A Sweep of a Tail

Learning humility from large trout.

Field & Stream Online Editors

I am not and have never been a big-fish fisherman, though it is not for want of effort. I had my day slavishly reproducing all the magazine-story antics. Operating under the big-trout-want-a-mouthful theory, I attempted to tease them to oversize streamers; then, under the big-trout-are-persnickety theory, I tried to coax them to tiny flies. I hunted for them and lay in wait at their lairs and once, this on a spring creek in Virginia, stalked a particular trout over the course of two seasons. It was an unusual fish of at least 18 inches and probably closer to 20, remarkable enough in this small stream, that had commandeered an even more unlikely position-in the shallow tailout below a little one-lane bridge.

The current had scoured a deep pool some 20 feet above the bridge and, its force expended, flowed leisurely past the wooden pilings and fanned out over a broad flat perhaps 8 inches deep, the bottom a uniform sheet of coarse sand and tiny pebbles. There were no weeds or rocks or irregularities on the streambed, no overhead cover, no chute of current to funnel food, nothing at all about the spot that would seem appealing to a fish, but right there in the middle of all that nothing, ridiculously exposed to everything, was a single, quite respectable brown trout.

With elbows propped on the bridge railing, I watched that fish many times. Most of the trout we see are those brought to hand, and we become accustomed to looking at them in profile, admiring their shape and color, but this isn't really their best side. Trout are loveliest when viewed from above, where the brilliance of their design and the logic of camouflage is most apparent. A fish in hand is like a jaguar or zebra in a zoo-out of context, its patterning is an absurdity-but against the background of its habitat, the coloration and markings are unexpected genius.

A trout is almost supernaturally sensitive to movement overhead, but if you sneak into the right position, you can watch a fish finning in the current, behaving like a thing unobserved. If you look long enough, you eventually see a speck drifting downcurrent, some unidentifiable anomaly-a bit of cottonwood fluff maybe, or a curled flake of leaf, or perhaps a mayfly-and you lean forward and squint, trying to make out if it is something alive. And when it gets close enough, the trout does exactly the same thing, straining slightly upward and forward to get a better view, its whole body language indicating that the fish is asking the same question. And you feel like you just might be on the right track after all.

The trout below the bridge, though, never appeared to be actively feeding. Now and again it would open its mouth in a white wink to nip something from the drift, but most of the time it didn't do much of anything, just swept its tail in a slow arc to hold in the current. It evidently had the one thing it wanted-a perfect view of the bridge, the one spot from which any approach to its location must commence.

When I finally decided to take a crack at that trout, I set about it in the predictable fashion-walked a short piece down the road, headed cross-country downstream, cut back to the creek, and crept up on the fish from behind. It had vanished. At least eight or 10 times over the next two seasons, this basic scenario repeated itself. I tried at dawn and then at dusk a few times, hoping to give myself an edge with light, but the trout was never around; for whatever inconceivable reason, it appeared to take up a station below the bridge only during the hours of high sun. Sometimes I wouldn't see the fish on two or three consecutive trips and would conclude that someone had finally caught it. But then the next time out, it would be there again, or at least I presumed it was the same fish, since the choice of water was so idiosyncratic.

Each time I stalked it, I walked a little farther down the road, cut a wider circuit around the fishh, and struck the creek at a greater distance downstream, until at last I was traveling better than half a mile to end up less than 100 feet from where I started. In all those attempts, I managed just two casts to that trout. Both times it spooked before my line ever touched the water.

Difficult fishing like this is supposed to teach you something, and indeed I learned that I was not any good at it. So I returned to fishing my accustomed water in my usual slapdash fashion, and my sole concession to catching large trout became the intermittent but sincere hope that I would luck into one. I realize that this is not very "technical," or "scientific," or "predatory," and no one knows better than I that it is not very "successful" either. In fact, the only surprising thing about it is that it sometimes works, albeit infrequently, but still more often than I deserve. I have hooked my share of large fish, and my share has been, in all justice, small.

Once, fishing a spring creek in southwest Wisconsin, I was attached to a truly big trout, on a fishing weekend with an occasional companion named Duncan, who was a terrible fisherman but a good-natured and enthusiastic partner. He took great personal satisfaction in carrying around an aluminum-hooped trout net that he kept clipped to his belt, which always puzzled me, since most of the trout we caught could have been landed in a tea strainer.

The fishing at Jerusalem Creek had been slow that morning, and we left early to scout out a place we had in mind; halfway there, we decided to make a quick detour to another stream, Amity Creek, that I'd found on the map. It did not look promising when we arrived, a tiny brook with banks choked in tall weeds, saplings, and brush. We walked a few hundred yards upstream along the edge of a cornfield, but the only water open enough to fish proved to be the pool beneath the bridge where we'd parked. We rigged for deep running and on the second or third cast, I hooked into something I could tell was huge and alive, a thing that moved with the same implacable sense of its own size as a city bus easing into traffic.

Still new to trout fishing, I was unequipped in every respect for this turn of events. I gained a little line whenever the fish swam toward me, but at the end of several minutes, the best I could manage was a static tug of war. Like all neophytes with a big fish, I grew more fearful by the second of losing it, and when the standoff became unbearable, I decided to apply as much pressure as I dared.

The fish gave ground slowly, with a kind of resistance I'd never felt before, and when it came into sight at last, I saw why. Unwilling to have its head raised, it was boring straight for the bottom, and I was drawing it up tailfirst, though the fish was, without a doubt, fair-hooked. When that tail finally broke the surface, it was bigger than a whisk broom, with a row of nickel-size orange spots running down the flank and disappearing into the murky water. It gave a single, fierce slap and was gone.

Adapted from Jerusalem Creek ¿¿ 2002 by Ted Leeson with permission from The Lyons Press, an imprint of the Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut; 800-962-0973; www.globe-pequot.com.