I spent many years fishing a large spring creek in Central Pennsylvania and during those years I managed to catch some nice brown trout but the truth is that all of the biggest fish I ever hooked came loose before I could get them to shore. Now when I say 'biggest fish' I mean that some of these specimens defied belief. I can remember every instance, where it occurred, and when. The absolute champion of all was a trout that was so large I spotted him from the old railroad grade one late November day when my fishing buddy Steve and I were hiking back to the truck.
We stood on the gravel of the rail bed and looked at the fish through our mini binoculars and since Steve had already broken his rod down for the walk I was elected to go give it a go in the failing light and lightly blowing snow. I made a couple swings and there was a bulge that caused white water on the third. I had a hit and I reacted with a tip twitch to set my hook. There was weight on the rod for a scant few seconds and then it was gone. I kept swinging the fly to the fish but having been pricked he would have no more of it. With darkness on us it was determined that I would come back the following morning and try again. It took 2 days before I could arrange my schedule so instead of being there the following morning it was the day after. I never saw that fish again but neither of us ever forgot it or those fleeting seconds when it seemed we might have caught it. As time passed we talked often about the fish always trying to guess the length and weight having never had the chance to actually take either measurement. Steve and I were satisfied that the fish was possibly a full yard long. Both of us were experienced salmon fishermen and both of us had caught fish 36" long and had seen many of that size in the water before but this had been a trout and 'that' made this different. With a clear consensus and no reason to doubt that we had witnessed a trout of proportions like none we had ever seen before we let it rest at 30 - 36".
A couple years later in early spring we were once again fishing the creek until dark. We had worked our way a couple miles down to an area we knew as the big flats and were about to call it a day. The only decision we had to make was whether we would cross the creek and walk the rail line back up to where we had left the truck or walk a series of roads and trails on the same side we were on to reach the truck and then cross the creek. It was as we were heading toward one another on shore that Steve called to me. "You better come take a look at this Doc", so I quickened my pace and ask, "what do ya got". Steve answered with "just come and take a look", as I drew nearer to his position I could see that he was looking strait down at the ground. Once I reached him I too was amazed with what we were looking at. Not amazement because we didn't think they existed but amazement that one had been left ashore by the retreating waters and its skeleton almost completely undisturbed. There at Steve's feet were the skeletal remains of a big trout. We may not have gotten a picture of the fish that I pricked at dark a couple years prior but we had proof that they exist.
The image quality leaves much to be desired, taken with my old Minolta Freedom pocket camera using ASA 100 print film but you can get the idea. Just as a point of reference, the distance from the butt cap of my rod to the stripping guide is 31.5". Allowing for the break in the back just behind the head we figured this to have been a 32" or larger fish.
We also agreed that this was not the same fish I had hooked because the head looked smaller. Even though it had been years we had taken our time and looked that big trout over through 10 X binoculars and both of us had gotten a good look. It is possible that this was my champion who had disappeared as mysteriously as he had appeared but we were happy to think that the big one was still swimming in our creek. It was those 'biggest fish' the ones that always seemed to come loose that kept our attention and lured us back to our favorite runs hour after hour, year after year for almost 2 decades.
The subject of big fish is both interesting and elusive. Why are they predominately nocturnal? Is there a ancestral gene that becomes dominate in some or a close escape in the bright sun?
I have always assumed a big fish can slip the hook easier due to its mass and power. Unless the hook is of the proper size allowing the point to penetrate bone, I suspect they have the strength to tear the hook from their flesh. Curious picture of the dead fish Ard, in my recollections I have seen more BIG dead fish on shore or floating than alive and well in the water.
Ard, once upon a time, I enjoyed a steak cookout at Wayne Harpster's farm in PA. George Harvey in attendance. It was held on a bridge over Famous Stream X. We tossed chunks of steak to 3 foot long Browns that took up positions as soon as they detected the festivities. Huge, huge fish.
The closest i can get to the main idea of your post Ard is, i have come across quite a few rotting spawned out salmon carcasses while steelhead fishing. Something i am sure you have seen plenty of as well.
Sometime in or about the early 90's my fishing partner came up with an idea that I had not considered. I must say however that I've heard it bantered about since then even here on the forum. The idea was that due to the fact that our streamers were (for the most part) constructed on the old Mustad 3665-A in various shank lengths he thought the length of the hook shank was creating a lever effect that was either partly or in some cases wholly to blame for the loss of fish.
