Pothole Fish With John I Missed

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Photos by Dan Frasier

Photos by Dan Frasier

By Dan Frasier

In some ways it was the second day of my four-day trip to the Columbia River.

In a more meaningful way, this was early on day one. My first day in Portland was spent doing one of those things that seemed worthwhile at the time, but in hindsight was just a day of fishing that didn’t happen. You know how priorities seem different in hindsight?  Yeah, one of those deals.

Anyway, John “Montana” Bartlett had displayed his renowned graciousness and now we were on the water. I was ready for big fish and plenty of them. I’ve been known to catch a carp or two and, despite John’s warnings, it seemed pretty obvious that the Big C was just another carp-laden body of water waiting to be conquered.

We hit the road from John’s house early. He had a vague plan that involved a lot of “if they aren’t there then we’ll move onto the XYZ spot”. To be honest, I’d quit trying to keep a mental map. John speaks about the Big C like you do with an old lover; using allusions to past events, pet names for places known only to him and broken references to memories that are more feeling than fact. It didn’t matter anyway. If I ever repeated the names of the spots we fished, John would have hunted me down like Seal Team 6 and people would be left to ask, “Hey, whatever happened to that Dan guy?”

My first bout of nerves started as we entered the water on the first flat. Things here were different, but in an eerily recognizable way. My brain immediately grasped that the water looked like a carp heaven. Like something I’d seen before and recognized. Good water, good clarity, obvious feeding areas. And yet it was wholly different than what I was used to. The bottom was more like a moonscape than the mud flats I fish; piles of cobble and sharp volcanic rock with divots and craters in between.

Double-with-TrevorBThe water itself looked like those translucent aquamarine glass shower doors. You could see through it very well, but it wasn’t colorless. It was colored with an opacity that you had to consciously try to look through instead of at it.  It was like the Columbia gave you enough to make the carp fishing reasonable but no more.

A few steps in and the nerves subsided. We were thigh deep in good-looking water with fly rods. For me it seems that the familiarity of the activity of fishing quickly overcomes the unfamiliarity of a new location. This time was no different. It was just fishing, albeit in a storied and strange location.

John and I walked this submerged moonscape with the confidence that is natural at the beginning of a long fishing trip. John new he could catch every fish he saw and I felt confident that I’d either get my share now or learn quickly enough and have plenty of time left in the trip to get it later. We saw a few fish, had shots at a couple (which John let me take) and landed none on that first pass. That was alright, lotta fishing left to do.

We hit the end of the flat and John was ready to move. The Big C has more fishable carp water than a person can cover in a lifetime so there is no point dallying at a spot that you’ve already walked. We hopped out of the water and up the riprap. This is the steep riprap of large sharp stones that indicate significant human modification to a river. Great chunks of granite rise from the water’s edge at a steep angle for twenty feet. It’s treacherous walking and difficult fishing. From that position an angler can get great visuals on a fish, but that’s about all he has going for him. Casting from riprap that steep means your line sags and moves the fly well farther in than you expect. The fish tend to be very attuned to any movement above them on the rocks and the angle makes hooksets VERY difficult. Elevated fishing is a strange and diabolical kind of torture. It lets you identify more targets that are nearly impossible to catch.

Hell isn’t fishing without finding fish. Hell is fishing and finding huge numbers of uncatchable fish. 


So we hopped, stumbled and crawled our way along the riprap. This was more reconnaissance than serious fishing. We were looking to find fish in a perfect situation and passing by everything else. No point in taking shots you don’t love on the Big C.

We wobbled our way along the boulders, trying hard not to break a leg or a rod. John and I were both reasonably athletic in our youth, and were having trouble recognizing that there are some things we can’t do as well anymore. It’ll probably take a broken tibia to eventually drive the point home.

I can’t remember the last names of some of my past girlfriends. I have no idea where I had lunch 4 days ago and without my phone calendar I’d never be quite clear on what was happening in the coming week. I can, however, see this scenario as perfectly as if I was standing there right now.

We were picking our way along, about 10 feet above the water line, trying hard to find the right fish in the right situation. We came upon a tree growing straight out of the shoreline with a pothole under the water next to it. In that pothole was a car fender with a tail; tailing hard in 3 feet of water right against the shoreline. She was blissfully unaware that John and I were whispering obscenities to each other and I was trying to get into position to make a cast.

Columbia-Double-ReleaseBYou remember all of that unattractive hubris I described earlier?  Yeah, well it melted like ice cream on a warm apple pie. This was the largest fish I’d ever seen in the water. Hell she was a nearly as long as my leg and far thicker. And she was RIGHT THERE! The visual was like watching television. I could count her scales.

Deep breath, keep the backcast up and cast farther than you think so the belly of the line pulls the fly into the feeding zone instead of out of it. I was trembling. My first cast was perfect. The flies drug along just enough and settled just inches from the fish’s dinner plate. She turned, tried to eat the worm fly and I set the hook exactly one third of a heartbeat too early. Took the fly right away from her. Miraculously she didn’t spook. I set up for a second cast and put the fly a foot off target. Cast three missed the pothole she was in completely and shot four was at a different fish that had swum into my field of vision. Buck fever had taken over and I was out of control. I remember John hissing, “Cast at the damn giant fish that is right in FRONT of you!”

You remember that small tree that had shielded us?  Yeah cast five was directly into that tree. John took my rod and handed me his to take another shot, but before I could get any line stripped out the fish was gone. I didn’t even see her swim off. I just looked down and there was nothing but an empty pothole.

I remember laughing at how comical the situation had become, as I stood there limp-lined, reflecting on what had happened. Somehow I’d gone from a seasoned carp angler to an out of control beginner in the span of 45 seconds. I’d flailed away, getting worse with each shot until I’d blown the whole situation. I’d like to say that I’m too cool for that to happen to. I’d like you to believe that I’m one collected carp hunting SOB. The reality is that, even after years of stalking these fish and many hundreds caught I still get excited enough to screw the pooch at times. I think that’s why I still do it. The day it becomes routine and uneventful will be the day I don’t stalk the mighty carp anymore.


Dan Frasier
Gink & Gasoline
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6 thoughts on “Pothole Fish With John I Missed

  1. “Somehow I’d gone from a seasoned carp angler to an out of control beginner in the span of 45 seconds.”

    My first fish on the fly ever, which was solo fishing, was a carp, so I, hopefully, can say I can hold my own when carp fishing but I’ve unfortunately done this quite a few times here in GA. I missed 4 BIG fish, in a row mind you, while fishing a lake for carp. I feel your pain although you’re leagues ahead of me in the fishing game. I commend you, Dan, for showing us all that you’re also human. But considering the other pictures of carp I have seen you catch, you’ll get another shot at that carp of a lifetime again.

    Tight lines!

  2. Great story Dan! Funny how adrenaline can just make a mess of all previous plans. It will keep me chasing fur and fins for the rest of my life. I just had some huge carp on a local lake do the same thing to me, makes a guy want to snap his rod over his knee!

  3. Great tale Dan! Now I don’t feel alone with my mistakes, seems like you made up for it though.


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