There are many reasons why I fish. Some I can recite. Others I haven’t nailed down yet. But one of the more tangible ones is hope and possibility. No matter how life is transpiring, no matter your current trend in luck, the next trip, the next cast could change everything. From zero to hero in seconds flat. The pursuit of large predatory fish has that common theme. One fish only requires one cast, and one fish can change your life. I learned that first-hand one summer day in east Tennessee.
The sky was low and heavy—clouds blocked the sun, save for a faint glow that persisted throughout the day. Rain threatened, but held off for the morning. Luke met me at the apartment with his driftboat, and we set our sights on a tailwater just across the Virginia/Tennessee border, 8-weights and streamer boxes in tow, visions of giant brown trout dancing in our minds.
Now, when streamer fishing for large trout with sinking lines, a strip-set, where the angler feels (or sees) the strike from the fish and sets the hook with a hard strip of the line, is essential. It was particularly essential on this day, because when we arrived at the put-in, it was discovered that we were without a net.
John, a Floridian fly fishing junky transplanted in Johnson City, met us at the boat ramp to get his first shot at a Tennessee trout. I took the back of the boat.
The morning went off without a hitch. The river was at full generation and had just a slight color to it. A few middling wild browns graced the boat.
Around mid-afternoon, we were approaching a boat ramp. The next boat ramp would be our takeout, and Luke’s truck was parked there. It was then that it began to rain, steady, but light. Perfect, in my mind, for streamer fishing. But Luke parked the boat.
He had a local friend who he tried to call to pick him up so that we wouldn’t have to brave the rain. Cell service was spotty, and I was ready to fish. We only had a few miles to go. After enough calls didn’t go through, Luke decided we’d just row for it.
From the back of the boat, I made a cast to a rocky bank and counted my fly line down about five seconds. By the time I came tight to the fly on my first strip, I wasn’t alone. I ripped on my line, and instantly came tight to a throbbing mass of subsurface angst that wanted no part of me or my streamer. It screamed upriver, prompting an involuntary “Whoaaa!” out of me, which got Luke and John’s attention.
Luke threw on the brakes, just in time for the fish to cut across the river and bury itself in a tree crown several feet below the water’s rolling surface.
I bent the rod in half. With every second, my connection to the fish was dampening. By the time Luke had rowed to the side of the snag, all of my fly line and 30 feet of my backing was underwater, and I felt just a slight thump from the fish every dozen seconds or so. I kept pressure.
The river was flowing at a speed and depth that ruled anchoring out of the equation, though John, from the bow, attempted to reach the riverbottom with it several times while Luke rowed like hell to maintain position. I kept the rod bent in half.
After circling the snag several times with the driftboat, and many deep rod stabs trying to free the fly line, I finally began to regain my connection to the fish. Then, all of the sudden, we were loose. The fish tore off downriver. Luke relaxed, dropping the oar blades in the water and sliding downriver.
The fish was tiring. I could feel it. But it was still lively, and we didn’t have a net. We were approaching a long shoal, and I didn’t want to risk fighting the fish down through the rough water. So I leaned on it.
Desperate, I began eyeing around the boat as the mass of energy began heading for the surface. I locked onto a small plastic trash can Luke keeps in his boat. It would do.
As I gained a visual on the mass as it rose towards the boat, my grip tightened on the trash can. Then, a giant, hinged jaw blew up on the surface. I dropped the can, and grabbed the fish by the mouth and slung it in the boat.
And there we sat, wet, sweaty, tired, and relieved, my first landlocked striper hanging down almost 40 inches from my grip. And suddenly, it wasn’t so rainy.