I don't remember the exact particulars of the hook design regarding the (X) factors but our larger streamers were often made onto 4 X or longer hooks. Giving thought and relevance to Steve's point I began to shorten the length of some patterns but then a size 2 or 4 streamer hook even in standard length can run nearly 2" so there in lies the conundrum. Steve's premise was that during the initial contact when a fish struck the fly and then turned to retreat to its lair the hook was actually levering itself out of the jaw. Only those fish who were hooked to the hilt of the point where it met the bend or in another spot such as around the lower jaw bone would be assured of staying on your hook, all others were at risk of the lever effect. Acknowledging the fact that this is a shared phenomena with any hook regardless of length of shank when the fish has turned and placed your angle of pull at 145 degrees or greater it is also a fact that 'the longer the lever the more pressure you will exert at the terminal fulcrum point'. Today the use of a trailing 'Stinger' hook is often employed in streamer design and even when I first started tying it was considered proper to tie a 'Trailer' onto the back of the classic streamers. The use of a trailing hook seemed to be for trolling the big lakes to the north for Land Lock Salmon so I had never given it a thought for standard stream & river flies. I am in fact a creature of habit, I figured if old Dr. Sanborn wanted me to be tying a trailing hook into my 'Nine Three' creek streamers he would have made the original prototype in that fashion so............. If perhaps I would have been using flies having stinger hooks and that were built on a short ring eye hook themselves I would have caught so of those that escaped. One thing that I know held me back was the fact that having long saddle hackles utilized for the wing / body profile of a streamer pattern was that the shorter the hook the more often the materials became wound around & through the bend of the hook. This business of things getting tangled (usually caused by casting) caused the flies to swing the currents with a cork screwing motion. Having tied and fished with these flies since my beginnings as a fly fisher I can safely state that; I never caught a fish when a fly was doing the cork screw swing, as a matter of fact when I was moving my streamers through good holding water and did not draw a strike this was my Que to retrieve the fly and examine it for tangled hackles. That was my excuse I guess for not wanting to further complicate my fly design, this problem was also how my brown trout streamer 'The Answer. came into existence, the need to design a fly that was cork screw resistant.
Anyway that's what I have to say about that, had I changed the design 30 years ago I may have built a name for myself as the guy who caught all those monster fish. Now I am the proud owner of a different persona, I can with a fair level of accuracy tell you how and why I lost them so that you might not do the same
For larger flies (size 1 and 2), if you haven't given Daiichi 2271's a try, you might consider them. Properly proportioned, I've never had a wing wrap around the hook shank. Strong, strong hook.
Another great read Ard, thanks for sharing the story and photo. That's some fish carcass you guys came across. What a bruiser! No apologies necessary for the quality of the photo. It is stories like these where the old photos do far better justice than that of what a new camera can take. Interesting how old photos seem to still have some charm left in them--think photo editing software and apps for your favorite smart phone.
While I have never been lucky enough to see a fish that defies disbelief, reading your story did bring back great memories of fishing with my best bud. Two occasions in particular came to mind.
Once, years ago, we were fishing the Allegheny National Forest on our favorite stream and I was downstream fishing the tail of a nice run that we liked while my bud was upstream drifting down into the head. He hooked into a nice size fish that ran down towards me, I got a decent look at it and it was one helluva brown, I could see that bronze color glisten through the water in what sunlight there was that day. While I couldn't see the fish clearly enough to get reasonably precise measurements, I saw the girth of that fish and wow! Needless to say, he lost the fish.
The other time was more recent--as recent as the last 4 years. We started in Erie fishing for Steelies, but due to bad conditions, we found our way south and hit one of my local streams that I typically fish. We walked down the trail to my favorite stretch of water and set up shop in one of the more scenic stretches of water. Fast moving current coming in on the near side, large slack water eddy on the far bank, large boulder just about right in the middle before it starts to tail out and into the next run. Now I know this section pretty well and put my bud right in place to cast just above the boulder. I know this area to be a good holding lane for big fish. Sure enough, my bud hooks into a fish that we never saw. How do I know it was a biggun? I can't say for certain, but what I can tell you is that fish proceeded to smoke the drag on an Orvis Battenkill Barstock.
Somehow when I read your posts, I always seem to recall a certain experience of my own and find a way to relate to your own writings.
Stream X can be a tease!!! Unless you can fish the farm its almost painful knowing what's there and never seems to show up at the .5 mile GH access. Kinda like going to see exotic dancers when you want to be at the nudey bar! I have found a few skeletons over time, none have ever been anywhere near the size of that dinosaur and given the stream they were in they were most likely left over broodstock that starved out. It still makes you think what's still alive in there though.
I've been saying for a couple years that reading and writing on this site tends to clear the cobwebs and bring memories to life. If I hit on something that recalls a moment in time for you that's a good thing. It is strange how so many of the triumphs of the spirit are found in what some could consider failure isn't it?
I haven't had any of the moments of pure disbelief but I have had those moments where a big fish surprises you.
I've had a few of them but two take the cake.
One was two years ago when I dare I say it was a bait fisherman and I was fishing this under cut hole that has so much wood debris in it that everyone always passed it up, so Im fishing it and catch two or three small rainbows and brookies. Then I see a flash of silvery white of a nice sea run brookies belly as he peeks out of his undercut hiding spot. I cast, get a tug, but I dont think he felt the hook, make sure everything is ready, cast and bam! He hit with like a freight train! He took line a few times, ran up river, down, I almost lost him in the wood debris but I finally got him in the shallows with me and as I lifted his head out of the water with the line I tried to pick him up, and when my hand didnt fit around his back I tried to lift him more to get under his belly. and thats when it snapped and off he swam with me diving after him reciting all the swear words I know. Since then Ive seen some 5 and 6 pound brookies and this guy was in that class for sure.
Another was still in my bait days, me and my brother were checking out a culvert with a pool about 6 feet across that he swore he saw a big fish in a few days prior, and after a few minutes and me landing a smaller fish we saw a huge rainbow flash, he took both mine and my brothers bait then after an hour we hooked him, he played him for a minute then jumped down to net him, my brother lifted him out of the water but a 1/3rd of him was still sticking out and in a second he wiggled out and the hook came out at the same time, the net was 2ft so we figured he was a 30" fish likely 8-10 lbs, I was kind of glad he got off as there was no way my brother would have let it go.