When things go right

When things on the water go well, sometimes no explanation is needed
brown trout caught on dry fly
Photo: Stephen Sautner.

As anglers, we all know that fishing truisms like leaky waders, wind knots, and blown fish can gnaw at us between casts. But sometimes, a yang of brilliant light shines down to counteract yin’s dark energy.

Last January at the Edison Fly Fishing Show, I found myself wandering past the booth of a local TU chapter where an overly enthusiastic volunteer was giving the hard sell to buy raffle tickets. We made just enough eye contact for me to get entangled in his web. “C’mon! Buy a ticket!” he said. I only had a twenty-dollar bill and tickets were five bucks each, so he made damn sure I bought four. I wrote down my name and phone number on each ticket while he told me about the prize, which was some sort of rod. To tell you the truth, I was only half-paying attention since no one ever seems to win raffles, especially me. Then he mentioned the drawing would take place later in the spring and wished me good luck. By the time I got home later that day, I had already forgotten all about it.

But then last week, I received a call from the chapter president who informed me that I had in fact won. Cool; now what was the prize again? Turns out I had scored a top-of-the-line nine-foot five-weight from one of the elite rod makers. A quick search online showed a retail price that sent my jaw into my coffee. The president asked if I could pick the rod up that evening. Why yes, yes I could.

A few days later, I stood knee deep on a favorite Catskill trout river holding my shiny new rod. Recent rains had recharged the stream with a good head of water. It was still early in the day; no bugs yet, but friends reported that both stones and Isos had been around. Maybe I could raise a fish on an attractor in some fast water. I choose a PHD, a whimsical design by British fly tier and friend Nigel Nunn. The fly is a buggy amalgam of deer hair and grizzly hackle, with a spun and clipped head like a shaggy muddler. It’s tied on a small hook that stays tucked in its hackles and allows for unfettered, natural movement – often the key to getting a fish to take when nothing is showing.

I made a few casts with the new rod and could tell right away I had won a Ferrari. Or maybe a Lamborghini. It may have been the smoothest rod I had ever cast, like a bionic boron/graphite nine-foot extension of my right arm. A small trout interrupted my casting bliss by slashing at the fly and throwing water but missing. But as is often the case with attractors and showy rises, the fish refused to come back for a second look.

I eased a little farther into the flow eyeballing a dark slot on the far side of a fast run. Foamy water eddied just enough to reveal a possible taking lie of a nicer fish. The fly landed at the slot’s far end. I checked the rod high before the current could grab the fly line, dancing the PHD like a big stone dropping its eggs. The fly made it less than a foot. The take was emphatic; a big brown porpoised showing a thick back and took the fly down, hooking itself.

The trout rolled revealing its full size and I gasped. I found myself saying out loud just one word: “BIG.” I kept the rod low like I was fighting a tarpon, trying to use its full power to convince the fish not to blow out of the slot. Just downstream, a brawling riffle loomed ready to swallow up the trout, fly, and leader, not to mention my dreams. For what felt like a long time, neither of us yielded, stubborn as two river boulders. But then the big trout moved a few yards downstream to where the slot began to reorganize into faster water. I held the rod even lower now as the fish repeatedly tried to surge away from me. After another tense minute or two, it gave up, and I felt that bittersweet moment when you break a fish’s spirit, and it is now yours to lose. I backed into slower water easing the brown closer and closer. Instead of trying to fit the trout into my net, I coaxed it into the shallows where it lay on its side just long enough to allow me to take a single image before removing the fly. By the time I put away my phone, it had already powered back into the run and vanished. Later, holding a tape measure against the rod, I gave the trout 20 inches – maybe 21.

Standing there on the side of the river after the release, I had that rarest of all feelings of not needing to make another cast – at least for the moment. The river chuckled past, and colorful warblers, orioles, and scarlet tanagers sang in the verdant green foliage behind me and from high in the treetops. I held this gleaming new rod that had just caught its first-ever fish and wondered what I did to deserve all of this. Maybe it was like winning the raffle itself – just random luck. Sometimes in angling, things don’t need further explanation.


Well, yeah, your spectacular new Winston brought its full karmic power into your angling life. The river gods have smiled upon you.

Nice story, well written. It's fun to ruminate about our awesome hobby during the hot summer off-season in Western North Carolina. Re. those perfect trout fishing days that we wonder what we did to deserve... I've had a few myself and never take them for granted.

Totally related to your story till you won the rod. I have bought a lot of raffle tickets over the years and still waiting.