Bad Breaks: 6 Stories About Lost Fish
From little brook trout to monster makos, the following fish all swam free—and still haunt the anglers who nearly caught them
THEY OUGHT TO WRITE COUNTRY SONGS about losing fish. As every angler knows, breaking it off with a big bass or untying the knot with a beautiful trout is as painful as any other split, and just as likely to drive you to drink. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, yours or your equipment’s; the end of an attachment is always a heartbreaker. But until Nashville gets this right, these six stories about the fish that got away will help you commiserate. And when you’re ready to get back out there—and inevitably lose another one—try to remember that there are plenty of other…well, you know the rest.
There are lost fish that sting; there are lost fish that haunt. But of all the varieties in the catalog, the ones that smolder in memory are the ones that puzzle—the fish that provide just enough information to tantalize your imagination, but not enough to complete the picture. When even their identity remains a mystery, you’re left to speculate endlessly as to what nature of beast you were connected to.
Andy Cook and I were drifting North Bay in Wisconsin’s Door County, the rocky peninsula that extends into Lake Michigan. We had no particular plan; we just thought we’d launch the 14-footer, piddle around, and make some casts. It was a gloriously sunny June afternoon, the kind you wish you could bottle and uncork on demand.
The thing about these Lake Michigan bays is that you never know what you might catch. In addition to resident northerns and smallmouths, various salmonids can show up, their movements triggered by changes in water temperature and the availability of forage. There are also herds—somehow “schools” doesn’t capture their farm-animal dimensions—of massive carp.
So when something clobbered the black Woolly Bugger I’d tossed toward a steep ledge, I honestly had no idea what it was. What became clear in frighteningly short order, though, was that I wasn’t about to stop it anytime soon. The fish bored unseen into the emerald depths, bending the 9-weight rod to the cork and conveying an unmistakable impression of mass and power.
Watching the backing peel off at an alarming rate, I said to Andy, “Um, you might want to think about starting the motor.”
“Way ahead of you,” he said, yanking the starter cord.
By the time I’d recovered all of the backing and most of the line, the fish had sounded. I applied as much pressure as I dared, but it was like trying to pry open a manhole cover with a popsicle stick. I guess my mind must have wandered then, because when the fish finally made a move, it broke off immediately.
I sat down heavily, not even bothering to reel in. “What the hell do you think that was?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” Andy said, shaking his head. “All I know is that it was big.”
“I just wish I’d seen it.”
And so began the mystery—a mystery that endures, unsolved to this day. I’ve come to this conclusion, though: While landing a fish is, in a sense, the end of the story, losing a fish can be just the beginning of one. —T.D.
A Bag of Brookies
My brother Sam, 5, and I, 8, stood on the stream bank, half asleep—our light-up sneakers flashing in the pre-dawn, Pop-Tarts in our cargo shorts, Spiderman fishing rods in our hands. Grandpa baited our hooks, and as it got light, we could make out the tiny ribbon of a trout creek winding down the mountainside through big rocks.
It was hard to believe fish could live in such a trickle. But no sooner had the worms on our hooks hit the water than we each had a fish on. Sam and I reeled simultaneously and pulled our first two brook trout onto the bank. Grandpa was proud.
My brother and I didn’t have a firm stance on much at the time, but we knew we were strictly catch-and-release fishermen. Until then, we’d caught suckers and sunfish and let them go with a splash. And we let just about everything go that we caught, from buckets of bullfrogs to box turtles and crickets. From school and cartoons, we learned that bad guys killed stuff, and we weren’t bad guys. So you can imagine our confusion when Grandpa, who was not only a fellow good guy but our hero, put the two fish in a surplus Army duffel and rolled the top down tight.
Grandpa, beaming, put the bag down and reached into his coffee can for two more worms. Sam and I looked at the fish flopping in the canvas, then at each other. I was the oldest, so I spoke up.
“How long are we going to leave the fish in the bag before we let them go?” I asked.
Grandpa paused, now confused too. As much as Sam and I understood fishing as catching and releasing, he knew fishing was about catching and eating.
As a boy during the Depression, Grandpa was hungry by the time spring came around. Along with his six brothers and sisters, he’d spent winters eating through a root cellar of stale provisions. But spring meant there were trout to catch. No matter how little he had, he could always find fresh fish to fill his belly. He grew to appreciate pan-fried trout so much that it became his favorite dish. Now, years later, he was eager to pass this appreciation on to his two grandsons.
