Fat Chance

Ask enough people to flip a coin 7 times, and eventually there will be someone who flips heads 7 times in a row. That happens with a chance of about one percent. Consider that catching a trophy trout means flipping heads 7 times, and that when you flip tails, the trout wins. Combine that with the small probability of creating the opportunity to cast at a trophy trout in the first place, and catching one becomes a true milestone event.

Let’s say you manage to create 10 encounters with a big fish each year – if you make that effort. With a 1 percent chance of landing one, you can expect to catch such a trout once every 10 years. Funnily enough, 10 years marks exactly the time I started going to places like New Zealand to try my hand on a big fish. And in February this year, I somehow managed to flip heads 7 times in a row and land my first trophy brown. Statistically, right on cue. Upon returning from the trip and reading Philip’s editorial about big fish losses, I had to concur that the chance of failure is just so much greater in the big fish game. Here’s how I managed to beat the odds this time.

Heads #1: The Right Guide for the Job

When you want to catch a big fish, you’d better fish an area where they live. Then increase your chances of actually finding one and get a great guide. I was lucky that my good friend Chris Schrueder passed on the details of Ronan Creane, a guide from Otago. Ronan knows big fish water. During a guided day, he will march past places that to a casual visitor look equally ‘fishy’, to increase the odds of finding that big fish based on his experience with the river in question. Besides that, he’s a great guy who makes the best sandwiches to enjoy whilst you’re waiting for a large fish to rise (which actually happened, both the sandwich and the big fish!).

Heads #2: The Right Conditions

“Everyone is always complaining about the weather, but no-one is doing anything about it!”, wrote Mark Twain. When flying to New Zealand, cyclone Gita had just preceded us, dumping large volumes of rain and snow on the mountains. Rivers were overflowing everywhere, but somehow most of the cyclone’s impact had dissipated by the time it reached the southern rivers, and in particular, the river we fished 3 days later. In a break with tradition, the weather did not flip tails in New Zealand! It was okay, if not exactly perfect, for big fish-ing, with scattered clouds and a stiff southerly.

The river and weather were both in reasonable shape.

Heads #3: Find Feeding Fish

Getting out of the car, Ronan immediately spotted a very large brown cruising in a pool formed by the high water levels. Having arrived straight from the airport only to find that your very first cast will be to a trophy, is not ideal. I hesitated making the cast, the trout saw some of the leader, and that was enough to spook it. I’d begun the trip flipping tails, but it was an encouraging start. It turned out that we were only going to see five fish all day, and we had to cover over 8km of river to find them…

Heads #4: Get a Break

Fish 2, 3 and 4 all vanished, a couple of them after an apparently perfect first cast. Then, in the last run of the day, we spotted trout number 5. It didn’t like the big dry fly I presented initially, but instead of spooking, the fish decided to stay on station and just drifted a bit deeper. At one point, the trout seemed to turn to eye us off disdainfully, almost as if to say, ‘I know you are there.’ Still, it didn’t vanish like all the other fish.

Heads #5: Get a Guide With a New-born Baby

How’s that relevant? Well, Ronan is a proud new father, and his family was out from Ireland to visit the baby. Ronan’s dad also happens to be a keen flyfisher. After we tried about half a dozen different flies which the fish dutifully ignored, Ronan looked at me and suggested a worm fly. I replied that this would simply disqualify the catch and we had a quick laugh. Then he thought some more and pulled out a small fly box he’d used with his dad the night before, and tied on a size 16 grey Hares Ear Nymph freshly arrived from Ireland. I made the cast ahead of the fish, the indicator drifted over it… and the system tightened, I was on! This was the ‘right fly straight from Ireland’ coin flip, also known as blind luck!

The big dry was refused, but the fish liked this humble Hares Ear all the way from Ireland.

Heads #6: Strong Knots, No Bust-offs

Here’s where we often flip tails. I’d heard that big fish mostly just use their weight to sit deep and that they don’t fight much. Well, this one had other ideas. The trout made a number of long, powerful runs to the other side of the river that could have easily broken any one of the seven knots. To add to the problem, as I played the fish, another 10 pounder suddenly appeared and started to bully the hooked trout to get it out of its territory. As we looked on helplessly, the two fish started body-slamming each other. In the process, the other monster swam into my line, twice! I expected tails at any moment. Yet somehow, during a small break in their brawl, I managed to bring my trout towards Ronan… heads!

Don’t panic! Me trying to keep a cool head during the later stages of the fight.

Heads #7: An Experienced Netter and a Big Net

I have lost one trophy before, right at the net. I still have dreams (nightmares?) about it; now soothed. Imagine flipping heads 6 times straight, but throwing tails on the last toss. How especially sour! I had steeled myself against making the same mistake, and I knew the fight was not over until the fish was in the net. I let the trout run when it still wanted to, especially when that net was closing in. Ronan kept his cool too, and with a stealthy and controlled approach, lunged out a couple of times and then managed to get the fish in the net. When he lifted it, we saw the big hump and fat shoulders of the male brown, and the scales confirmed the result as Ronan called out, “A true double!”.

Heads x 7! Ronan lifts the fish for the camera.

I still can’t believe how we managed to get this beauty all the way safely to the net. But then I realised that when we fish, we flip a coin at every stage of the game. With enough attempts, luck will be on our side.

Of course, knowing you are specifically trying for a big fish will increase the odds somewhat, as your approach will be more tailored. For example, when targeting big trout as I did with Ronan, you can expect to make only a few casts – and be prepared for lots of walking: this fish took over 26,000 steps to find! Ronan made a great point that there is ‘fishing’ and there is ‘big fish-ing’, and the two are very different. Indeed, when we go fishing, we tend to get into the zone and catching fish becomes the by-product. When we go big fish-ing, the hunt is on and at no stage is there a zone to slip into.

Oh, and having caught my trophy, I’m now looking forward to just going fishing again for a bit!