lines, especially toward evening when a hatch of mayflies was expected. My success was poor, but fine company and good food eased any regrets. Still, I felt compelled to leave early, even before the hatch emerged, to prepare for an unrelated task early next morning.

My truck was parked near the others, across the stream, which required one last fording to pack up and leave. Wading across, a sight to excite any angler lay in my path. An immense trout was finning in shallow water, holding its position and facing upstream.

Any angler would likewise understand my impulse. Even though I’d decided to leave, there was no way I could depart without trying to hook this giant.

I had already tied a coffin-fly to my leader, meant to imitate the last dying phase in the reproductive life of the green drake mayfly. Green drakes are the elegant adult insects that have lived on the stream bottom as nymphs, then emerge in early summer to mate, lay eggs on the water, and die. Fisherman love to put themselves where and when drakes emerge, because trout abandon caution to gobble them off the surface. Such a hatch, when it happens, is something like fly-fishing’s Super Bowl and World Series combined in one revered event.

Our drake hatches on local streams are modest, but trout eat them when they can — normally. I cast upstream from the trout, then could not draw a breath as the fly drifted closer and over it nose. Despite my expectation, the beast ignored the offer. Worse, it finned sideways to avoid its pass-over. I tried repeated casts, but the big fish was getting fidgety. I opted to adapt.

I fingered through my messy fly-box and selected a nymph, a fuzzy, muted artifice that imitates the underwater sub-adult insect. A nymph is often effective but, unlike the floating adult, it’s impossible to see as it drifts near the objective. So, when you can see the targeted fish, as I could, you watch for a slight movement of the head, or the jaws opening, then raise the rod and hope.

The nymph tumbled past the trout a dozen times, or I think it did because I couldn’t see it. The trout was unimpressed.

Sometimes, fishing rewards you for trying something unconventional. So, on a hopeful whim I tied on a “mop fly.” A mop fly is just what it sounds like — it’s made from a mop. You cut off the end of one of a mop’s fat, globular strands and tie it to a hook. Garish, ugly colors are best — bright orange, hot-pink or iridescent green. Orthodox fly-fishers look askance at such creations because they imitate nothing in nature. If you employ imagination, they might represent a radioactive earthworm — but trout don’t care. Mop flies are a craze in modern fly-fishing, not because they are “pretty” or “natural.” People sneak them onto their leaders because they catch fish.

Glancing around to confirm than none of my fly-fishing friends saw me employ a mop fly, I lobbed it upstream. Visibility is no problem with mop flies. Drifting toward the trout, the thing looked like one of those contemporary electric advertising signs that blind you from seeing stoplights. Again, I held my breath — couldn’t help it. When the neon-orange “fly” rolled within reach, that trout shifted toward it, opened its maw and ate. I lifted the rod and felt the hook-up. The fish felt it at the same instant and erupted upstream with my mop fly stuck at the tip of its snout.

Likely, not all readers are versed in the nomenclature of fly tackle, but I had a 3-weight rod, with a fly tied to a 5X tippet — light gear for a fish of such bulk. I’ll never know how big it was. My guess was eight pounds, but a more practiced eye said six. Another friend to whom I related the tale said, “Heck, just make it 12, what’s the difference at this point?”

I had neglected to take a net, so I yelled for companions to bring one. One rescuer was quickly on the scene, wielding a normal-size net you’d use for frying-pan fish. He gaped at “my” trout, tearing around the pool and squealing line off my reel and observed, “We need a bigger net.”

Another friend brought a “real” net, one you might see on a Great Lakes salmon boat. She stood next to me in the pool and made a couple of swipes, but I couldn’t steer the brute near enough.

The challenge with light tackle and big fish is that you don’t dare apply too much pressure, else the leader will break. You must split the difference between letting the fish have its way and applying measured pressure when you can.

Meanwhile, a crowd had gathered, and none could fail to see the glaring pink-and-orange orb in the trout’s snout.

About then, the big rainbow got a new idea. At the pool’s downstream end is a waterfall that plunges about eight near-vertical feet to another hole below. The trout began to bull its way toward the drop, and I pulled back as hard as I dared to try and turn him. But it wasn’t enough. He got into the current and slipped over the lip like an adult salmon headed the wrong way on its journey to spawn. I “sprinted” after the fish in hip-deep water but it was a futile. When I got to the edge my line trailed limp in the froth.

I lifted the line and caught the mop fly in my fingers. The hook had straightened and pulled free, and that trout was somewhere downstream, victorious and free (It would have been released anyway).

There’s a big letdown in a moment like that, but I think it explains why we fish. At any time, on any trip, something like this might happen, and maybe you remember that better than a fish you put on a wall.

Ben Moyer is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

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