With the mixed-up season, I ended up on the rivers later than I normally would. So it was that one day recently, I found myself out on a roaring mountain stream, which was flowing colder and harder than I like. Autumn was desperately trying to mount a rear-guard action; to cancel out the snow caps on the background mountains with warming late morning sunshine and the colour of the last poplar leaves; attempting to keep winter at bay for just a few more days.
My heart lifted momentarily when, on the flat pool beside where I parked the car, I saw two rises… and then realised they belonged to splashy fingerlings snatching at something too small to see. No, it would be nymph or nothing for the real fish, and I rigged up as I had planned to on the drive in: Craig Coltman’s Diable Nymph on point, a smaller dark bead-head on the dropper; all about a metre beneath a small orange foam indicator.
Over the next couple of hours, I polaroided the softer edges beneath tea-tree and swordgrass that soaked my waders with now-permanent dew, and I prospected the likely slots blind. I did manage to spot a few nice fish pushed in hard against the bank, but the light was bad with so much late season shadow, and all but two trout spotted me at the same time. Of those two I got a cast to, I may have pricked one, and I caught the other – a brown of about a pound which was already exhibiting pre-spawning slime and darkening colour.
While it was pleasant enough on the river, by early afternoon I was contemplating a move to a lake where I could soak up the full sunlight and maybe spot the fish sooner. Then I noticed a curved indent in the bank up ahead, immediately below a fast run. It looked like a good place for a trout to hold, and as I stared, I thought I could make out a dark shape lying about half a metre down and just out from a pile of accumulated driftwood. But no, it was too big and broad to be a trout – and I reminded myself that downstream, I’d already cast several times to appealing-looking shapes beneath the boils and pulses of the current… which turned out to be rocks, logs or simply tricks of water and light.
Then as I stared, the impossible became the feasible. Surely that was a tail swaying at the end of the shape? And didn’t the gap of pale yellow sand between the shape and the driftwood expand and contract? Slowly I realised… bloody hell, this was a trout! It couldn’t possibly be a river resident; must have swum up from the lake way downstream.
The first cast was off target to the right, the indicator catching the current and tearing past way too fast, giving the nymphs no chance to sink. The next cast was better, plopping in about 2 metres above the fish. The indicator drifted towards me at a leisurely pace, the shape moved about a foot left, blocking out the strip of sand completely, the indicator hesitated, and I lifted. The huge trout just sat there, then drifted further left. A couple of seconds later, dull living weight became dead weight. What? I pulled harder, walked closer. The trout was a monster male brown, all hooked jaw and thick shoulders, but I should have been able to at least budge it. Then I realised – the Diable was in its mouth, but the dropper was caught in the driftwood. While I was figuring out what to do next, the huge fish gave a kick and was gone.
Now, I have to say that the pain, while considerable, was less than if I had lost this fish midseason. As it was almost certainly a lake resident on its annual spawning migration, and not a river resident, it seemed just a little less remarkable. Still, if I had hooked the very same fish back in its lake home, where it probably resided only a week or so earlier, then it would have been my trout (or loss) of the year.
Isn’t it strange what makes a fish extra special; where it’s caught, when it’s caught, how it’s caught… even with whom it’s caught? The definition is just a little bit different for each of us. Some may scoff at a giant ex-brood fish, or a trout ‘bought’ with an expensive helicopter flight versus a hard hike. What about a trophy rainbow sipping eggs from a spawning salmon? And what’s the worth of a beauty caught on a dry fly compared to one on a nymph? Sighted against fished up blind?
On the long walk back to the car to make the move to a lake, I came across an old nymph fisher in battered neoprene waders. “Just caught a six pounder!” he exclaimed excitedly, “Here, I’ll show you the photo.” As he rummaged around under the neoprene for his phone, I offered a friendly, “Thanks, but I believe you,” before continuing my stride up the track.
Later, after I’d rushed to the lake and settled once again into a more sensible fishing rhythm, I thought about the old boy back on the river and felt some regret that I didn’t take an extra minute or two to make a fuss about his big trout. At the time, my internal rationale had been that late autumn days are short, and I wanted to make it to the lake while there was still some polaroiding light. But now I was on the lake, with each repetitive, almost hypnotic cast along the wave-rippled clay shore, I began to wonder if I had been subconsciously dismissive of his trout compared to the one I’d lost of nearly twice the size?
The thing is of course, when it comes to your fish, it’s not really relevant what I or anyone else thinks. If it matters to you, that’s all that counts. And while that massive brown in the river indent won’t quite haunt me like, say, the big Bullen Merri Chinook I lost at the net almost 20 years ago, I will remember it’s impossibly broad and nearly black shape, the driftwood pile and the dew-soaked tea-tree, forever.