Sports column by Matt Dickerson: The Haunting – some big fish tales

Norman Maclean ends his novella “A River Runs Through It” with a sentence at once both simple and profound: “I am haunted by waters.”
There are times I know what he means. Most of the time, though, I am haunted by fish. Not by fish in general, but by specific fish in particular places. And without exception, they are fish I have not caught.
Certainly there are a few I have caught over the years that I remember with vivid detail. A 35-pound king salmon I caught on a fly rod. My first Pulaski steelhead, and more recently my first Alaskan steelhead. A large pike I caught on the Connecticut River fishing with an ultra-light rod and light line. And a big landlocked salmon: the only salmonid over 30 inches I have ever landed in Vermont. I remember each stream or river. The time of day and year. The fly or lure I was using. And especially I remember whom I was with.
For the most part, however, it is the fish I have failed to catch that I remember best. It started when I was growing up in rural Massachusetts on a dead-end dirt road where — not counting the many things I’d have liked to do if I’d had been old enough to drive — my favorite activity was fishing the small pond in the woods behind my house. I saw it regularly: a largemouth bass, 20 inches long and five pounds. But I could not catch him. I named it Moby, and pursued it with great vigor one entire summer. It rejected every lure I threw toward it, from every angle at every time of day. Spoons. Jitterbugs. Rubber worms. Hoola Bugs. Everything. The only thing that every got its attention was if I caught a small bluegill, and cast it out beneath a bobber. Moby would bump the bait fish, mouth it, scare it, brush past it, but never actually take it in his mouth. Until I’d finally give up, take the bait off the hook and throw it off into the water in frustration. Then the bass would suddenly get as aggressive as a cage fighter on steroids and gobble up the little minnow in one bite. My heart would start thumping, I’d catch another little bait fish, and the scene would replay itself. Over and over again. All summer. That bass haunted me.
Another fish that still haunts me is a big silver salmon, at least 10 to 12 pounds and maybe more. A tip from a local guide put my brother and me onto her in a little spring-fed pool off the main channel of her glacial fed spawning river. Apparently she and her cousins would head off into the little slough to rest and clean silt from their gills before continuing their upriver trek. The problem was that the small pool was overhung by alders and too narrow to cast across. Also, as it turned out, too narrow to fight a fish in, though it was plenty deep. I snuck up to the pool, spotted the fish, dropped a fly between the branches, and twitched it. Unlike the bass of my youth, the silver salmon hit my fly like a hungry teenager goes after pizza. For two or three tantalizing seconds we were connected as my rod bent double and nearly flew from my hand. Then my line snapped. Not lightweight trout line, but heavy-duty salmon line with 13-pound strength. And there was the salmon, just 10 feet away, resting under the alders with my big green fly hanging from its mouth. We cast to it for another hour, but it wisely ignored our offerings. Finally we gave up and left. And while the fish certainly moved on, in some ways it still resides haunting that pool of my memory.
This last week a large brown trout joined the company of haunting ghosts. I was fishing the Middlebury River, and having a pretty good day landing a mix of rainbows, browns and brook trout. One of the browns was up around 18 inches. I have a photo of it, so I know I caught it. But honestly, I barely remember landing it. What I remember was the much larger monster brown that suddenly came out of the depths behind a rock and swirled my imitation rainbow trout just a few feet past my rod tip. I saw its shadow and knew it was big. With adrenaline suddenly coursing through me, I cast again. To my surprise, it came up a second time! And on this attempt it got some metal. I lifted my rod, set the hook, and had it on long enough for two good up-closes glimpses before it turned back toward the depths. About an instant after my brain processed the fact that this fish was easily over two feet long, and I’d need to play it very carefully, there was a very sharp and sudden tug and then no more tension.
I have gone back there, of course. But couldn’t lure the fish up again. It will probably haunt me for a long time.
Sometimes, though, I get to play Ghostbuster. At the end of that summer-of-youth, so long ago, I was back at the pond casting my closed-faced, push-button spinning reel. Though I had landed many largemouth up to a foot and a half long, old Moby had continued to elude me. And to haunt me. So there I was, standing on my favorite rock, casting along the edge of the shore where I’d learned it liked to hang out. And I made a bad cast: released my big red-and-white Daredevil too close to the shore so that it flew up and over a fallen tree. Not having a job, and thus not having much fishing budget, every lure was precious. I was reeling it in and planning some sort of maneuver in hopes of flipping the lure over the tree when Moby hit.
To this day I can barely believe I managed not only to set the hook, and then to play the fish with my line wrapped in the tree as I kicked of my shoes and waded along the shore, but that I was able to run all the way home through the woods barefoot, grab a saw, and cut down the tree all without Moby getting off.
So there’s hope, even for those who are haunted. Which is why, when I head to Alaska to visit my brother this month, I will try to get him to stop at that same pool so we can cast some big green flies under the alders. And if this time I manage to actually land one, in my mind it will be that same fish that has haunted me these past four years. And if we fail? I’ll just have to keep going back and visiting my brother.

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