It was a cast initially much like any other. The evening’s action had been a little slow. With no bites I had descended into the pleasurable monotony of casting and reeling that most lure anglers know. It was a pleasant evening and I was just happy to be in Central Wyoming and fishing for trout. It may have been the 50th cast or it may have been the 100th cast of the night, I don’t know, but on this cast it suddenly all changed.
I threw my Rapala CD 9 across the North Platte River and then began the familiar jerking and reeling motion that gives jerk baits their common name. As I have found is often the case, the strike came as the lure was finishing its downstream sweep. There was nothing really exceptional about the strike in voracity, but I knew the instant the line tightened without a doubt I was attached to something much bigger than normal. The fish came to the surface, but did not emerge, only swirled and I caught a quick glimpse of what I actually thought was the side of large rainbow trout in the fading light. He made a run for downstream and I began to follow, clamoring over the boulder lined bank as best I could. Then, I came to my senses and realized the fish was headed for a downstream riffle, and if he made it there, the battle would be over before it began. I put what pressure I could on the fish and decided I would move no farther.
It was my second day of fishing what is known among anglers as “The Miracle Mile”. A section of the North Platte River that flows between Seminoe and Pathfinder Reservoirs, and produces some of the best trout action in the country. That’s A Good Fish (TAGF) crew members Lester Whiteside, Roy Fixins, and Gus Gilleywaters, and John were all on the July trip.
The previous evening in a stretch of the river just upstream from where I was, Lester Whiteside hooked a very large fish that pursued the same tactic. It was successful at making to the fast water, freeing itself, leaving its identity and size only to speculation. So I decided I was standing my ground. I would either land the fish here or not land it at all.
The fish turned upstream and then sounded, a motion typical of a brown trout in battle, and this led me to believe that maybe that is what I had hooked. I realized that this was, as John says, “one grizzled old veteran versus another grizzled old veteran.” And the battle was going to go on awhile. Somewhere along the line of my fishing career I have developed the habit of looking down at my watch when I find something much more than average on my line. This time I glanced down and it read 8:20 Mountain Time.
During next few minutes the nature of the battle began to settle. The fish would make a deep run, I would apply as much pressure as I could, then he would turn, but plunge into the deep current. I began to have time to contemplate, more so than reacting. I now knew I was attached to an exceptional fish, if it was a big trout; I loathed the idea of keeping it. Yet, I was alone. I had no way of proving to other members of the TAGF crew that I caught it, if I was fortunate enough to win the battle.
I was hoping to avoid a repeat of what has become known among the group as the Encampment River fiasco of 2010. John, fishing alone was forced to keep a very large brown trout as proof to the rest of the crew that fish of that size existed in the river. Group dynamics being what they are, we were all obligated to participate in the consumption of the fish in camp that evening. For anglers accustomed to crappie fillets it was an arduous task. Even today it is a frequent camp fire topic, spoken of as one of the great moments of suffering in the group experience.
As the fish sounded again I looked down the canyon and could barely make out the figure of John fishing the lower side of the rapids I was trying to avoid. He had to be a few hundred yards down the canyon. Gus, Lester, and Roy were up the river from me, but around a rock formation and out of sight. I decided to at least give it a try and began yelling John’s name. There was no response. So I started yelling “help”. Hoping someone would hear and could be sent after the others.
It turned out, I needn’t have worried, at this point it was much earlier in the fight than I could have imagined. Once again the fish made a run and plunged deep. At times it just sat on the bottom. All I could do was hold on and hope he wore down.
Shortly, I could see that John had started to move up the canyon toward me. Not an easy feat on the bank covered with rocks the size of vehicles. In fact, those rocks were the reason I was where I was. I had much success the previous evening and morning on this stretch of the river, both upstream and downstream from where I stood. A few hours of clamoring over these rocks had left me sore and not a little hesitant and concerned for my own safety. So I was fishing on this evening where a road approached close to the river. Easy access for an aging fisherman.
The previous day my son Gus and I finished a successful evening a little earlier than the rest of the group, and were leisurely enjoying the evening waiting alongside the road. A random fly fisherman from Colorado pulled up in an SUV to discuss the evening feed. He had been having some success on dry flies he said. We said our pleasantries and he moved on. Now as I battled this fish I looked over my shoulder and the Colorado Fly Fisherman was stopped on the road above me, watching out of his vehicle.
The battle continued. John made his was to me, taking an unfortunate fall on the way and cutting a finger. I felt a little bad about that later. “What do you have?” he said as he arrived. I now had an audience of two.
“I’m not sure, but it is big, I have already been fighting since 8:20.”
The fish chose this instant to make another attempt to get downstream and in doing so came as close to the bank as he had for any of the battle. For a moment he was closer to John than to me. He approached the surface for a second time, swirled in the water, giving us a quick glimpse of his side. The light was really fading now, but I still could have sworn I saw the side of a rainbow.
I explained to John my strategy of not moving farther downstream and the fish headed deep again. In a fight like this the time passes so quickly, but yet there all kinds of thoughts; I’m glad I switched to 8 pound line rather than the 6 I normally use in this situation (8 pound test PLine floroclear, in case you are wondering. PLine floroclear is my go to line.) Is this really a big trout, or is it something else? Will I spend all this time fighting it to find out yes it is big, but not really that big just strong? Maybe I have it foul hooked? When do I begin to put enough pressure on the fish to actually try to land it?
