“They’re sure beautiful!”
That’s a phrase used to describe small fish and is usually muttered in the same breath as, “There’s more to fishing than catching.” I employ the use of both quite often, and while there is some truth to each statement, it’s usually just an excuse. As pertaining to little fish, yes–any fish on the end of your line is better than nothing at all. To a point. Then after a while it just gets depressing. Well, maybe not depressing, but demoralizing. Anglers like me who have muttered those words countless times before are simply deprived in the large fish department.
If I want (and that’s the key word) to catch dinks, I’ll hit either the South or Middle Forks of the Snoqualmie. These are small fish waters, so one knows what one is getting into ahead of time. Using the universal “Fish Weight Formula” (girth x girth x length divided by 800), I’d wager that the average weight of these fish is .0675 lbs). That’s not to say that the rare 12 incher (or bigger) doesn’t lurk in these relatively small, relatively sterile waters, but the norm is to catch 4-8 inch fish, mostly coastal cutthroats with the occasional rainbow or Westslope cuttie, and in even more rare instances a brookie. I’ve always had more plentiful catching on the Middle Fork, as it’s a bigger river, and in my experiences the fish are a bit bigger overall than on the South Fork, which is not saying much. But in either river the fish tend toward smallishness because the rivers lack sufficient biomass for prolific insect populations, and they get scoured with heavy winter floods from multiple storms each year. The limited supply of food in these waters doesn’t allow for fish to gorge themselves into impressive proportions, but in spite of, or perhaps because of this, during the summer months these little fish are definitely game, and will attack large attractor patterns if you can place the fly near their noses. The bigger fish in the Forks are not easy to come by and are much harder to entice—they don’t get to be 12 inch hogs by being stupid. For example, two years ago I was fishing my favorite run on the Middle Fork, catching a few 6 inchers here and there, enjoying the gorgeous scenery and reminding myself that there’s more to fishing than catching big fish. Behind a rock in about 5 feet of gin clear water, I spied a monstrous fish in the 12 inch range. Water magnifies things, so I’m being honest and accounting for that when I say this fish was 12 inches (he looked much bigger). I tried everything possible to get him to engage me in a bit of gentlemanly sport, and ended up working myself into a frenzy trying to fool that fish with streamers and nymphs. But he would have none of it. My offerings didn’t spook him, rather he just looked sideways at them as if so say, “Pppffft–silly imitation made of synthetic threads and feathers…” After 45 minutes of attempting in vain to fool the fish, the reality of the situation became as clear as the water in which I was standing: There was but one fool, and it was not the fish.
This past summer my son, Schpanky (see previous post: “The Kid never listens”) and my brother Hal (could be his real name) joined me for an early evening on the Middle Fork. We rigged up and walked a short distance to my favorite run–the same run where I’d been shunned by the big fish two years earlier. Hal walked upstream to work the head of the run, careful not to get his Kindle™ wet as he fished (I’m kidding–Hal didn’t really have his Kindle with him. I just like to tease him because he’s a hardcore bookworm and gadget junkie). Schpanky took the next position in the middle of the run where the best water is, and being the good father I am, I took the leftovers at the bottom of the run. On my third cast I hooked into what would prove to be my best Middle Forker to date: A solid 12 inch coastal cutt that was more fun on my 4 wt than any fish had the right to be. One would be better off with a 2 or 3 weight rod on these waters, but using a 4 weight gives me the false sense of confidence that I am really stalking bigger fish, like the one that I had on the end of my line at this particular moment. He hit hard, and ran fast- actually taking line off my reel. With my highly developed brain and opposable thumb, I made it very clear to the trout who was at the top of the evolutionary ladder as I played him with skill and patience. As I imposed my angling will upon him, I also taunted him in a manner similar to scene in Monty Python and The Holy Grail where the French soldiers rained down insults upon King Arthur. When I brought him to hand there was something immediately familiar about the fish, and I hearkened back to that day two years ago: We were both older and wiser, and he was no bigger for reasons mentioned in the paragraph above, but it had to be the same fish. He was silvery and covered with spots, and had vibrant red slash marks under either side of his jaw. The resemblance was uncanny, and I determined that it was the same fish. Seeing this handsome trout again brought back memories, but on this day it was I who was Lord and Master.
And while you may be astonished to learn that once in a while even the Unaccomplished Angler is shown some respect by his quarry, I feel compelled to tell you the whole story: Schpanky had actually gotten his fly hung up on a snag in the river, and like any dutiful father I selflessly came to his rescue (afterall, I’d paid good money for that fly and was not about to have the boy lose it to the river). I handed him my rod, grabbed his, and waded out to free his line, grumbling the whole time about being interrupted from my quiet time on the water. When I freed the hook from the snag I laid out a short cast, mainly to straighten out the line, and walked slowly back to the bank. And that’s when the big fish took the fly. So, while yes, I had caught the fish, it’s not as if I was employing my keen angling skills–it was pure, dumb luck. No matter. I’d caught a nice fish, and nobody in the outside world needed to know the circumstances. The next day I called Marck to share the news. He lives right on the banks of the South Fork, and often goes out after dinner to entertain himself with his 3 weight. Certainly if anyone would appreciate my accomplishments it would be Marck. Upon hearing the news of my 12 inch trophy, his reply was, “I caught a 15 incher behind my house last night.”
Not to worry, as I’m sure my fish was more beautiful.