“We’re going to have those two fish for supper, boys,” he replied.
That’s when Sam and I started bawling. We declared we didn’t want to fish anymore if it meant putting more fish in the bag. Grandpa tried to reason with us, but it was no use. He eventually decided he’d rather have a day fishing with his grandsons than two small brookies for lunch. Hoping we’d get the picture as the day went on, he unrolled the bag and let the fish swim away.
If we’d caught only those two fish, things would have probably been all right. But we went on to catch 26 more that day. I remember because, with every fish, my brother and I would call out the number and then say, “New record!” Each time, Grandpa would look a little less proud and a little more frustrated. He’d unhook the fish, feel the grumble in his stomach, and pull another worm from the dirt in his coffee can. We stopped fishing when we ran out of worms.
I eventually got past the notion of only bad guys killing things and started hunting deer with Grandpa. Still, he never took me or my brother fishing again. In my 20s, I’d fish for trout by myself in a stream behind the garage where Grandpa worked. Every time I’d catch a good one, I’d clean it on the bank and leave it for him, cooling on a paper plate in the breakroom refrigerator. It took me a couple of summers, but eventually I made up for all the trout he’d lost that day. —M.E.
The Missing Mako
I was only 12 miles offshore with my friends Darren Dorris and Ned Miller and we were miserable. We were after brown sharks, and for six hours we’d diligently kept a chum slick going, staring at the balloons suspending our baits bobbing behind the boat. We’d had zero bites. It was dead calm and 92 degrees. There wasn’t even the slightest breeze to cool our crisping flesh or whisk away the smell of sunbaked mackerel bits all over the deck. Around 3 p.m. we finally said “uncle” and decided to head in.
Darren started clearing the lines while I packed up tackle. With only one rod left in the water—the closest balloon just 30 feet off the stern—he cranked fast so we could get moving. The dead bluefish bait came to the surface and was skipping across the water when Darren belted out, “Holy sh*t! Here we go!”
By the time I turned around, a 150-pound-class mako had already bolted in like a missile and inhaled the bluefish. He was now in the air, cartwheeling just 10 feet behind the motor on a short leash. Darren yelled at me to get on the rod while he fired the engine and grabbed the wheel. Ned scrambled for the flying gaff stashed down below. It was sweet chaos, and we were all stunned to see a mako this close to shore. I had always dreamed of putting one on the deck of my boat but never thought I’d get the chance.
The fish stayed right on the surface and was rather calm and tame after the initial jumps, likely because everything had happened so fast, it didn’t even know it was hooked yet. Within 30 seconds of connecting, I was sliding the shark right to the waiting gaff. Darren took a shot at the gills, but the gaff—which wasn’t set up properly because I never imagined we’d need it—bounced off. The shark went screaming for the bottom.
No big deal, we thought. Now we’d have time to compose ourselves. As soon as we get the fish back up, it’s ours. I settled into the fight, gaining a few feet and losing them again. I’d had this crew out many times, but we’d never been more amped over a fish than at that moment. After 20 minutes, I had the shark about 10 feet from the surface. Just a few more cranks and it would be over.
Then I remembered: Because we were fishing for brown sharks, which have much smaller teeth, we were using 200-pound fluorocarbon leader instead of traditional steel cable—we tended to get more bites that way. But there was also a circle hook on that fluoro, and assuming it was seated in the corner of this mako’s mouth, we had a chance. I worked that shark to within 5 feet of the gaff. Darren was reaching out when the fish rolled on its side. I could see the circle hook was, in fact, perfectly planted, but a full 6 inches of the leader above the eye was shredded, hanging on by a thread.
“Hit her now!” I screamed at Darren. “Now” had barely left my lips when the thread broke.
We didn’t talk the entire ride home. I was genuinely on the verge of tears. I’ve lost countless fish in my life, but none of them ever delivered this caliber of gut punch. For the record, I don’t believe in killing loads of sharks, but I wanted one mako on my own boat. Just one. We all knew the odds of hooking another that close to shore were slim. With my old boat’s sputtery 2002 outboard and relatively low fuel capacity, it was nearly impossible to go more than 20 miles offshore. As I suspected, it never happened again.
