Fisheries biologists sometimes talk about outliers: those fish at the end of the bell curve that don’t do what all the other fish do. In my fishing life, I’ve encountered a few trout that were clearly outliers. For example, there was a big brown on a New Zealand spring creek; a water famous for the spookiness of its inhabitants. To my delight, the fish took my Shaving Brush… but then it thrashed around for a few seconds and came off. While I was cursing, my companion noticed the trout had swum back into its lie. Surely not? I cast to it again, it ate the Shaving Brush again… and this time I landed it!

Then there was the monster trout which an acquaintance had a cast of on his mantlepiece. It was taken from a Tasmanian lake where the average trout weighed 1 to 3 pounds, and maybe one in a thousand weighed 5 pounds. This fish had pulled the scales down to 11 pounds, including an almost grotesquely muscular lower jaw. Its captor surmised that the trout’s belly full of yabbies – in a lake where yabbies were otherwise rarely seen – suggested the huge brown had learned to flush out the crustaceans by overturning rocks on the lakebed. I can’t be sure his theory was correct, but it was certainly plausible. Whatever the explanation for the fish’s size, it was undoubtedly an outlier.

Outliers are fresh in my mind because I encountered another one just the other day. I was guiding on a very clear lake at Millbrook and there was a dun hatch going on. My guest Jonathan was using a Shaving Brush with a small dark nymph about two feet below it. The nymph was in the mix because, although the odd fish was rising, the blustery wind meant many duns were blowing off quickly and the trout could be seen busily swooping on the more easily-caught nymphs before they reached the surface.

I should add that this season, the lake we were fishing has been noteworthy for fewer but bigger (and more difficult) fish than usual. So I was delighted when, only a few minutes into the session, Jonathan’s Shaving Brush dipped and he lifted instantly into the weight of a good fish. As well as being large, the trout here lately have been in exceptional condition, so I’d already warned Jonathan to be ready for many powerful runs if he hooked up. With drag correctly set and plenty of backing (two days earlier, another guest with a pitiful amount of backing had been spooled twice!) I watched Jonathan’s upright and well-loaded rod as the big rainbow crashed through the surface, then took off on an inevitable run.

Once things settled down a bit and I was satisfied Jonathan was playing the fish about as coolly as it’s possible to under such circumstances, I took a quick photo, and the time on the image says 11.26am. I was mentally prepared for a long fight, and suggested Jonathon do likewise: plenty of bent rod pressure (he was using 7 pound high quality fluorocarbon to the nymph), reeling in when possible, but avoiding the abrupt tension that could break the fish off. This last issue is often related to gathering impatience as the angler’s nerve is worn down by trout that don’t come in within a few minutes. “If it wants to run, let it,” I advised, while trying to suppress my own anxiety, “We could be here for a while.”

Well, ten minutes came and went, and the trout seemed no closer at all to giving up. I started to think it might be foul-hooked – a real risk when using two flies, as the fly that’s not in the trout’s mouth can accidentally snag elsewhere as the fish leaps and rolls. But then I got a brief but decisive view of the dark Shaving Brush hanging clear as the trout swept past a couple of metres below the surface.

The trout kept pulling hard despite relentless pressure from Jonathan. Every time he seemed to make a small gain, like getting backing back on the reel, or even at one point, getting the leader butt out of the water (admittedly a long way out), the fish would lunge down into the depths again and take line. I won’t detail every blow but you get the idea – this was turning into a ridiculously long contest without an end in sight.

After half an hour, the trout was finally in close enough for a possible net shot, so I climbed into the water on the very steep lake edge… and waited some more! Eventually, I took my chance, probably sooner than I would have normally: the trout’s head still wasn’t up. To my great relief (and no doubt Jonathan’s) I didn’t miss. He had an 8 pounder in superb condition. I took a couple of quick photos and the time stamp on these says 12.02pm. You’ll be pleased to know the trout then released well.

Landed more than 36 minutes after hook-up.

So, after 40-something years doing this, that’s the longest fight with a trout (mine or anyone else’s) I’ve ever witnessed. Now, an 8 pounder is a superb trout anywhere and this one was in great condition, as the picture shows. However, I’ve caught – or witnessed the capture of – much bigger trout, and none took anywhere near that long to land; and some had river currents to assist them! Keep in mind I was standing beside Jonathan for much of the fight and I can guarantee he was continually applying all the pressure it was safe to exert; with a 6 weight rod and high quality 7 pound tippet. Oh, and the fish was hooked just inside its sizeable bottom jaw, about midway along.

My question is, how on earth did that trout pull so hard for so long? What physiological fluke gave it power and endurance far beyond the thousands upon thousands of other trout I’ve encountered in my fishing life? I suppose that, like the Tasmanian yabby feeder and the twice-hooked spring creek fish, Jonathan’s rainbow was simply an outlier, a one in a million fish at the very end of the bell curve. And yet, that answer still leaves me unsatisfied and shaking my head.

Philip Weigall