I’m equal parts terrified and ecstatic.
If you fish long enough, and devote enough hours to studying fish, you, consciously or not, eventually develop a kind of template for what that species should look like. For instance, a smallmouth bass is football shaped. The small ones are narrow footballs, and the big ones are wider and approach the actual dimensions of a regulation pigskin. Ninety-nine percent of them are under 23 inches long.
Musky, likewise, are long and cylindrical. Pale green and shaped like a torpedo, with glowing pectoral fins that give away their presence behind a fly or lure. The small ones are haunting. The big ones are arresting. And you rarely get eyes on the whole fish. Usually just a section of the round body turning in the water or sliding by beneath the boat. But even those fish, according to my brain, don’t beat 55 inches—at least not in the southeast.
I still remember the feeling that swept over me the first time I stuck my thumb in the mouth of a truly big largemouth. At just over nine pounds, my brain was forced to stretch.
“Bass aren’t supposed to be that big,” I remember thinking, trying to reconcile the fish in my hand with the thousands of fish up to five and six pounds I’d held before.
Since then, I’ve seen bigger fish, and held several like it. And, likewise, the fish that is capable of further stretching my subconsciously imposed limits on the largemouth bass’ physical size has grown.
These are the kinds of fish that make you wonder—about what’s really out there beneath the surface glare. There’s always one bigger, right?
A few winters ago, a strong hunch and months of scouring maps and side roads for access culminated to put me on a large creek virtually untouched by the public. I had my eye on a very specific spot, one that energetically and biologically stood to produce a musky of mythical proportions.
The unknown makes the best promises—unrestrained by defined variables, unchallenged by realistic expectations. Your imagination is allowed to run rampant, and only exploration will set the score. This is the allure of unfamiliar waters.
The magical 50-inch mark is broken in Virginia with regularity. Several times a year, a lifetime musky is hauled from our rich warmwater rivers. Some of them even hit numbers like 53 and 54 inches. The state record, a 45-pound fish, was a little bigger than that. And I have seen some fish on the river that make me question the existence of one bigger.
But then I knew. As my fly approached the boat on that unfamiliar piece of water, unknown turned to questionable reality. A dark shadow turned to white. My mind stretch to fit the form of a pale, toothed submarine. Enthusiasm turned to terror.
Despite my best efforts, that magnificent beast showed little aggression towards my offering, but had perhaps just followed out of sheer curiosity. Maybe it hadn’t ever seen anything like it before. Maybe it wasn’t comfortable with the unknown, and felt the need to escort it out of its territory.
Whatever the reason, I was afforded a look at the fish of my dreams through the pane of the river’s surface. One so brief and ridiculous that I still question my own eyes.
The glass ceiling of 55 inches was shattered that day in my mind, but I daren’t estimate dimension as a courtesy to my credibility. The only thing I truly know is that it was a different fish.
I’ve yet to enjoy a day without thinking of that fish. Its age terrifies me. Such a fish is obviously old, and with every passing week, the reality of the its impending death creeps into my understanding—something I’ve never considered with respects to chasing fish. And so I wonder what it’ll take to pull it through the surface tension. I wonder just how big it really is, yet loathe assigning physical dimensions to a magnificent beast. And the more I dream of it and obsess over it, the more I’m inclined to bury it in the unknown. Perhaps some fish are meant to be caught, and others are not.