Sometimes you have to let go of the fish that you never landed. I've been haunted by a fish I had on last week while fishing the Animas. The river was flowing a little high and a little murky from summer rains and the heavy spring runoff. It was dusk and getting darker fast.
I decided to fish a little bit above the bank, from a shelf between the flat area of the train tracks behind me and the river’s edge. Earlier, I had been using a streamer in the off-color water, then switched to a Prince Nymph. Nothing. Just for the heck of it, I tied on an Amy’s Ant and trailed an Elk Hair Caddis about 8” behind it on 4x tippet. Chances were probably slim that I’d get anything to rise, but if I’m not going to catch anything, I’d rather not catch them using dry flies. Faulty logic, for sure.
Leon Hale once wrote that he didn’t “care how big the fish is. I don’t even care if the fish gets free before I land it. I just need to make that perfect cast and get the strike.” I felt good about the cast. Perfect? Not sure about that. My fly drifted in a steady but pretty flat current.
After the fish hit the Caddis, he turned hard downstream. He made a large sweeping arc. My line cut through the water like a thread being pulled from a shirt and traced his path toward the bank.
Then he turned. Upstream. He was running toward me, the line going slack. I stripped hard — once, twice, three times — to capture the slack out of the line. When I had a tight line again, he broke toward the middle of the stream. And that’s when I saw the branch from the tree downstream from me curving its way from the bank into the water.
My line screamed through the guides of the rod, the line taught again, tracing his path as he ran to the middle of the river. When he turned the next time, he broke the surface of the water with one brutish thrash. Not a leap. As Hemingway writes in his short story, “Big Two-hearted River”: “there was a heaviness, a power not to be held….”
I turned the fish, dipping the tip of my rod upstream, the arc of the rod still bore the heaviness of this fish. He was tiring. I stripped two or three times. Two more strips and he was within 20 feet of me, his dark green back surfacing.
When he was ten feet from the bank, I moved out toward him. He made a last-ditch effort to run with a quick downstream turn, heading under the branch jutting out from the tree at the bank.
The line stayed taught — and then went slack. I stripped the line and it had some tautness to it and then I saw the branch move. The fish was heading downstream, maybe toward the middle, maybe toward the protection of the bank.
Again, in “Big Two-Hearted River,” Hemingway writes: “Nick’s hand was shaky. He reeled in slowly. The thrill had been too much. He felt, vaguely, sick, as though it would be better to sit down.”
I’m not sure if I felt vaguely sick. Ok, maybe I did. The vague queasiness came from the confluence of so much that had just happened: the fish taking the Caddis from the surface of discolored water in the darkening evening — my first real hook-up, ever, on the Animas. The three big runs he took with the line racing from my reel. The sick feeling of catching the glimpse of the branch in the middle of the fight — why hadn’t I seen it before my cast? The white splash as he fought in the middle of the river.
As Christopher Camuto, author of A Fly Fisherman’s Blue Ridge, writes: “The worst part of losing good fish is that you cannot release them. They tailwalk across the back of your mind for days.”
It’s been nine days now. Time to let that fish go.
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