Rock. Another rock. Rock again. Stump. Some moss. Another rock.
That’s my usual catch anytime I see my line twitch or my indicator jiggle and set the hook. A rock here, a “stick fish” there, a moss clump. These things form a never-ending, teasing, cycle.
However, I have heard too many people say, “Set the hook every time your line moves.” So, I do. I also have this condition called, optimism, which is great for a moment, but eventually throws you off a cliff of false hope. The crash is never fun. Every cast could be a fish, but most often it’s just another rock, and because every cast could be, but isn’t, my optimism doesn’t quite know what to do but keep trying.
It was a hot day for April, and my superior walked into my office with a smile and told me to take the rest of the day off. Everyone else was gone from work and everything I had to do could be done another day. Anytime this happens (which it’s never happened since), you must fish. That is what I did.
By all normal standards, this wasn’t a prime fishing day. A bright, hot sun melted my skin a little bit, and who really wears sun screen in April in Virginia anyway? Nevertheless, I went straight home from work (which was also on my way to the river) to grab my bag, rod, waders, and a granola bar and I was off to my water.
I purposefully walked up to the river. After all, I knew where I was headed as soon as he said, “take the rest of the day off.” Ablaze, but excited, I slipped in to the river and started casting my little olive nymph. This was a special fly to me because it’s a pattern I developed. With a gold bead head, rubber legs and olive hare’s ear all over it looked buggy enough to be mistaken for anything. It was fresh off the vise, never used, never tested, but up for anything.
I fished hard for an hour, then two without any trout to show for. My hopes were beginning to fade. I changed presentation, depth, and everything else a few times. Then it hit me - I needed my trout, so I left that little section and hurried down to a pool I just knew held fish. In reckless faith I put back on my olive nymph, because I planned on making it work.
Now here is where I must include one after thought - hope is a funny thing. Nothing changed about my circumstances except my attitude, and somehow that brought a jolly spirit to each new cast into the deep pool. My little olive fly would scurry off to the ledge and drop down into the depths dragged down by one split shot. No strike. Dragged down by two split shot. No strike. Dragged down by three split shot. No strike, and to my surprise I wasn’t even hitting the bottom yet. Unusual for me, as most times I would have caught a rock by then. So I put on a 4th split shot and sent my little fly down into the depths.
Six feet under generally refers to when someone is laid down in the grave, and I guess that is what I was expecting to do with this little guy. I sent him six feet under in the hopes of bringing forth something other than death though. I was after the living.
Now I knew from previous experience that a large root ball sat waiting in these depths - one you can’t see, but just know that it has gripped and stolen numerous flies (most of which are probably my own). I waded closer to where I knew the roots were and in my optimism decided I would give that stump another chance. Perhaps, this would be the cast.
Into the depths my bead-headed olive fly went with 4 medium sized split shot. Nymphing the way I was, you see all sorts of line twitches and after I knew my rig was down to the depth I wanted I slowly led the single nymph. I didn’t see the line twitch, but some sixth sense told me to set the hook. I did. Tension..
That stupid stump snagged my stupid fly. I held the tension on the line pretending that the stump was a fish, and tried to remember what it felt like to catch a fish.
Just then my stump moved. I felt a distinct tug then my stump bolted down the pool with reckless abandon. The stump took all my loose fly line and was quickly digging into my reel. Once the shockwave of my moving stump left my hands I quickly entered into the fight. I put a fair amount of tension on the stump and tried to move him into the softer water. He unwillingly accepted for a moment and I caught sight of my massive pink, green, and silver stump. I hadn’t hooked a stump, I had hooked a walrus! At least that’s what my uninitiated mind thought.
After he let me bask in his glow for a split second, he fought back into the depths and swift water.
Not for a moment did I think I would land this fellow. I put tension on the fish and tried to drag him off to the shallow soft water again. How could I wrangle with a trout this big and actually expect to win? After all, this would be the biggest fish I had ever caught if I actually landed him. Then downstream of me, he went barreling.
However, this time with my pressure he came straight toward me. In disbelief I grabbed my net and when he tried to pass me I scooped him into my net. I am convinced that this rainbow stump only obliged to my tugging so I could admire him. What a proud fellow. Or perhaps he wanted me to have one more glance before he decided to break my line, and just forgot us humans carry nets. Either way, there he was.
In the top of his jaw was my little olive fly. In the left corner of his lip lay a bare bait hook with no mono attached to it. On the right corner was a small Hare’s Ear nymph. This bruiser must have pitied me. He could clearly destroy my tippet if he had tried, and his collected “trophies” still attached in his jaw proved that.
I removed his trophies and my own. Then, because of his behemoth size I wanted to get a proper measurement. He was bigger than any trout I had ever seen in person, and I never have liked making up some random number. I kept the net in the water with him in my sanctuary. Out came my little measuring tape. I placed it down over his side, and the marker numbers kept getting bigger and bigger 15 passed 14, and then out came 19 with more fish to go. I finished at a little over 22, and laughed. Surely, I had this tape on the wrong side and was reading centimeters not inches. I flipped it over and looked - no centimeters on this one, only inches.
I measured again, and he somehow didn’t shrink in that second measuring. Over 22 inches of trout lay in front of me in my net. How could this be? I’m a mediocre fly fisherman! What brought this unbelievable event upon me? The only conclusion that I could come to was that this fish wanted to show off his beautiful pink flanks and bright silvery underbelly. He was picture perfect.
I released the rainbow back into his home, and he quickly departed back to his stump kingdom to munch on more caddis and break more tippet.
I left the river after that moment, hands trembling and mind disbelieving, as no other fish could have compared to that one I caught. Tainting the day by casting more seemed preposterous. I left that day with my first trout over 22 inches, and have never seen him since.
He still lives within the pages of my fishing journal and memories, and that is all I need.