Lost Fish Never Leave You

The Lost Fish

The Lost Fish

Written By Allen Morris Jones
Illustration by Parks Reece

Big Sky Journal – Fly Fishing 2010

Lost Fish Never Leave You

Aging into a life spent fly fishing means coming to terms with disappointment.  Your successes are a cinch, of course.  Snapshots of brown trout held dripping 6 inches above the Missouri; the improbable tarpon and a grin caught half-shout.  Here’s how you want to be judged by your peers.  But, alas, how you judge yourself is determined by your failures:  that secret portfolio of pulled  hooks and tangled lines that stick with you like burrs.  Given that the allure of fly fishing is largely found in the gradual accrual of skill, of striving toward the final 10 percent of knowledge and awareness and muscle memory that will allow you to out-fish your buddies, the lost fish, insofar as they come to stand as silent judgement on a entire process, tend to be considerably more poignant than the bad boys you’ve actually brought to the boat.

Take an example:  Here’s 25-year-old me, standing knee deep in the Shields River.  It’s early November.  The leaves are mostly off the cottonwoods and the browns are spawning, coming up from the Yellowstone.  No predicting the size of fish that might be found in this little stream.  A chill in the air, and the endless, quiet rustling of cold water.  A good friend is fishing 100 yards upstream, his green line occasionally visible through the trees.  More experienced, too-generous with patronizing advice, it’s a constant and not-very-admirable goal of mine to send this buddy back to the bench with minnows to my lunkers.

After a couple hours and a dozen or so 12-inchers brought up from the riffles, the day is almost done.  I’ve got one more shot to make good, to redeem the day, the week, the month.  And here, maybe, is my opportunity.  Crouching in dry weeds, I’m staring across at a cut-bank hole deep enough to hide a Buick.  Another friend has described night fishing this same stretch with, get this, mice imitations, dropping them just off the bank to tease the 8- to 10-pounders he knows are here.  Fall browns in the Shields.  Anything could happen.

I sling out my first cast, dropping an ugly rubber leg down into the hole.  Presented well, the water gives up nothing.  I follow the line with my rod, then retrieve.  Roll cast back up to the shallow riffle and watch the line float closer to the bank, smooth and slow.  Uninterrupted.  It’s dusk, no breeze, the stars are aligned.  How could I not catch a fish?

And indeed, on the fifth or sixth cast, the floating bow of green line shoots off at an unnatural angle.  Quick, sharp, angry.  I set the hook, lift my rod, and … maybe I’m hooked on the bottom.  It’s that kind of fish.  There’s a familiar three or four seconds of frustration before the line grudgingly starts to move.  There’s not a great deal of water here, not much room to make a run.

I lift my rod tip high, and hang on.  If I work the fish too hard, I’ll pull the hook.  Not hard enough, I could be here until Sunday morning.

In the final, watery-orange light of day, I let the fish gum at my bugger for a good five minutes, following him north, and south.  There’s nothing like catching a big fish in a small stream, and this is a hog.  How big?  Three pounds on the low end.  Five or six on the high.

Impatient, I start applying more pressure, trying to lift him to the surface.  He rises close enough to nearly show me a flash of color, then he’s down again, sulking.  Encouraged, I apply more pressure, lifting him up.
And then, and of course … my line.  Goes slack.  My stomach folds over itself and my mouth goes dry.  I fight the urge to go John McEnroe with my rod, beating it against the brush.  Here’s me, standing deflated in cold water, watching my line drift downstream in a straight line.  The fish, my fish, likes congratulating itself at the bottom of the Shields.  More than 3 pounds, surely.  Five? Maybe more.  I’ll never know.

And this, I think, is the final heartbreak of a fly-fishing gutter ball.  It’s the not-knowing.  It’s like seeing an elaborately-wrapped present show up under the tree, than having your house burgled.  This happened 15 years ago, and while I would like to think that I’m a better fisherman now than I was then, and while I have caught fish that may be larger than the one I missed, I cannot say that those flaws (the impatience, the frustration) which traveled so efficiently down the rod to the water are not still with me.  The successes of fly fishing – the photos thumb-tacked to your cubical wall, the tarpon mounted in your den – represent, in some measure, the person you would like to be.  But the failures are the you that you can’t escape.