They haunt your dreams and gnaw at your soul. They keep you awake in the wee hours and make your chest hurt when you think too much about them. You’ll remember them – like it was yesterday – as long as you live.
I am, of course, talking about the ones that got away.
It sounds kinda crazy, but it’s those encounters with massive fish that spat the hook or busted off that you think about even more than the ones you landed. I guess you could say that it is “better to have loved and lost than never loved at all,” but I’m not totally sure. Some of ‘em still hurt really, really badly…
The say misery loves company, so here are a few stories to make you feel not so alone in your grieving of the ones that got away…
A monster lurks
The one that still sticks in my craw took place a couple years ago on my home stream, the American River near Sacramento. It was a couple days before Christmas and buddy Tim Reilly and I got a kitchen pass from holiday chores, so we decided to wet a line for steelies.
With only a couple hours to spare, we left the boat at home and opted instead for wading a couple productive riffles where my clients had been catching good numbers of small fall-run steelhead in the 3- to 5-pound class on recent guide trips. Armed with light spinning gear, slinkies and small egg clusters, we worked the upper spot without incident and then decided to move downstream.
As we walked, I lobbed a cast near the tailout of the first riffle and did a little “poor man’s drift boat” side-drifting. About 10 steps into my journey, I got bit and set the hook. A chrome winter fish of about 7 pounds immediately flashed on the surface and then made a dash over the tailout and into the pool below. As soon as the steelie dropped into the deeper water of the hole, it got heavy. It had obviously run under a stump or log and things weren’t looking too good for me.
The weird thing was the fish was still slowly moving around but I didn’t feel any of the usual sawing of the line that you do when you’re wrapped up in wood. It just felt heavy. Then it dawned on me that I’ve floated over that hole a million times in the past and have never noticed any debris in it. At that moment, the unseen force started to move at will. It took me several seconds to realize that I wasn’t snagged..I had something very big and very alive on the end of the line.
It methodically moved downstream and I was forced to follow. I crossed a side channel and waded out to an island above the hole to try to stay with it. There was deep water on all sides and I couldn’t go any farther downstream…I was at the point at which I was going to have to make a stand.
Luckily, the beast didn’t seem to want to swim out of the hole and instead turned around and parked about 60 diagonal feet below me. With a light spinning stick and 8-pound leader, I leaned as hard as I dared into the fish but it clearly was in control. My head was spinning at this point. Reilly and I had both seen the fish when it first came up, but now it felt like it had grown by about ten times its size. What the heck was going on here?
We discussed the possibility of it being a late-running king that I had somehow foul hooked. But, again, we both saw the fish pretty clearly when I first hooked it and it looked well south of 10 pounds. Plus, snagged kings have a real tendency to jump and flip out. This guy was different. He didn’t panic and instead moved around the pool at will in a slow, calculated way.
As the fight entered it’s second half hour, we had yet to see the fish. At one point, I worked it in fairly close. In fact, I remember telling Reilly that we were about to get a look at the thing…and then it slowly turned its big body and headed right back to the center of the hole. It was obvious that I was going to have to do something. Eventually, the fish was going to get tired of the game and head downriver. With no ability to follow, our little game would quickly end with a spooling.
So, I decided to wade from the island back to the west bank of the river, figuring I’d at least be able to chase the leviathan if he made a run for it. Unfortunately, to get across, I was going to have to pass directly upstream of the fish’s position, which is rarely a bad place to be in terms of keeping a good hook angle. About half way across the side channel, I felt the sickening sensation of my rod straightening out and the line going limp.
We never caught a glimpse of that fish, but we agreed the only real logical explanation was that a massive striped bass ate the steelie as he dropped into the pool. And in fact, my two first career stripers as a kid came as I was reeling in small steelhead. As a high schooler, Reilly, in the same exact spot, had a 25-pound striper eat an 18-inch steelhead that he’d hooked on 4-pound test. But what size bass could eat a 7-pound steelhead? Fifty pounds? Sixty pounds? Who knows!
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep for a week…
A shot at Double Glory
Guide John Klar, who runs salmon and steelhead trips in Northern California, told me the story of nearly achieving a very rare feat of double glory on the Smith River several winters ago on a steelhead side-drifting trip.
“We were floating out of a spot we call the Gauge,” said Klar. “The water was up and I was having the guys toss tight to the willows. My client, Gary Hall, threw a little too far and got hung up in a tree but it came loose. He reeled back up and the bait and puffball were gone…all he had was a bit of yarn. But it’s kinda a one shot deal so I told him to cast back in again anyway…otherwise he’d miss the spot.”
