Fish I Haven’t Caught

By Beacon Staff

You’ve probably heard the old story about the evolution of fly fishers. When they first take up the sport they just want to catch a fish. Then they want to catch a lot of fish, and then the biggest fish.

Only when a fly fisher gets past all that can they focus on the greatest challenge: catching the really difficult fish.

I’ve been beaten by plenty of these fish through the years. These fish have mostly been browns.

There was the 16-inch brown in a small mountain stream were the average fish was rarely longer than 8 inches that I tried to catch. I found the fish in a pool thick with weeds that was nearly unfishable. I spied the trophy hanging out under a rock outcropping, in a pocket of open water about the size of a bathtub.

Something wasn’t quite right with that fish, but I couldn’t tell what was up. I expected the fish to drift off into the cover of the weeds as I grew closer, but instead it seemed to be straining just to hold itself upright. When I got close enough what was up became clear: that brown had a mouthful of rainbow trout, 6 inches or so I guessed, as only a bit of the body and the still waving tail were visible.

I didn’t bother casting a fly in the brown’s direction that morning as I figured it had other things on its mind than a No. 14 Adams. I came back a few times, tossing nymphs and rainbow-trout patterned streamers back into the pocket, but I never caught that fish, or even saw it for that matter. For all I know that fish choked to death trying to wolf down that rainbow. It wouldn’t have been the first time a big brown bit off more than it could handle and ended up dead for the effort.

I ran into another tough brown the other day on the Shoshone tailwater just east of Yellowstone. We were fishing in the narrow canyon just below the dam on the outskirts of Cody, Wyo. There’s a paved road that runs up the canyon that sits 20 to 30 feet up above the water. From there we can scan the pools for big trout.

I found one. It was a brown maybe 20-inches long, with a tail that looked about as big as a first baseman’s glove. That fish was hugging the shore, periodically nosing up to the surface to suck down bugs too small to see from the road.

I watched for a while, then tied on a Rusty Spinner trailed by a Snowshoe Emerger, and climbed off the road down to the river. I figured this was a one-cast fish, and in the still pool water, a downstream presentation might give me an edge.

Well, my first cast wasn’t worthy. I hadn’t accounted for the wind ripping down the canyon that drove my back cast into my head. But I managed to strip off enough line to get a fairly decent drift in the vicinity of where I saw the brown rising. Unfortunately, the fish wasn’t interested.

I stripped the line back in, and though I assumed all that commotion spooked the fish, decided to give it a few more tries. Surprisingly, the brown was still there, still rising. Just not to my fly. Dudes walking the road peered down, got a glimpse of the focus of my attention, and shouted down their offers to switch places. I might as well have given them a crack at it. I never got a serious look.

Is that brown an uncatchable fish? Probably not. But it won’t be an easy fish either. It hangs out in open water — or at least it did that day — in a place where a reasonably proficient fly fisher should be able to reach. But it will take the right fly, and more importantly, the right, drag-free presentation. On that calm, pool water, an old, cagey fish like the brown is going to give everything a good look before it slurps.

I have ambitions of someday making a cast worthy of that difficult fish. I’m still working on it.

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