I sold that old boat in 2017, and I thought about that shark as the new owner drove her away. I have another boat now, but since then it’s become illegal to kill makos in the Atlantic. That’s a good thing because I want my 5-year-old son to experience catching them, too. But I also wanted him to gawk over that one jaw set hanging in my office. “I caught that shark on my old boat,” I would’ve told him. “Most surprising fish Daddy ever landed. Best day ever.” —J.C.
Anse’s First 5-Pounder
Anse had just turned 8—old enough, in my book, if not his mom’s, to fish the pond by himself. Though it’s only 200 yards from the front door, Michelle gave Anse a two-way radio and cell phone along with strict instructions to check in every 10 minutes and be home in 30. I told him to keep some 12-inch bass for dinner if he caught them. But I knew his designs were on taxidermy for his room. I’d told him many times that a largemouth had to be 5 pounds before I’d pay to have it stuffed.
Anse put his Case pen knife in a hip pocket, and he carried a bucket with a package of his favorite swimbaits, a stringer, and a Capri Sun. He hugged Michelle around the neck, nodded at me, and walked toward the pond, spinning rod in hand, without looking back once. She and I sat on the porch, staring at the radio, and within five minutes we heard static and a small voice. “Deeds, it’s Anse. I’m at the pond. Over.”
“OK, buddy, good luck,” I told him.
It was a good day for a boy to fish. The radio soon crackled again: “Deeds! I caught a 3-pounder, but I’m going to let him go! I have two keepers in the bucket already! Over!” My phone then buzzed with a blurry picture of an 18-inch, pot-bellied bass laying alongside his rod in the green grass. “This is the best day of my life! Over!”
I strutted a bit as I plugged in my electric knife and gathered a cutting board and plastic bowl for fillets. “I told you he’d be fine,” I said to Michelle. His time at the pond was running out, but she’d already agreed to 10 extra minutes if he radioed and asked for it.
But then we heard the hysterical, unmistakable cries of our child in distress. We saw him coming, shuffling across the field toward us, lugging the bucket, his fishing rod held in the air like a torch. We ran toward him, screaming his name and envisioning the worst: twin holes in his leg from the fangs of a cottonmouth, perhaps, or a pocketknife wound, down to the bone in his hand.
Instead, I found the spool of his spinning reel stripped clean, 6-pound monofilament entangled in blackberry briars for a full trail length behind him. Anse’s face was red and swollen, with tracks from tears running onto his neck. I caught my breath as I put my hands on his shoulders and checked him for obvious injury. “Buddy, what’s wrong?”
“I had him,” he said. “Deeds, I had the 5-pounder. I hooked him on my swimbait, and pulled him up on the muddy spot next to the feeder, and I was trying to take a picture of him, and he flopped, and I tried to grab him, but my line broke, and he got back in the water, and he took my bait with him!”
I knelt in the field, my young son crying into my shoulder. Two little bass sloshed in the bucket; he’d packed them across the field in a full gallon of water. I asked Anse for his stringer, so they’d be easier to carry, and later, before we cleaned them, I even convinced him to hold them up for a picture. Though I had to hide it, I’ve never smiled more over the tragedy of a lost fish.—W.B.
Grandpa hated to lose a fish. A lost fish, after all, couldn’t be stuffed into a plastic grocery bag and paraded around the neighborhood—couldn’t interrupt our stickball games or our tree climbing or our hide-and-seek—when Grandpa returned from the stream and walked across his yard to ours and yelled, “Hey, you bunch! Come look at my fish!”
So, never wanting to be undergunned on the water, Grandpa fished for stream trout with a bass-sized spincasting outfit, 17-pound-test line, and size 6 hooks. But people have a way of sabotaging themselves, and as much as he hated to lose a fish, he couldn’t bear to spend one penny more than he needed to on anything. As a result, the drag on his cheap reel balked, the line that he never, ever changed was brittle, and his bargain-bin hooks were rusted and bent.
On the streams that threaded through our little farming town, Grandpa had claimed a bunch of spots as his own, but his favorite was a deep pool on Baker’s Creek, overhung by willows, where a spring trickled in around cress and moss-covered rocks and minty-smelling greenery.
