Part One of the "THAT ONE FISH" Series
“First time” memories from my childhood have been popping into my head recently. The first time riding a bike without training wheels. The first time blowing a duck call in the blind. The first time holding a knife to help clean the day's catch. At the time they almost seemed like rites of passage, and to some extent they probably were. But, it often led to the, "now that I can ride without training wheels, maybe I can try it with no hands” effect. (While this may look "cool”, it can also leave you sprawled out in the street with blood streaking down your face while your babysitter freaks out and calls your mom.)
Growing up, I was blessed to be surrounded by mentors (shout out to Dad, Grump, Popsy, Jason, and Jon), who taught me about the outdoors. Whether it was showing me where to stand before a quail flushes, how to hold a fillet knife, or how close the ducks should be before we shoot, they took their time and somehow kept their patience with me. I’m so grateful for the lifetime of adventures and memories those lessons have led to.
My first night in a pop-up camper happened to be with my grandparents on a trip to a nearby trout park. Their Viking camper spent most of it’s later years in storage, but once or twice a year they would take it out for a weekend excursion. This being my initiation into the world of "camping”, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was told there would be fishing so I was all in.
After running through the maintenance checklist with Popsy, and hugging my parents goodbye for the weekend, my grandparents and I headed south to begin our 4 hour trip. Even though Popsy had driven the route enough times to make it without directions, I sat shotgun and was assigned the navigator role. With my nose buried in the paper maps from the glovebox, I gave Popsy the detailed instructions I knew were essential if we wanted to reach our final destination. I felt like Magellan when we pulled into the campground.
Popsy and I set up and leveled the camper on our assigned cement pad and walked down the steep hill to the park’s “fly shop”. It wasn't obvious to me at the time, but since that fateful day I’ve stepped foot into many fly shops, and I can now clearly see this shop catered to the weekend indicator and split shot “fly fishermen” who held little concern for the difference between a caddis and a mayfly. Regardless of their choice of merchandise, it was a stark contrast to the rubber worms I’d become accustomed to tossing at bass throughout my youth. It was my maiden voyage into the world of shiny do dads that are “must haves” if one wants to be a serious fly fisherman. We walked out the door with our $2 daily trout tags, a spool of tippet, and a few spinner jigs. Popsy could see the excitement in my eyes, so instead of hiking back up the hill to our camper, we opted to head straight to the stream that was calling our names from just across the parking lot.
Throughout my youth I’d become accustomed to blind casting to bass in “fishy” looking pond corners surrounded by cattails, and bankside “hotspots” under overhanging willow trees. I’d fished those ponds and lakes often enough to know where the fish were most likely to hang out, but without being able to actually see them, I never truly knew if they were there or not. So as I slid down the bank and stepped into the park’s spring fed stream, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I could actually see the fish I was casting to!
Stumbling on the slick stream bed rocks, I made my way upstream in my oversized waders. When I came to what I thought looked like a promising spot, I peered through the crystal clear water and spotted my target. He was a plump stocker Rainbow with neon colors outlined against the pebbled stream bed. I wanted so badly to hold him in my hands and examine his vibrant colors up close. I’d seen pictures of trout in Field and Stream magazines, but one look at this fish told me those two dimensional images would pale in comparison to its true beauty.
Having zero knowledge of what would encourage a trout to bite, I tried every variation of retrieve I could think of. He just sat there ignoring each pass of my offering. I was like the freshman picking his nose while asking a senior cheerleader to prom.
At some point, I realized I was hungrier than the trout. So I stumbled up the bank to meet Grammy and Popsy at a nearby picnic table for lunch. “You were in that same spot for quite a while”, Popsy said between bites of his sandwich. “Yeah, there’s this one fish down there that I’m working on”. He let out a soft chuckle and returned to his snack. After devouring my lunch, I sprang up and started grabbing my gear. “So, are you going back after him?” I think he knew the answer to the question before he asked it.
I ran down the same path back to the stream, and found my earlier casting position still unclaimed. I tied my spinner back on, looked downstream, and to my surprise the fish was still loitering beside the same rock. Determined to outwit him, I restarted the cast and retrieve process.
For whatever reason (probably out of boredom on his part), after what had to be at least 20 more presentations, he turned his head and chased down my fleeting baitfish imitation. At the moment of attack, my heart rate doubled. It’d been a long match, and I finally had him in checkmate! Once in my hands, I just held him and admired his beauty with complete awe before securing my prize to the stringer.
Blown away with excitement and pride, I scaled the stream bank and turned toward the big hill. I was going to head straight to the campsite and share today’s victorious news, but before I could take a step, there stood Popsy. “You got him!” He’d been standing there for who knows how long watching my aquatic chess game with that fish. He had an ear to ear smile on his face that expressed how excited he was for me.
*I spoke with Popsy last week to let him know I’m writing an article about THE FISH. I asked if he remembered that moment. Even after 25 years, he could recall the details better than I could.
That first chess match with the stocker Rainbow in the trout park was enough to start a lifetime challenge between myself and those awesome fish. The “that ones” I’ve met in the past as well as those I know I’ll come across sooner or later are the reason I spend hours at the vise, study blue lines on maps, and put so many miles on my truck. When I remove a hook from a “that one’s” jaw, my first instinct is to give him a "good game” handshake. Instead, I always find myself audibly saying “thanks for the fight buddy”, while releasing him back to his home.
Although I’ve changed my game pieces from spinning rods and Rapalas to bamboo rods and small dry flies, the allure of “chess with that one” is still as mystical as it was on that first trip. I’ve had several other “that ones” since that first trip. Some I’ve claimed “victory” over, some I haven't yet landed, and some I’ve caught but almost feel I need to again as proof to myself that it wasn’t just luck.
Cheers to all the “that ones” out there.
To those of you whom I’ve managed to fool, thank you for the challenge. To those yet to be landed, I Haven't forgotten about you!