The One that Got Away - Big Brown

You’d have to be blind and deaf as a fly fisher to fail to notice the allure and reputation of New Zealand trout fishing. The mythical isle’s sparkling rivers and trophy trout grace the pages of practically every fly fishing calendar ever made. Hanging around in fly shops as a teenager, I unavoidably formed New Zealand fantasies. Fishing Cascade mountain creeks in my teenage years, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between those tumbling streams and the sapphire rivers of New Zealand. The difference was that the New Zealand fish in the calendars and magazines were more than ten times the size of anything I ever caught back home. 

In early 2006, I was a sophomore in college, still perusing forums and magazines and fly fishing catalogs. I was lucky enough to have one free term off from school. Keen to escape the frigid New Hampshire winter, I chose the Austral summer and made plans to work on an organic deer farm. Many of my classmates sought to bulk up their resumes in high power internships on their off terms. But instead of doing what was arguably the responsible thing and preparing for my future, I flew across the Pacific, with sky high hopes and a shred of nervous anticipation.

I spent two weeks working every other day in the garden of a fly fishing lodge whose owner and head guide told me precious little about New Zealand fly fishing. I helped feed the captive deer, weeded the garden, and cleared brush, keeping an ear out for any hints of local fishing intelligence. I had spent only a few days in the country, downing only a few Speight beers, and sat  for just a few sessions of “tea,” as they called dinner in the country. I had made a couple of trips out to local rivers, but I had only caught a small fish, by New Zealand standards—only about seventeen inches. Seeing as how I worked regularly, I didn’t have access to much more than the local fish that lived an easy hour or so from home base. These weren’t helicopter fish; they saw significant pressure, and they were somewhat used to fly lines and leaders flying over their heads. I swear that the little beeping jingle of my digital camera turning on spooked one of those heavy trout from twenty feet away. 

On one of my early days off, I drove my little rented black Nissan Pulsar and parked at the edge of a lush field. An open gate and a glass clear river beckoned me forward, and I started stalking right away.  The river snaked through partially wooded, heavily grazed sheep farm country, punctuated by long grassy tussock patches. I had a fantastic viewing position at the top of a tall high bank. I found several trout just sitting at the very bottom of deep pools. I didn’t think those were worth bothering with, so I kept on upstream. After four or five river bends, walking a little faster than I would learn to stalk later in the trip, I spotted a good fish, easily over twenty inches, from my grassy high bank. It could hardly have been more obvious. Forcing myself to move slowly, I began watching it while plotting my next moves. I noticed how the fish was swaying side to side in a nice comfy tailout. Moving. Expending energy. Exposing itself. Feeding. After determining that this trout was most likely catchable, I took a few deep breaths, checked my leader, and waded across the knee deep and slippery river, well downstream of the trout, which I hoped my wading wouldn’t spook. The fish was still zig zagging around every ten seconds or so. I unhooked my little size 14 Parachute Adams from my hook keeper, thinking that the small fly might disarm this potentially pressured fish. 

The moment conformed perfectly to my preconceived notions. I was in New Zealand, standing in a picturesque river, and I had sighted a legitimate fish to which I was about to cast. I took several deep breaths, trying to stop shaking. I stripped off enough line to manage the fourteen foot leader, made a few false casts across the river, and then changed direction. I made a couple more false casts, careful to keep the fly line downstream of the fish, and held my breath as I let one fly. 

It was a good cast. The line shot out and gradually lost energy, falling like a leaf in a soft wind. The fly landed well to the side and downstream . Phew. The fly drifted downstream as the fish swerved to the right bank. The fly drifted closer. The fish moved back to the left and saw the fly. It moved for it. It rose towards the surface. Oh my God this is happening. The fish seemed sold. The giant snout broke the surface just downstream of the fly. It rose higher and higher, agonizingly slowly. There was more snout out of the water than I had ever seen on a rise before. After enough time had passed for me to swallow and make sure this was all real, the mouth submerged again. There was only one thing to do. I lifted the rod and set the hook firmly but not too aggressively, in fear of breaking the 4X, six pound tippet. My line stopped. My rod bent. I had hooked my first legitimate New Zealand trout. This was really happening.

