It’s a rock. No—it’s a fish…Maybe.
Everyone gets hung up from time to time, whether it be one’s hopper pattern catching on a bit of riverbank shrubbery, or one’s streamer snagged on a rock or submerged log. When it happens, credit yourself with simply having put your fly aggressively where it needs to be: In the case of a hopper, tight to the bank–not 4 inches from the bank, but right there; with your streamer, in the money zone–right where the fish are holding behind the structure. Sometimes we flirt with disaster and get just a little too close. Gotta push that envelope, however, because fish are a lazy bunch (especially when they’ve been gorging on plentiful bugs) and often they won’t move more than a couple inches to take a fly. Therein explains my lack of catching – often times I’m too concerned with snapping off my fly and losing it. Sue me for being practical and fiscally conservative: I’d undoubtedly catch more fish if I were a bit more wreckless. I fault my parents for not allowing me to talk back, run with scissors, or act before thinking. Damn them.
Still, I’m no stranger to losing flies to all manner of obstacles, and when I started swinging streamers on a sink tip with my Spey rod, one of the first things I learned to do was get a fly un-stuck from the many rocks I encountered. There’s an art to it that I haven’t fully mastered, but it’s safe to say that my fly un-snagging is better than my Spey casting. On a recent steelheading trip I was working a run below a tailout, swinging a streamer at the end of my Type III sink tip, and hanging up on rocks with amazing regularity. Now before you take pity on me, let me state that I felt pretty good about this because at least my fly was getting down where it needed to be. Having covered the run with no bumps from fish, I decided it was time to run with rusty scissors, and reached for nymphing rod–the “Meat Pole”- belonging to my buddy, Large Albacore. He had recently landed a fish employing this savage device, and now it was my turn to get dirty.
Working the inside seam of the tailout, I rather quickly, and surprisingly, had a fish take the plastic bead egg dangling 18 or so inches below a brown stonefly nymph. I’d like to think that my keen angler’s eye caught the subtle dip in the strike indicator, signaling a fish on and invoking a reflex-like hook-set. However, I am honest if not talented, and admittedly the fish took the dropper so hard I didn’t have to do anything but hold on.
After a respectable fight lasting several minutes, Large Albacore stood at the ready to tail the hatchery hen after I had steered her into the shallows. She was all mine–just waiting for a stone shampoo and ultimately the smoker. I savored the moment, licking my chops and watching intently as Albacore hesitated just a split second too long, which gave the fish a chance to see his oversized hand extending toward her. With one last effort to save her genetically inferior life, she thrashed violently and gave a series of head shakes, slipping the hook and wiggling off into the current from where she’d just be pulled against her will. Albacore sat down on a rock and beat himself up over the incident. But being the forgiving type, and an eternal optimist, I simply tossed the whole messy assortment of end tackle back upstream, threw a series of stack mends into the line, and watched the indicator bob in the current (ah, fly fishing at it’s best!).
Not 5 minutes passed before I felt tension on my line. Not the good kind of tension associated with a fish, but the other kind of tension when one’s fly snags on a bit of structure. The hook was clearly anchored pretty well, and I gave a gentle tug to see if it would pop loose. Nope (and by tugging as I did, I’d probably just buried the hook deeper into whatever if was that held it). This wasn’t going to be easy, and I began attempting to roll cast some slack line toward the problem in hopes of freeing the hook from the vice-like grip of the rock or log. This was particularly challenging from my vantage point because I was precariously perched on some slippery rocks, hip deep in water that was doing it’s best to dislodge my footing. I struggled a bit more before it became clear that I was hung up pretty good, which Albacore pointed out by shouting, “I see you’re hung up pretty good!” I gave him a quick glance as if to say, “Thank you, friend, for that astute observation!” as he waded out next to me to offer some assistance (the water was only up to his shins because he is nearly twice my height). With his additional wingspan he would likely have better success throwing some slack and getting the stuck fly unstuck, and I very carefully handed him the rod, worried that he might lose his grip and release the rod into the water just as he’d done with my fish. As I delicately passed the rod to him, the line quivered and the rod tip bounced. “There’s a fish on!” we yelled in unison, and the rod was abruptly passed back to me in a manner reminiscent of the old “Hot Potato” game.
While the fish did let me know it was on the end of my line, it was not putting up much of a fight–certainly not what one might expect from a steelhead (even a hatchery brat). I was able to get the fish on the reel quickly and steered it directly toward shore, where Albacore was waiting again. This time he wore the furrowed brow of a man keenly focused. His grab hand quivered slightly as might a gunfighter’s preparing to draw his six-shooter. The big man was to cockd and loaded, ready to pounce on the fish…which was another hatchery hen. Exactly the same size as the one I’d nearly landed 5 minutes earlier. Same coloration. The resemblance was, in fact, uncanny.
Signs posted along access trails to the river make it clear: “There’s a mandatory retention of adipose fin-clipped hatchery origin steelhead”. As if they needed to remind us to kill hatchery fish, it would be good to take a fish home for the grill: Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler would be pleased with my offering since 95% of the time I come home empty handed (due in part to the fact that the majority of my fishing takes me to catch & release waters, and also because I rarely catch anything). So after the fish was quickly dispatched of, I took my turn at sitting on a rock. I removed my lucky fishing hat and scratched my head, trying to make sense of the whole thing. It evaded me then, and I still have no rational idea as to what was going through the fish’s head during the entire 2 minutes that I assumed I was hung up on a rock. I had stood there in the river waving yards of slack line–in essence trying desperately to remove the hook from it’s mouth–but it never moved during the whole ordeal. I gave that fish every opportunity to simply open it’s mouth and slip the hook–a virtual green light to freedom–and it did nothing. Maybe the fish itself was stuck–wedged between two rocks? No way–not possible. Maybe I was hung up on a rock or stick intitially, and then unstuck the hook and as it popped free it landed right in front of the fish, which casually opened it’s mouth and slurped the hook. Not likely. Steelhead anglers acknowledge that hatchery fish don’t fight like wild fish to, but this fish was exceptional even in that regard–it was a veritable sloth. My current theory is that perhaps the fish was just too tired to move, because that theory also maintains that this fish was the same fish I had nearly landed 5 minutes prior–you know, the fish that Albacore allowed to get free? Yeah, that fish was this fish.
That’s my story, and like a hook buried in a rock, branch, or gumption-free hatchery brat, I’m stickin’ to it.