Well, you know where this is going. Hall hooked a very large steelhead that made a mad dash downstream. Klar chased it with the boat while Hall worked to get more line back on the reel. Near Chub Rock, the fish worked the line around some boulders but the boys were able to get it free. Finally, the fish tired and they got it into some quieter water. Lying on its side just out of net range, the fish simply spit the hook and disappeared into the emerald depths.
“That was a big one for sure,” said Klar. “A good solid 25 pounds at least. It’s fish like that that make you want to puke on the bottom of the boat and then they bug the heck outta you for years to come!”
The postscript to the story is Klar slid the mesh under a 20 ¼-pound steelhead for Hall later that day!
Not a sturgeon!
A few seasons back, Nor Cal guide Mike Moore had a group of dudes out salmon fishing on the famous Klamath River when heartbreak came calling.
Klamath kings generally run on the small side and most folks who target them drag eggs on light spinning gear – which is exactly what Moore’s clients were doing when they hooked a really big fish that morning. After some initial excitement, the fish turned out to be a foul-hooked sturgeon.
Awhile later, they hooked another heavy fish that fought just like the sturgeon. Figuring it was another diamondback, Moore had the angler put as much pressure on the fish as he could to try to expedite the fight so they could get back to the business of catching kings.
“We fought that thing extremely hard for 20 minutes,” said Moore. “And then Mark Warner (of the American Fishing Foundation) floated by us in his boat and got a good look at the fish and shouted at me to not break it off. It wasn’t a sturgeon…it was what Warner called the biggest king he’d ever seen on the river.”
At that point, Moore had his client back off the pressure and fight the fish a little more seriously. Eventually, the behemoth tired and got close enough for the skipper to get a good look at it.
“It was dime bright and clearly over 60 pounds,” said Moore. “I’ve had clients get a couple over 50 pounds in the Valley and this one was nothing like those – it looked like something from the Kenai.”
The problem was the light spinning stick that was rated up to 15-pound test just didn’t have the power to lift such a huge fish out of deeper water. So, Moore decided to try to work the boat and the fish over into a few feet of water where he thought he might have a chance to get the net under it.
Just before the fish was in range, the line went slack and the monster was gone. Moore said that when he got back to the camp where all the guides lived that afternoon, he was so torn up about the incident that he just went to bed without telling anybody about how close he’d come to catching one of the biggest kings ever on the Klamath…
Gone in the blink of an eye
Veteran Kenai River guide Greg Brush has seen his share of monster king salmon (he’s had clients catch them up to 86 pounds) in his 20 plus years of running charters on Alaska’s most famous stream, but it’s the one he never saw that still bothers him 6 years later.
“It was the third week in July – the peak of the Kenai’s late run of kings – and we were backtrolling Kwikfish just above Beaver Creek in a hole called Lower Crossover,” he said. “The river was in great shape and feeling really fishy – and the fishing was good. That day, we’d already caught several nice kings in the 40- to 50-pound range and then we got the most unbelievable takedown…”
Brush said that wasn’t one of those “wait, wait, wait…okay get him” kind of grabs. Instead, the rod was instantly pegged to the cork and line smoked off the reel at warp speed.
“That fish burned line off the reel like it was nothing,” said Brush. “That time of year, I run my drags super tight, too. To test them, I wrap the braid around my hand twice and if I can just barely pull some line off, that’s where I like it.”
By the time Brush’s client got the rod out of the holder, the fish did a lightening fast 180 and came screaming back at the boat. “Reel! Reel! REEL!” Brush shouted, but the client couldn’t keep up with the fish. “I was full throttle on the kicker, trying to get the big motor started and yelling to him to get the rod tip in the water to try to clear the line from the boat.”
But it all happened too fast. The kicker prop went through the 80-pound braid like it was Christmas ribbon and the fish was gone. At the instant the line popped, the massive king swirled right off the bow of the boat. Nobody saw the actual animal but the amount of water it pushed was enough to make captain and crew weak in the knees.
The whole incident lasted 6 seconds…maybe 8 at the most. But it was enough to haunt Brush for life.
“We just stood there speechless,” he said. “We just got our a@% collectively handed to us. That was not a 50 or 60 pound fish…”
Well, I’m not sure if these stories are making you feel any better or not. As I was writing this, I was thinking that this whole process was kinda like therapy…that it was helping to exercise some demons. But, come to think of it…I think I feel worse now!