A few weeks ago, I fished a deep undercut bank at dusk.
My podcast partner, Dave, and I had an outstanding day on a little spring creek in the Minnesota Driftless. We decided to return in the evening to see if any fish were rising — or if any big ones might be coaxed out of their hiding places. The creek is full of brown trout, so we thought we might get a chance to hook into a big one on the prowl.
We only saw a handful of rising fish. So I tied on a Woolly Bugger to fish a deep undercut bank. After a few strips through the dark water, a fish slammed my fly. It felt like a big fish. Dave concurred. The fight was on! Then it happened. As hard as I tried to keep it from escaping to its lair, the trout managed to get to the undercut bank and tangle my line around a submerged tree branch.
Perhaps the biggest trout I hooked on that little creek became “the one that got away.” I have other stories like this. They keep popping up in my memory. And I keep bringing them into conversations with my fly fishing friends. “Did I ever tell you about the one that got away when I was fishing the Bear Trap section of the Madison?”
It dawned on me recently that these memories—and my inclination to share them—have some upsides. I can think of at least two upsides to “the one that got away.”
Mystique of the One that Got Away
First, the big trout that get away add a bit of mystique to our experiences on the river. I keep wondering if that Minnesota brown I hooked was 18+ inches. Dave and I know there are some monsters that lurk in a few those deep pools. Yet the largest brown I’ve caught in that spring creek to date is about 14 inches.
A couple decades ago, I purchased a new Orvis fly rod. The first time I used it, I tied into an aggressive rainbow.
At least I assume it was a rainbow.
I was fishing the Bear Trap section of Montana’s Madison River in the spring. I hooked a fish while nymphing, and it felt like a big fish. Then it decided to run. I ran after it — well, as fast as one can run in a couple feet of water! Shortly before it got into my backing, it wrapped itself around a large rock and snapped off the line. In retrospect, I should have been more aggressive in fighting it.
But I still have memories of that fish.
Initially, the memories were painful. Oh, I would have liked to see that trout! I’ve caught several twenty-inchers in that stretch of the Madison during the spring, and this one seemed even bigger. In more recent years, though, I’ve felt more nostalgia than pain when this memory surfaces. That elusive fish is part of the mystery that accompanies fly fishing. I’ll always imagine it as larger than it probably was.
Challenge of the One that Got Away
Another upside, I suppose, of the one that got away is how it reminds you that fly fishing is a challenging pursuit.
Let’s face it: if you caught a large trout on every cast, fly fishing would lose its appeal. Sure, it would be a blast at first. Eventually, though, it would resemble fishing in hatchery pond. The lack of challenge would diminish the satisfaction.
Part of the satisfaction that comes from fly fishing relates to overcoming adversity. Getting skunked is one form of adversity. But it’s worse when you were close—oh, so close—to landing what feels like a monster trout. It’s like blowing a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series. It stings more than losing the series in four games.
The big fish I’ve hooked and lost remind me how hard they are to land. Any number of things can go wrong. On those occasions when everything goes right, I have a greater sense of appreciation for what I accomplished. The ones that got away remind me that I’ve overcome a challenge when I finally get that 22-inch trout into my landing net.
Hope for the Future
I’ve shared the story before of a fall day on Montana’s Madison River with my son, Luke. He was about 11 years old at the time. On his first cast, he snagged a rock. Or so he thought. I waded over to see if I could dislodge his fly without snapping it off. As I tugged gently, I sensed movement at the other end.
“Luke, you’ve got big one the end of your line!”
He played it well, and I moved in with my net. The trout rolled in the film. It was monster brown! Suddenly, as big fish tend to do, it took off just as I was lifting the net. It wrapped itself around my legs and snapped off. I felt sick. I could see Luke was upset. So I consoled him with words of hope: “Luke, there’s more in here like this. You’ll probably hook into another one on the next cast.” I’m not sure I believed this. But that’s exactly what happened. Luke caught a 20+ heavy brown on his next cast — and another half dozen over 20 inches before we left that day.
Every time I fish that stretch of the Madison in the fall, I remember the one that got way — even more clearly that the ones we caught the rest of the afternoon. Even on days when I catch nothing, or simply catch smaller trout, the one that got away reminds me that there are large trout in this river. Every cast is a chance to hook one of them.
Yes, the thought of a lost lunker can be depressing at first. But over time, the memories will provide a sense of mystique, heighten the challenge you face when you head to the river, and provide hope that you’ll tie into a big one again. Maybe next time you’ll land it.
Cheers to the one that got away.