August 25th, 2010

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Big Fish

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

-Moby Dick, Herman Melville

I have spent most of the summer kicking around small streams catching mostly small trout. It has been a great time and I am not sure of a stretch in recent memory where I have enjoyed fly fishing so much. The wonderful habitat,  wild trout, and dry flies are in many ways what the sport is all about. I don’t think I have even used anything heavier than a 4 wt in months.

At some point though, I found myself wanting to catch some bigger fish. I am not sure if it just to prove to myself I still could or something deeper and more biological. Maybe it is just ego. I mean, after all, when you get back from fishing the first thing asked is if you caught any.  Assuming you answer in the affirmative to this, the second question is invariably “any good ones”?

Brown Trout

Jimmy Crain releases a Brown trout

And by “good” they don’t mean small wild fish; they mean big ones.

There are some considerations for targeting big fish. First, you have to fish where they grow big. Now there are quite a few places which satisfy this criteria including many of the high country lakes and streams we frequent. After this things get tricky, starting with the catching part. Although it is almost never easy to catch the big ones (I mean they are big for a reason, right?), there are times of the year when it is less difficult. These tend to be early and late in the season, before or after the smorgasbord of summer food, when the water temperatures are just right, and the stocking programs, which add a lot of cheap competition to the mix, have not yet begun or ended.  August does not fit into this scenario – the waters are warm, the fish are deep with plenty of food options and many of the waters are loaded with cookie cutters.

So at this time of year you are left with fewer options. One is to fish lakes like Christmas Tree on the White Mountain Apache Reservation where they stock larger Apaches for which you pay a high daily access fee. It is a wonderful place I have been to and will go again, but it is really not my cup of tea. Also, you could hit the road for specially managed waters like Becker Lake outside of Springerville or even head to New Mexico’s San Juan River. Both are great places too, but tend to get a little crowded and are far enough from home to make them more of a 3-4 day weekend affair.

A final option is to hit a closer remote stream which has wild, large fish. These are places which are not common and tend to be mediocre fisheries. Generally they are mid-elevation brown trout waters which are too warm for most rainbows or other trout, and are infested with crayfish. Population are small, but what few fish do subsist tend to be very hard to catch, but large, which of course is the whole point.

There is one such water a group us used to hit freqeuntly which comes off the Central Mogollon Rim . Were were much younger then, full of piss and vinegar, and also of the belief that only big fish mattered. So we hiked in there time after time, catching few, but big fish. If I were to call any of this small group of guys today and tell them “I went to the Honey Holes last weekend”, they would still know exactly where I was talking about. Their eyes would glass over with nostalgia and as soon they came back to earth, they would probably have a few names to call me for not having invited them.

I did invite another friend who had never been there before. Since it has been so long since I have been a regular, I was curious as to what we would find. Memories can make for better fishing than reality. Either way, I was pretty certain we would not catch a lot of fish so I tried to temper not only my expectations, but my partner’s as well. Of course being fisherman, this is impossible. I kept visions of two foot trout in my head and I am sure he did the same.

Roundtail chub

Jimmy Crain palms a Roundtail chub

We left the Valley early on Saturday and were hiking down the hill before it got too hot. After a hasty construction of camp, we headed upstream with rods in hand. The creek was more overgrown than I ever remember it in the past. It had changed. The old routes we used to cross the stream were choked with alder and while we occasionally used to catch a chub or two, they were thick now. I don’t even know how many we caught.

One thing  had not changed though – trout were few and far between. Eventually I could see this begin to wear on my partner. His cast had become less enthusiastic and diminished in frequency. Just after I gave him the “you gotta just keep on casting speech”, he hooked three fish in a row: a big chub, a nice brown, and a good rainbow (very rare in this water). This perked us both up enough to continue the march upstream.

It was getting pretty late in the day and I was still troutless when we arrived at the last pool we were going to fish. A little tired, I found a spot above the pool to sit and rest for a few minutes. It wasn’t long until I spotted an enormous brown trout in about 6 feet of water. You may not believe me, but this monster was in the ten pound class and larger than any fish I have caught in a couple decades. I just watched it for a while. Keeping in the same general area, it occasionally moved a few feet to suck a crayfish off the bottom.

I rebuilt a leader and tied on a crayfish fly. Nervously, somehow I managed a near perfect cast which landed softly just a hair less than ten feet and directly in front the fish. Life seemed to be going in slow motion. Casually the brown swam towards my sinking fly. I started to repeat in my head “count to three one-thousand before setting the hook, count to three one-thousand before setting the hook”.

After the longest, slowest ten foot swim I have ever witnessed the monster sucked in the fly.

“One one-thousand”

“Two one-thousand”

On reaction alone, I struck too soon. I felt him for a second before the fly popped out directly back at me. I collapsed to the ground.

It wasn’t long afterward when we had to start the race with darkness back to camp urged on by rolling thunder. We did not win the race, but it was close enough and rain had set in.

It rained all night, but that was alright.

I did not catch the fish I was looking for, but somehow still found most of what I wanted. To catch big fish, you have to fish for big fish and sometimes that just has to be good enough.

When asked if you caught any “good ones” sometimes you have to say “No”.  Having a story to tell, which is all we have in the long run, has to suffice. That, and a resolution of return.

A nice Brown trout

Jimmy with Brown