Fish get off. It's part of the deal. If you fish, sooner or later you will lose one that hurts. Most of the time, the loss is merely an act of chance; we really don’t have much control over the angle, speed, and hook position of a bite. Sometimes you hook a fish in the firm meat in the corner of the mouth, and sometimes you get them in the teeth, or in soft tissue, where the hook can’t get a good bite. So usually, most of us take a loss in stride.
But sometimes, it’s your fault.
My heartbreaking 2006 New Zealand brown trout stood as my worst loss for six years, until the end of my third guiding season in Alaska in 2012. On a rare day off, two friends and I floated a jet boat down the lower Kanektok River in Alaska. Fishing specifically for giant rainbows, I strung up a relatively heavy 8-weight rod with fifteen pound fluorocarbon tippet and tied on an egg and flesh combination that I thought would be delectable but unassuming. I threw a heavy spit shot, with no strike indicator, plunking my slightly dirty fly between root wads and along snags. Fishing was good, and the beautiful leopard rainbows seemed to hide everywhere they should. We made it several miles, stopping occasionally to take photos of average fish—fish that would be fish of the year back home. Having caught several respectable leopard trout, at the end of the day we motored down to a sharp, textbook seam where the main river made a hard left. I had been eyeing this spot for several days, logging it in my memory as somewhere I wanted to save for myself. We cut the motor a hundred yards upstream, got out the oars and floated right by the outside of the picturesque little lunker hole. I cast not far from the boat, feeding a little line as my fly sank into the prime pocket. Right as my fly drifted through the sweetest part of the seam, a violent heave ripped off three feet of line before I could react and pull back on the thickest graphite on the 8-weight. The fish panicked and made a half dozen frantic Mike Tyson head shakes, smacking my corked rod against the motor noisily before I could even figure out what to do with it. The savagery left no doubt: this fish was a giant, likely the biggest that had been hooked at the lodge that season, big enough to swallow sixteen inch trout, unmistakably the fish of my life. Suddenly saturated in adrenaline, my brain frantically rifled through the possibilities. Would it be chrome in color, or spotted with a searing red stripe? Male or female? Thirty inches, or even more? Imagine the notoriety in camp! Imagine the girth of this fish!
Imagine the line going slack. And that is what happened; as quickly as my line had gotten yanked, the hook popped out. The encounter lasted all of five seconds. It had been the most intense fishing experience of my life, fresh or salt. My knees gave out and I fell into the bilge like a falling tree, hugging the motor like a toilet, and grunting and wailing unintelligibly. Slowly stripping in the fly, I was reminded, to my horror, that I had been using a size eight standard nymph hook—one suitable for sixteen to twenty inch cookie cutters, but wholly insufficient for the thirty incher that I was specifically fishing for, and whose energy I had ever so briefly touched. I should have chosen a stout, short-shanked steelhead hook, one designed to hook and hold twenty pound fish. My hook, which had been carelessly chosen from amongst the chaos of my tying bench, had bent out badly, leaving me not only agonizing at the loss of the fish, but with a fresh and deeply lashing regret of a grievous, unforgivable, amateur mental error. That fish changed my understanding of what a rainbow trout could feel like. It was a horrifically sour, wretched and acidic pill to swallow, and many years later I’m still not over it.
And it would not be my last mental error.
What's your biggest mental error? Share your story of the one that got away in the comments below and we'll give you 10% off your next order on Angler's Trading Post.