I’m an expert at losing fish.
I’ve lost trout on sticks, twigs, rocks and roots. I’ve lost salmon to seaweed, stumps, trees, broken rods, broken hooks, broken reels and hungry sea lions.
I should have considered that nauseating “What just happened?” feeling when I saw a knot in my leader an inch above my fly Saturday morning. It’s an ever-present possibility and the best you can do is reduce the likelihood by taking preventative measures or giving problems immediate attention.
The Upper Sacramento River is pretty high thanks to rain that was followed by snowmelt, so roll-casting out of bushes into the swift current can lead to funky loops resulting in little knots. As fishermen we know that a poorly tied knot becomes the weakest part of the line and is likely to break. But when I saw my 5X line curved into a tight pretzel it didn’t occur to me to cut the line and re-tie.
It wasn’t that I didn’t think I would catch a fish, or that I would hook one strong enough to break it, I just failed to evaluate the impending disaster if I should hook a bus of a trout.
Two drifts after apathetically running my fingers over the knot, my line was pulled taught, then rolled off the reel. The fish moved into the current, pulling more lime-green fly-line into the cold cloudy river. I worked the fish out of the fast water and re-spooled some line as the fish finally rose from the bottom. It was big, really big. Just as it was about to break the surface, it rolled. The thick flanks were that of a brown trout. That explained its defiance.
I took a deep breath, the first big brown of the year was just a couple feet from my net.
The knot broke. The fish swam off.
I stood in the water dejected. I retrieved the end of the leader to confirm what I already knew. Rolling out the complicated, unbalanced rig of two tin pieces of split shot, a No. 16 signature Prince dropped off a No. 4 rubber legs in less than ideal casting space had created a simple knot — a weak spot that would be the first to give if tested.
When tested, it did.
Maybe if I had hooked a smaller brown or a rainbow the knot would have held and I would have slimed my net. Maybe if the fish hadn’t strained the line in the current, I could have coaxed it in. Speculation is just that, speculation. It changes nothing. I should have just changed my leader. It wasn’t the fishes fault, or the lines fault, or the currents fault, it was my fault and it cost me.
A few minutes later, after re-rigging I caught a nice 16-inch rainbow, then lost a feisty rainbow after that, though not to negligence on my part. Sometimes it just happens.
So I guess that’s why some people make accusatory statements questioning the purpose of fishing, specifically catch and release. Is there a point to enduring self-ridicule? Once you’ve bagged a 20-inch trout, why would a 16-inch fish, let alone an 8-inch brook in the Sierra be of any excitement?
I don’t know.
I do know that all week I will think about the big brown trout and the little casting knot, and smile.
To contact Jeff Lund, email firstname.lastname@example.org.