It was a killer spot. No matter how many trout Grandpa yanked out of that pool, there were always more, and always a few monster browns lurking. On summer evenings, I’d walk down there with him, through the farmer’s hayfields to the streamside, where he’d set up with a forked stick and a lawn chair and then banish me downstream to the lesser stretches. I’d always return to sit with him at dusk, though, when the big ones started biting,
Pretty soon, Grandpa’s rod would twitch.
“You’ve got a bite there, Grandpa,” I’d say, and he’d grunt.
Then it would start bobbing deeply. “He’s really biting now, Grandpa!”
“Baah!” he’d say, waving me off. “You gotta let him take it!”
Soon, Grandpa’s entire bass-sized rod would be waving and flailing, ready to jump into the water at any moment. “Grandpa!” I’d yell, and he’d finally lurch from his lawn chair, grab the rod, and haul back like there was a barracuda on the other end.
Sometimes a small trout would erupt from the pool and sail into the trees behind us, or a decent fish would skid across the surface and come to hand. Occasionally, even a big one stayed attached. But more than a few snapped free instantly.
“Sh*ttin” was Grandpa’s swear word of choice, and without a hint of irony he’d holler: “Sh*ttin’ K-Mart reel!” “Or “Sh*ttin’ garbage line!” or “Sh*ttin’ junk hooks!” But as often as not, the line would not snap, and instead he’d reel up to find a gill or piece of jaw or some other freshly yanked-free part of a trout’s anatomy on his hook.
“Look at that,” he’d say. “He was so big, I couldn’t budge him.”
Plenty of people catch fish that were lost by other anglers, but they don’t know who lost them. We knew. When Grandpa wasn’t at his pool, my brothers and I would wade way downstream on Baker’s Creek and fish our way up to his spot, saving the best for last. We knew that no matter how many trout Grandpa yanked out of that place, there were always more, and always a few monster browns lurking—most with cheap hooks dangling from their mouths or lips missing. —D.H.
Swimming for Steelhead
For years my life ambition was to be a steelhead bum. I wanted to be one of those graybeard hippies who cast a Spey rod like a form of ballet and hopscotch from river to river as autumn leaves tarnish and fall, losing jobs and loved ones along the way.
Wanting to stay married, I never got past the wannabe stage. But my quest to catch a 20-pound steelhead was real. One November evening on Idaho’s Clearwater River, known for the size of its B-run strain—steelhead that have spent up to three years at sea packing on pounds—I would discover just how far I would go to make my dream come true.
The fly, my version of a Freight Train, was swinging a hundred yards upstream of a bridge called Cherry Lane when the fish took. The take was just a pluck, but then the line came tight, and the steelhead was in the air, its broad red stripe looking as wide as a cummerbund. It crashed back into the river and dug deep, the hallmark of a buck, and I knew in an instant that it was the one I’d been waiting for.
Wading ashore before the fish could spool me, I chased it down to the bridge, where a concrete support 20 feet into the river prevented me from following farther. For a minute or so the steelhead hesitated. Then it pulled around the support and was below the bridge.
To swim or not to swim? That was the question. To my credit or discredit, depending on your notions of foolhardiness and valor, I hesitated only long enough to tighten my waist belt. I waded out a step, then one more, and soon I was swimming, the current sweeping me under the bridge, the rod gripped in my left hand. I didn’t feel the cold past the initial shock and told myself not to panic, that the run got shallower below the bridge and I’d reach shore soon enough. Minutes passed. Finally I was able to pull myself to the bank, the long rod, miraculously, still live in my hand. I fumbled with the reel, but my fingers were too numb to work the handle. Then the line went slack. For a second I permitted myself to think the fish had run toward me. But only for a second. The fish was gone.
Many years before, I was fishing a tributary of the Skeena River when I lost a fish that might have been as big as this one. Afterward, I sat on a log while wolves sang the chorus of a sad song in the forest behind me. There were no wolves here, but there was a log to prop my rod against and sit on and let my thoughts drift. When I began to shake, I gathered up some driftwood and set it ablaze with an old railroad flare my father had given me. Gradually the shaking subsided, and I came back into myself.
The car was a good walk upriver, and it was dark when I reached it, the river below a pewter ribbon with the stars not yet reflecting on its surface. I turned the key in the ignition and cranked up the heater.
Steelhead, I’ve come to believe, are the possible impossible dream. That is why you keep casting. The one I want is still out there, under the stars over one river or another. There is a part of me that hopes I catch it, and there is part of me that hopes I never will. —K.M.
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