Merwin: Trophy Heart-Breakers

It often seems the fish we remember the most are the ones we didn't catch. I know I've got some indelible mental images of potential trophies hooked, fought, and heart-breakingly lost. Some were in far-off places; others closer to home.

There was a huge brown trout once, just down the road in the Battenkill, that I improbably hooked on a fragile 7X tippet and a tiny size 26 dry fly. I managed to stay hooked up for about 20 long minutes as the big trout slowly swam from one end of a long pool to the other. At that point the fish seemed to realize it was hooked, darted through a log jam, and was gone. I can still see the spots on its yellow-brown sides.

Surfcasting early one morning from a Cape Cod jetty, I hooked a really big striper on a Hopkins spoon. I moved off the jetty and walked down the beach while fighting the fish, knowing it would be easier to land amid waves and sand than if I were to stay on the rocks. After a long tug-of-war, I finally had the fish in the shallows, its back out of water. At that instant, the bass tossed its head and the hook fell out. The striper threw a big wake as it headed back to deep water, and I stood there, crushed, in a long, long silence.

There were others, of course, like the monster largemouth that ultimately snapped my line, or the giant Alaskan rainbow that I fought to a standstill but never did land because it was too big for me to grab. If you fish long enough, this kind of thing inevitably happens, the stuff of dreams that never quite come true.