big browns and a new personal best
This was the first full moon weekend of summer. The third weekend of June, 2016. Up until June the mouse bite had been slow. It just hadn't turned on yet. But after getting into some great mousing action during the darker moon a week prior [see Mousing: 'tis the season], I couldn't wait to get out with moonlight to see by and sling some more mice. The switch had flipped and it was time for the summer games to begin.
Sometimes all the effort pays off in a big way. Those are motivating moments. They pull you forward as you anticipate when they might occur, and then they propel you into the future with renewed vigor after they've happened. All those hours of exploring spots in daytime. Casting into the darkness of night. Hours logged. Fish encounters - successful or not - filed in your mental database. You hope it will happen, you know it CAN happen, but deep inside you wonder if it ever really will. But it only takes one bite, and that bite came on my second consecutive solo all-nighter of the weekend when my mouse pattern was slurped off the surface at 2:30 in the morning.
I was targeting a shoreline of big chunky rocks I've been hitting repeatedly for three years after discovering it holds solid browns. More often than not it is persistence that catches fish more than any particular technique. I knew it had to hold big ones. Over the past few years I've taken browns measuring in the low to mid twenties (inches) off it. And I'd broken a bigger one off in a lousy rookie-like hookset - I'd seen the giant brown take my offering in broad daylight and it had made a fool of me [in the 2014 article Looking Back]. If I had to rank my current spots for potential to produce a trophy, this one little stretch of shoreline only a couple hundred yards long would be on top. And I hadn't even fished it at night before. So I opted to take night number two, pick my way for nearly two miles along the stony and essentially trail-less river edge to get there, and cast to this one spot. The result was likely my biggest trout to date, and certainly my biggest on a fly rod.
But before that, the first night was fantastic all on its own. The hits were infrequent but solid - a typical story
|First big brown of the weekend
This was a shoreline with ample structure and slower current - an ideal setup for tossing mice. And it stretches for over a mile before transitioning into terraced cut banks and trading the rocky structure for clay bluffs. I caught fish on three different mouse patterns that night. All of the browns hit when the mouse was inches from or touching rock that extended out from the shore. They were waiting in ambush points like largemouth bass, but sitting in water you'd never find them in during the day. I managed to net and photograph three browns at or over 20 inches, two of which were particularly impressive in overall size and coloration. Two stunning browns in one night! It was such a good night. Seemingly so hard to beat. It was exactly what you hope for when working a trout water with mice. I was satisfied enough that if I didn't make it out again this weekend I would still feel fully accomplished.
|Beauty contest winner of the weekend
I arrived at the head of my stretch. The two hundred yards of water that I had bet my entire night on. It was now about 2:00am. The darkness of night was more than half gone. Two hours till the mouse bite, in my experience, is over. This time of year the birds start singing about a quarter to four. By 4:00am the sunlight is overpowering the moon. I envision that glow being the signal to the big browns: "Time to move back to the daytime holding water" - the deep craggy slot under a massive boulder - or wherever they spend their daylight hours tucked away out of reach.
I climbed into the boulders and picked my way along to the next spots. More narrow slots of holding water, but stellar holding water. Huge rocky structure, deep water, close proximity to a dramatic current seam. All the elements right there inside a few cubic feet. Not easy to fish, and I was hoping that I'd be able to work a mouse through it well enough.
|Preparing to lift a fish from the net
in the red glow of my headlamp
This hit wasn't notably different from any other, but it was obviously a brown. Bam! Short and to the point. Dead mouse. But the heft of the surface commotion that followed as the fish thrashed was distinctly heavy. Like a beaver botching his attempt to tail-slap a warning splash. I didn't have to pause and feel for weight before setting the hook, the line went tight with the hit. Then the fish went deep and stayed there. It dove into holes I'd probed with jigs many times looking for just such a fish. But now that I was connected to one and had freshly illuminated the scene with my headlamp, I could make out just how deep he'd gone. The green fly line tracing down like a shaft of light, vibrating in the current and slicing through the surface. Steeply angled but bowed just enough to convey the distance between my end and his end. No leader in sight, and I could see several feet of line. Note to self - use heavier jigs at these holes in future....
The fish was in control and I was just attached. It worked along the heavy current, hugging the edge of the massive rocks I was standing on. For the first several minutes the only thing I could do was follow along and reach the rod around boulders to keep the line clear and the connection direct - and just hope it didn't go around one I couldn't reach over. Being on the outer bend of the river the full power of the flow was at my feet. No wading here.
It suddenly changed its mind and decided that perhaps downstream was a better option. After walking me 30 or 40 yards upstream at a slow steady pace, now it turned and blew back down and beyond where I'd hooked it. I scrambled along back down the bank, hopping over all the same boulders I'd just covered. I kept up just enough that I didn't get into my backing. Thankfully, the fish liked this side of the river. I would have been toast if it had chosen to switch.
The fish put the brakes on in a great big eddy that was swirling a full 360 degrees. The remainder of the battle took place here as it went round and round this hole, twice making surges toward the main river, but for some reason - for which I'm quite grateful - never committed to. It was now that I got my first glimpse of the fish and confirmed what I already knew - it was a king-sized brown.
My biggest hope now was that I would get a picture. I caught a few seconds of video footage just in case I didn't. Just a clip of proof that he was attached. The fish could have realistically been gone at any moment. As I said in the article '30-inch brown' - SO much has to go right. As I stood there with rod bent on the river bank alone in the dark while the rest of the world was sleeping, I tried to make peace with the fact that I might not land the fish. Chances were high that I wouldn't. I didn't know how well it was hooked. I didn't know how much abuse the tippet had taken down there in those teeth and on those rocks. But a landing was starting to look more and more likely.
|Actual picture of headlamp washout from
the first fish of the night.
|One last look at the big one
After the fish swam away and had left the reach of my headlamp glow, I just stood there a while and let things soak. There I was in the apex of one of the "motivating moments." I'd been pulled forward for years at the thought of catching that fish. And now, beginning with my very next cast, I would be propelled in into the future with renewed vigor as the hunt for another one begins.
I was slow to gather my stuff, get my gear in order, and refresh my tippet. I even switched flies, pocketing the one I'd just removed from the fish until I decided if it needed a special place of honor on a shelf or something. For a while I sat on a rock in the darkness and flipped through the pictures I'd just taken. There were some good ones. The catch was preserved. With that load off my mind, I stowed the camera and stared out across the moonlit river and glowing hillsides. I was so thankful I hadn't given in to common sense and gone to bed like the rest of the world. Here I was, all alone, drinking in the beauty of a scene only a fraction of the population gets to, or rather chooses to, experience. And the fish was no longer just a dream. I'd connected with and landed a real brute on a mouse.
|Last fish before dawn - rainbow on the stinger