Careful What You Ask For

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

All fish are not created equal.

It’s funny how what we want out of fly fishing changes over the years. We’ve all heard the story, I want to catch a fish, I want to catch a lot of fish, I want to catch a big fish… As I evolve as an angler I always look for new experiences, new species, new techniques, anything to keep the game fun and challenging. I continue to spend plenty of time covering old familiar territory, but what I get out of it is very different. Fishing a stream that used to be all about hunting big trout, may now be a great way to share some time and water with an old friend or watch a new friend catch their biggest fish to date. Just as rewarding, but in a different way.

That doesn’t mean that I no longer have goals as an angler. I’m very goal oriented. Those goals are just more complicated than they once were and they are defiantly not all about fish size. Two years ago when I landed a 42-inch steelhead on the Dean River, my friend Andrew Bennett said, that may well be the biggest steelhead you’ll ever catch. My personality almost precludes that kind of thinking, but it would be arrogant to not see that he might have been right. I haven’t given up on breaking that personal record, but I have incorporated some less size based goals.

_DSC7728I was back on the Dean recently, at the awesome Kimsquit Bay lodge, and although I didn’t go with a goal in mind, I guess I had one rattling around back there somewhere. I was telling a buddy that I’d never had what seems to be a pretty common experience on the Dean. I’d never had a steelhead really take me to the cleaners. I’ve hade some pretty tough fights on that river. It’s no myth that those fish are the hottest and most aggressive in the world, but I’d never had the experience of getting that big midstream eat with the fish heading for the ocean and no prayer of stopping it. That sounds fun and I’ve always wanted to do it

I’d pretty much made up my mind that it was all hype. Most anglers, in my opinion, even experienced anglers, have no idea how hard they can and should fight fish. Many just don’t have the technique and few actually have a good grasp on the amount of pressure they put on fish. If you are a serious tarpon angler, you know what I’m talking about. Until you get out the spring scale and fly rod, you’re just guessing and you’re probably guessing wrong. I wrote those Dean stories off to hyperbole. That, it turns out, was premature.

I was fishing a run called Cut Bank, a long, hot, bolder-strewn, run with a steep rocky wall at your back. It’s the most brutal spot on the river and, of course, the most productive. I was focusing more on my casting than anything. Any Spey caster can tell you that focusing on your casting can be the worst idea you ever had. My dad used to gamble at golf and he’d wait until he was a couple of strokes down and get a bet going. Then he’d ask his opponent, “By the way, do you inhale or exhale in your back stroke?”

That’s pretty much where my Spey cast was at the moment. I had snagged my D loop on a piece of drift wood two casts in a row and was about to use some colorful language. I took one tedious and ill-advised step away from the bank, took a second to get my shit together and think happy thoughts, and let off a nice long cast. Relieved, I made an upstream mend and started looking for a place I could step down without taking a swim. Before I found it I felt the first tug.


It’s easy to think, when you feel that kind of tug, that the steelhead is tasting your fly or just toying with it. In reality, what has happened is the fish has eaten the fly, and in doing so, created slack in the line. The second tug, if it comes, is when the water carries the line downstream and that slack comes out. When the slack came out, all hell broke loose. This fish had probably been in the river for less than an hour and when it felt the hook it said, “Screw you guys, I’m going home!”

I put low side pressure on the fish and fought my way to the bank. By the time I made it to dry land I was looking at less than half of my backing on a spinning spool. I reached down to the drag knob and carefully went from medieval to full evil. No change in fish velocity. I was getting spooled. Only one thing to do. I lit out down the bolder field at a sprint.

I ran a hundred yards or so and managed to hang on. I was within yards of my arbor knot. The fish stopped and kept working down the bank while reeling up some of my backing. I managed to make up some lost ground before the fish lit out downstream again. I was getting desperate. I was running out of backing and bank. Down river I could see the guide boat dropping off another angler in a fresh run. I started waving frantically in what the guides call, “the monkey dance.” That boat was my only chance.

Eventually they saw me but the boat was well down river. It was clear that I was going to have to man up on this fish or loose it. I jumped and ran and reeled and bled and just when I thought I was done, the fish’s spirit just broke. I kept side pressure on the fish and reeled until my arm burned. I got it into an eddy just as Matt Moisley pulled up in that beautiful blue dory and jumped out with the net. One deft scoop and it was done.

Photo Matt Moisley

Photo Matt Moisley

It was a beautiful steely about thirty inches with long-tailed sea lice. Far from the biggest steelhead I’ve ever caught, but with heart beyond compare. This fish was everything I’d ever heard Dean River steelhead could be. I’ll remember that fish for a very long time. Certainly every time I step into the water at Cut Bank.

It’s good to have goals. It’s good not to think too much about your casting. And it’s good to know when you’ve been put in your place. I’ll be less judgey next time I hear stories of epic fish battles. I’ll know what’s out there and I’ll know the difference between hyperbole and hubris. And in the mean time, I’ll be thinking up some new goals.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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3 thoughts on “Careful What You Ask For

  1. The thing I like most about this post today is the tone from the author. You showed respect for the fishery, respect for the fish you were targeting and last but not least, respect for your fellow fly anglers. Thank you for sharing this experience and this is why I follow G&G. Cheers.

  2. Yes, Cut Bank is a wonderful pool IF you can wade it! In just two days I will be 75 and 2014 was the last time I will fish the Dean. If Steeve Morrow hadn’t walked the boat down Cut Bank whil I cast from it I would only have had one hook-up for the week. My six fish were all ‘cheaters’. The most memorable was not the largest but the one landed after the handle came off my reel and we did an in boat and stream repair and landed her. My legs and Meniere’s demand easier gradients and pea gravel, places where if I tumble I might just be able to get myself up. Still it will be BC for me and my other ancients. Bless those fish! Grampus

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