Stream Lines | Just Shy of Eighteen

The logjam provided enough depth and structure to hold decent sized trout. I waded in just below it to about thigh deep and made a good cast up to where it looked like the large fish should be holding. My beetle pattern bobbed and drifted a foot or two from about the half-way-point of the jam where a few larger logs protruded into the river. I pulled quickly at the line to manage the slack as the current pushed the terrestrial toward me.

Then just like I’d envisioned, a pair of lips inhaled the beetle—a very small pair of lips. I set and a six-inch fish skittered over the surface. My anticipation for a larger trout may have affected my overly forceful hook set. I say the trout was six-inches but it could have just as easily been four or five. Admittedly, I may miscalculate by an inch or two regardless the size of the fish. I don’t often actually measure my fish because I’m quite confident in my approximate benchmark measurements.


A six-inch trout could be anything up to six inches. A 12-inch trout is usually anything between nine and 12. After that I get a little more precise: a 15-inch trout is anything an inch or so shy of that, and a 16-inch trout is actually 16…at least in my mind anyway. An 18-inch trout…well, anything that looks like 18 inches or above I usually do a quick measurement against my rod before I send it back. Oddly, a few of my 18-inch trout have actually measured 16 inches.


I say all that to say the six-inch trout that grabbed my beetle was about half way between me and the logjam when I saw a dark shadow dart out and ambush the small trout. The battle immediately transitioned from a quick land-and-release scenario into an uncertain tug-o-war.


I’d actually been in this type of situation before—the small fish takes the fly and then a large bull trout hijacks the poor little guy. Never have I ever actually landed the bull trout. He always spits his prey just a few feet from me, so I assumed the same would happen this time. But there was something vastly different about this situation unfolding in front of me—there were no char in this system.


As I brought the two fish closer, something completely unpredictable happened. I’ve replayed the event multiple times, and I still have no idea how. Without a change in tension or direction, I watched as the small fish swam away. Very nonchalantly…like he’d had enough for one day.


Somehow the little Houdini escaped the jaws of his captor and now the large trout alone was on the end of my line. At about four feet away, I reached for my net and pulled it from my backpack then promptly fumbled and dropped it just as the large fish took another run straight toward the lower end of the jam. I turned the rod to my right in order to guide him away from the submerged timber, but I was a little late. When I pulled on my rod, I didn’t feel the head shakes of a large trout, just the solid and consistent tension created by deadwood.


At this point I faced a conundrum. Do I wade deeper toward the jam in order to see if a slightly different rod angle frees the line and possibly the fish if he was still on, or do I run downstream after my net, which was now getting dangerously close to a slightly submerged stump? I chose the latter because it appeared more attainable. I sprinted down the river and got to the end of my unspooled line then lunged for my net just moments before it became part of the unretrievable mess around the stump. I picked it up and put it under my left arm and reeled in my line while trekking back toward the snag.


When I arrived near the bottom of the logjam, I was able to comfortably wade another two feet beyond my original position and then another couple uncomfortable feet beyond that all the while angling my rod upstream as far as I could. To my surprise, I felt the line release from the submerged log and immediately felt the headshakes from the large fish. He was still there!


I reeled him up as I moved back toward my initial casting position. Then I took the retrieved net from under my left arm, raised the tip of my rod toward the slightly overcast sky and watched as the heavily spotted, yellow-bellied cutthroat slid over the side of the net.


I’m really not sure how it happened, but the beetle was embedded in the corner of the jaw in the very same way as if he’d taken it himself. I removed the hook and slid my hand under the fish’s belly and lifted him toward my rod. This one, by my closest estimation needed to be measured. My mental yardstick placed him on the larger side of 18 inches.


When I placed his tail at the butt of the rod, his nose stretched well beyond any logos or weight hashtags. This one’s got to run a solid 20 I thought as I slipped him back in the water and held him for a moment before he decided to splash with his tale and swim quickly toward the chaotic ball of trees and branches.


The rest of the day I fished each of the deep pools with dries first and then made a second pass with streamers. I caught lots of fish on both but none rivaled that trout’s size. On the way home, I reminisced about the one…or more accurately the two. I’ve been fishing now for four solid decades, mostly for trout, and to that point I’d never had a cutthroat ambush a six-inch trout at the end of my line.


The only explanation…maybe I overestimated size of the trout that rose to the beetle. I guess he could have been four inches just as easily as he could have been six. That’s a possibility. Regardless, a trout eating another a third its size, then the beetle transferring from the smaller to the larger mouth, and then the trout running me into a jam and me getting the trout off the jam…he’s likely a trout I won’t soon forget.


When I got home, I grabbed my gear from the vehicle and placed it in the garage. I rummaged about for a tape measure and then stretched it from the rod butt to where his nose reached. By precise calculations, the trout measured just shy of 18. Hmm. I overestimated by two inches—glad to see even in the mayhem of a moment some things never change.