In a few minutes the fish actually came up again, but all John and I could see was a dark shadow. We both agreed that it looked like the silhouette of a big trout!
The battle continued. I would gain a little ground and then lose it all on the next run. Darkness continued to descend on the canyon, and three figures emerged from the rocks upstream, Gus, Roy, and Lester. They soon were aware that I was in the middle of playing something larger than usual.
One of the first questions was, “Why don’t you follow it downstream?”
My quick reply was, “No I have made my decision. I am standing my ground right here,” Explaining that if he took me into the fast water, there would be no return. From that moment on this became the “Stand Your Ground” fish.
The battle continued. For a while neither veteran could gain much ground. I would get a few yards of line on the spool. The fish would soon gain it back. I began to control the line on my Pflueger President, not by the drag, but by manually controlling the spool with a finger of my rod hand. The big fish continued his pattern of coming up, and then going deep. John commented that he wasn’t sure the fish even knew he was hooked.
More thoughts in my mind; How well was the fish hooked? Maybe it wasn’t really all that big of a fish, and my partners would be disappointed. Behind me the audience continued the discussion about what the fish was. For awhile there was serious speculation from Roy and Lester that perhaps it was a carp. John and I both disputed this, with the description of the glimpses we had seen.
While the big fish sounded again and I just hung on, I glanced behind me and the TAGF crew had lined up on the rocks, seating themselves in a row like bleacher fans at a ballpark, but there was an extra crew member…..Random Colorado Fly fisherman had parked his SUV and made his way down from the road to join them. The comments and speculation of the fish’s identity continued, plans for actually landing the fish were developed. The battle continued, and the excitement among the crew grew intense.
It was almost dark now. One of the crew members had brought a light down from the vehicle and was shining it on the water, trying to see the fish. At moments, I wasn’t sure where the fish or my line was. This was concerning me.
Finally, I felt the fish had started to tire and it was time to put on more pressure. I pumped the rod, only reeling in line on the down swing. I was surprised when I began making progress. The crew beamed the light on the water. After such a long battle, what happened next seemed to happen in an instant.
The fish was there, it didn’t seem like he gradually came into view, I had just gained enough line that it was there, up in the water and close to the bank. The light was pointed right at it. Up to this point I had maintained my emotions and control of my thoughts, plotting the battle like a grizzled veteran should. Now I lost it. Lester said, “It’s a huge brown!!”
And it was …….. A huge male brown with a hooked lower jaw. It wasn’t just the biggest brown trout I had ever caught; it was the biggest I had ever seen alive. This was not a stream fish, no long and skinny about him, he was fat the length of his body, bordering on obese. I began to shake uncontrollably, but in short order knew to get control of myself.
My mind was rather jumbled, but here is what I remember about what happened next. Random Colorado Fly Fisherman suggested I back up the bank, which I did. In one motion Lester grabbed the behemoth trout and put it several feet up the bank on a rock. I involuntarily collapsed right there and let out a “whoop!!” There was a great amount of excitement among the crew. I truly felt like “we” had caught this fish, not just me. Someone said its 9:15. The fight was over after over 55 minutes.
The fish had the Rapala sideways in its mouth, and was hooked very solidly hooked. Lester jumped in with pliers to help, but managed to get both himself both hooked and fortunately unhooked. Later I felt bad about that, but at the time things were happening so fast I didn’t realize. John moved in for help and managed to free the Rapala. Gus jumped in with a tape measure and records were taken, 29-inches, over 16 pounds, incredible!! I hoisted the fish quickly for photos. When I looked up to smile, TAGF crew members weren’t the only ones taking my photos. Random Colorado fly fisherman was taking photos too.
And then it was time for the fish and I to part ways. I wanted to release him as soon as possible. I knelt and slid him into the water, trying to gently hold on while he gained his equilibrium, but he was still strong. He swam from my hands immediately and headed downstream toward a place he could recover. I hope he survived the fight as well as I did. I hope he is still out there.
We were left with photos and a story. It was another pleasant night in Wyoming. There were smiles all around and celebration among the crew. Random Colorado Fly Fisherman faded into the night. We returned to camp and just sat and discussed the fish for a long time. The discussion continued much of the rest of the trip. Roy named the fish Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown.
What does all this mean, maybe not much really. I never had considered myself one to catch big trout. Now I could no longer say that. Did I do much right to catch this fish? Maybe, I think this was a huge brown that had swum up from Pathfinder reservoir. He woke up for the night and thought he saw supper in the form of small rainbow trout and attacked. I was using the rainbow color because earlier in the day John had suggested it. I kept the fish out of the fastest water because of what Lester had told me. I used 8 pound test line, because of the stories of big fish Gus had related to me on a previous trip to the Miracle Mile. In reality, it could have been any of the TAGF crew that caught the fish. I was just in the right place, mainly because I was sore and tired from climbing over the rocks.
The best thing about the experience was that all the others of the group were there to experience it with me. The five of us have been making similar trips west since the summer of 2005. I hope sometime on a future trip we all experience a monster trout again and another crew member gets to catch it. In the meantime, I remain humble about the whole experience, only mentioning the huge brown trout when necessary. It seems to be necessary a lot!