Now, landing a big trout on a relatively light tippet in flat calm water and landing a big trout on a relatively light tippet in swift water are two different things. As the fish made its aggravated introductory head shakes, I fully realized that this was the biggest trout I had ever hooked, at least in a river, in my life. Thanks to the lodge owner/guide whose cabin I was staying in, I had a landing net, so I only had to get this big brown trout within range of that. But we would have to go toe to toe for quite a while before that happened. I daintily touched the reel handle, practically tip toeing on the river rocks. I wanted the first real notch on my New Zealand belt. I wanted a photo and the story to go along with it. Landing this brown trout was going to be a major event in my fishing career.

The fish pulled off several yards of line with big head shakes, not making a frenzied run but showing me this wasn’t going to be easy. I had the drag on my Ross Gunnison 2 reel set at a modest setting. I would gain a little line, seeming to lift the trout’s massive head and pull it towards me, and then the fish would take the line all back and make a series of head shakes. This exchange happened several times, until the fish started crossing the main flow to the far bank, moving several feet with each pull. There was nothing I could do. The reel paid out line diligently as the big brown trout reached the other side. My line sank and bowed as the fish made a run for an undercut bank, and then stopped pulling. I waited for a couple of seconds, and tried to pull on the fish. Nothing. I waited a few more seconds and tried again. It was total dead weight on the other end. The big brown had lodged itself under a clump of earth and grass and tussock, perhaps, as far as I was concerned, permanently. 

I had lost fish to underwater snags before, in situations where it wasn’t clear if I should wait for the fish to come out or just break off whatever was on the other end of the line. I found myself in this position with my first steelhead, and I had ended up breaking it off. It’s a very tough decision to make. At that moment, however, I felt that it was very clear what I should do. It couldn’t have been past 2pm, I had many hours of daylight left, and I decided to sit there until that dang brown trout swam out of that dang hole. I started taking steps backwards, pulling line off the reel as I went. I slipped a bit but got to the dry riverbank, reeled in slack, and sat down with my rod high in the air. I resolved to sit like that as long as it took. Which didn’t turn out to be that long. Within about three minutes, the line started to move and the trout came back out of the hole. Astonished at my luck, I got back into a fighting stance. The fish had presumably rested and we had to fight over some of the same line several times again. Crucially, the fish had to fight the current as well as me, and my light sideways tension and rolling of its head eventually wore it out. Still head shaking, the trout seemed to partially relent. I lifted my rod tip high, stuck out my net with my left hand and stuck my rod hand behind me as if I were mid-backstroke, and hoped the brown had played its last card. I finally got a good look at it, and saw that it was a truly stunning specimen of a brown trout. It was the most heavily spotted brown I had ever seen, golden and plump and a good twenty four inches, the best fish I had ever had within my grasp. All I had to do was slide it in just a few more feet and it was mine. But it made one, then two more thwops of its tail, threw the little Parachute Adams off its snout, and was gone.

I howled in agony, again and again, spouted off a series of expletives, and sank to the ground. I think they probably heard me in Auckland. It’s a feeling a fisher is bound to experience in their fishing career… But some losses are far, far worse than others. 

After a garden variety fish loss, I would try to fight through the disappointment and keep fishing. But after losing a fish of that magnitude, I was too rattled, too defeated to muster the poise necessary to continue to fish in that challenging environment. Instead, I walked downstream, fit my rod into my rented little Pulsar and drove back to my little cabin.

That brown would have been my first solidly good fish in New Zealand, my biggest fish on a dry, my biggest brown trout, probably my biggest trout ever—the best fish of my life. 

It could be said that even though the big brown got off, the encounter was a victory. I had spotted the fish, stalked it, chosen a good place from which to cast, made a good cast, set the hook successfully, and fought the fish almost to the net. Had I had a buddy there I probably would have gotten it and held it for a photo. But for many, I’ll say most, anglers, close is not good enough. The pain of the memory of that first big New Zealand trout rolling and flopping away has dissipated significantly since that wide-eyed session fifteen years ago. I have caught several bigger trout since then. But the density of spots, the rich, buttery color—the only sight I caught of that fish—I believe will haunt me to some degree for the rest of my life. 

The rest of my life! But why? Why do we (at least I) care so much about the final act of landing the fish? This wasn’t anything close to a survival situation, after all. It was the twenty-first century. I had a nice little cabin and a full meal of gourmet “tea” waiting for me back at the lodge. But I was in my early twenties, eager to prove that I could fish New Zealand without a guide, and to show pictures of big trout to all the guys at the fly shop. I was fishing for and expecting memories to last a lifetime. Yes, I was going to release the fish anyway. But wow, did it hurt.

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