The One That Got Away

On a cold day on Caspian Lake, a fisherman meets his match. By Peter Shea

From just the angling standpoint, the week will stand as a qualified success. It was easy-going fishing. Yours truly and one or two of my eight- to twelve-year-old companions would spend the last of each day’s hours boat fishing for Caspian Lake’s gift to nature — its rainbow trout.

Aside from a steady trickle of pan trout, we had counted five great fish on our lines. In our ill-conceived persistence with 4X fine tippet, three of these silver missiles broke o before we got to say hello. We brought one 18-incher to the net and released it. The other…well, here is that story:

In perfect accord with a cool week of intermittent thundershowers, my last morning broke cloudy. The thermometer read in the lower fifties. By nine o’clock, a low fog at the northern end of Capsian was being quickly dissipated by a freshening gale from the north. It was enough of a blow to put a modest chop on the open water.

I cast off about 9:30 a.m. Warmly dressed and wearing a life vest, my torso felt like an over-battered corn dog. When there was a hundred feet between the dock and me, I dropped The Doctor off the stern. I gradually stripped out 60 feet of the sinking tip line and was in business.

The waves measured well shy of a foot, but it was still constant hard work to keep my bearing in the wind. Ordinarily when trolling, I used to keep a foot on the rod butt and the edge of the reel, to prevent it from giving any line to the fish on the strike. If the rod is pointed up, it is nearly impossible for a fish to pull it out of the boat.

Almost a mile into my journey, I was sweating and a little disappointed. The Doctor, following in my wake, 70 feet back and about 10 to 15 feet down, had been totally ignored. I though about changing flies. Maybe a Gray Ghost?

I twisted around to get my bearings on two Adirondack lawn chairs on the shore.

How about a Wooly Worm?

The thought of changing flies instantly vaporized as the reel shrieked and whined like a banshee, sending a full charge of adrenaline through me. I whipped around just in time to see my rod and reel bound out of the back of the boat with a preternatural velocity.

In turning to get my bearing I momentarily had lifted my foot off its perch on the reel and rod butt. The quirky timing of the trout’s strike beat a thousand-to-one odds.

There were no expletives. Not even a groan or a grunt. There was, however, a grabbing gesture, and an ineffectual dive to the back of the boat, sufficient only to provide me a good vantage.

There, I saw my rod, reel and line traveling at a 30-degree angle downward and away from the rear of boat. For a moment, my arms remained extended in the direction of my former outfit, and then I hit the oars hard, backing the boat toward the apparent direction of the flsh’s flight.

It was a hopeless gesture. After several rapid back strokes, I saw the culprit. It was only for a moment. He was 200 feet away but I saw him leap high in the air and then sound, in the water that lay between us.

For me, up until those moments, “the one that pulled the rod right out of the boat” was the stuff of legend. It was merely a mythical potential that one referred to with, perhaps, an uneasy laugh. I never even met anyone who claimed it to have happened to them. This lunker had done me in.

Had I had a companion in the boat or if the water was calmer or warmer I might have dove at it and given chase. As it was, there was nothing left to do but continue my journey back to Highland Lodge’s beach with my sad story. This was the one that really got away. It’s pointless to try to detail its size. Big, that’s all I know.

Once, my Ford did a 360 on black ice on I-89, narrowly missing a rock ledge. For weeks after, I kept replaying the accident in my mind.

I’m now more than months away from that fateful morning on Caspian’s riled waters, but I keep reliving that minute. With the unblinking gaze of my mind’s eye, again and again I see the 8 1⁄2 foot Cortland as it perished. I can see my sea-green line ripping off the old Pflueger reel, spinning furiously, even as it sunk in the clear water.

That fish. The rod. The reel. That fish. The Doctor. That fish. They were all woefully painful to give up.

Peter Shea is the co-author of Vermont’s classic trout fishing guides, Vermont Trout Streams and The Atlas of Vermont Trout Ponds. He is the author of In the Company of Trout, Vermont Trout Ponds, Long Trail Trout and Vermont’s Trophy Trout Waters. This passage is excerpted new book, Collateral Trout, published by Wind Knot Publishing this spring.