By Louis Cahill
I got to feeling nostalgic the other day and it bit me in the ass.
Last week Jason Tucker and I slipped out for a little small stream fly fishing. Our destination was a little mountain gem I have fished for more than twenty years. As pretty a stream as you’ll find anywhere and full of wild trout. Like most streams this size, it offers an average fish size of eight to ten inches. While those little guys are beautiful, fun, and no pushovers, anyone who has devoted serious time to this stream knows there are much bigger fish lurking there. Every now and then a skilled angler will tangle with fish over twenty inches. You have to be good and lucky but they’re there.
Those of you who follow closely know that I am still recovering from multiple surgeries and am really just getting my boots wet for the first time in well over a year. I’m still not too sure on my feet and have just been enjoying getting out with friends and not putting much pressure on myself to perform, which is honestly pretty awesome. I had a new line I wanted to try out and, not being sure how I’d like it, I scrounged around for an empty reel to put it on, rather than strip off my trusted four weight line.
I came across an old classic click and pawl reel I haven’t fished in decades. I got to thinking about all the fish I’d put on that reel in the years I fished it hard. Back when I was fishing exclusively homemade bamboo rods, I used old classic reels like this one, many of them handed down. This was the first one I bought for myself. Maybe my first significant fly gear purchase. It’s a great old reel. An Orvis Battenkill from the old days, with plenty of life left in it. A simple trout reel with click and pawl drag. Plenty of reel for eight to ten inch fish, right? I’m guessing you can see where this is headed.
“A trout reel is just a line holder.”
I’m sure you’ve heard that plenty of times. Maybe you’ve even said it. I have argued against that point more times than I can count. I can’t tell you how many guys have told me, “I just catch little fish, I don’t need a reel with a fancy drag.”
“Get one anyway,” I’ll usually say, “One day you’ll learn to fish and be damned glad you have it.”
At the end of the day, it’s the reel that lands fish and, without a good drag, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Still, knowing better, I spooled up the little battenkill and hit the water.
The creek was in perfect condition. Consistent rain had the water up just a bit and visibility around three feet. Just what you want in a small stream with educated fish. We hiked down to a good run and I started working it while Jason rigged up. Being nervous about my driving, I had arrived an hour early and was champing at the bit. I caught a chub and then a beautiful little rainbow on a Copper John. We worked our way upstream, taking turns fishing good looking pockets and runs.
Jason fished over a nice deep run with a dry dropper and picked up another shiny rainbow. I was fishing a Stonefly Nymph with a Copper John for a dropper. I decided to give that run another go, since I was fishing deeper than Jason. I made a few cast with no action and said a phrase every angler has heard right before something really good happens.
“I’m going to add a split shot.”
I’ve said before that the difference between a good day and a great day is one split shot. That was certainly the case that day. First drift with the new weight stopped hard, right in the pocket. As soon as I set the hook I felt the familiar throb of a big fish who doesn’t yet know he’s made a bad choice. The ignorance didn’t last long.
Within a few seconds the little Battenkill was screaming for mercy. The big rainbow went ballistic, tearing off downstream and carrying my line under two cross-stream logs. Normally, I would take off downstream at a full run but, in my current condition, that was not an option. I stumbled after the fish as fast as I could, passing my rod under logs and getting my landing net caught on the nub of a branch. With Jason’s help I made it through the obstacle course, but it was a shit show. By that time I could see my backing.
In a stream less than twenty feet wide, that’s a bad spot to be in. A hundred feet of line out in a stream full of snags, connected to a big angry fish by 5X tippet and he’s around the next corner. That fish never even felt the click and pawl drag and there was no way to palm the reel while passing it under submerged logs. He had me in a bad spot.
I got downstream as quick as I could, trying to keep connected but not put too much pressure on the fish. All of that fly line in the water was surely enough pressure to stretch my tippet to it’s limit. The fish ran under a big log on the bank to hide and I was able to gain some line back and get close to him. My line was still threaded through wood in a couple of places and when the fish saw me coming, he bolted again. This time he made a spectacular jump. With my line caught in wood there was no way to give him slack, and without the resistance of the water, his wild head shaking broke the tippet easily.
I’m not the kind of guy who cries about lost fish. The fight alone was a blast, even if I was not at my best. Still, that was the biggest fish I’ve hooked in that little stream in many years. It would have been cool to land him. It will have to be enough knowing he’s there. So many of our local fisheries are losing the fight against climate change, it’s nice to know one that’s hanging on.
I’m pretty confident that if I had a proper drag on my side I’d have never gotten in trouble with that fish right off the bat. I feel like I’d have landed him, if that were the case. Just something to think about, if you’re one of those anglers who thinks a trout reel is just a line holder. Be sure you bring enough line holder to get the job done.Louis Cahill Gink & Gasoline www.ginkandgasoline.com firstname.lastname@example.org Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!