I have been fly fishing for almost five years now. I’ll never forget my first fish that got away. It was on the upper Provo River near the Murdoch Basin turnoff. Fishing streamers was still new to me and I had fairly light tippet on with my Muddler Minnow. I was casting my line straight across the current and I hit the perfect spot right below an overhanging branch. The fly swung out only a foot or two before a big brown came and crushed my fly. I set the hook and the fish darted straight up the river, against the current. This was the first time I had a trout “run” on me. I panicked and started reeling as fast as I could. The fish, just kept on swimming and my tippet snapped. What would have been my biggest fish of my life (up to that point), was gone.
Virtually every fisherman is haunted by the monster personal-best fish that got away. That was my first story about the one that got away and last night, the script flipped on me.
Most of my fishing adventures are with my sons and my brothers. I had to work yesterday so I was precluded from joining a couple of my brothers for a day of fishing. Hopefully, I would be able to join them after I got off work. They, along with a couple of my nieces and nephews, had gone to Mill Hollow reservoir earlier in the day, stopped by my parents’ home above Woodland, and then headed to Trial Lake for the evening. I called to my folks’ house to see if I could track down where my brothers had gone.
By the time I got to Trial Lake, it was about 7:45PM. Late June is a great time for late trips because the days are at their longest. I figured I’d still get some good fishing in. By the time I got there, the group was set up fishing from the dam. The water was as high as I had seen it in years. They hadn’t been there long and the fishing was reportedly pretty slow. It had been a warm day, so they were in shorts and t-shirts. When the sun went down, and the temperature dropped 20 degrees, the kids were ready to call it a day. As I hadn’t been there long, my brothers left me to fish for a while alone while they loaded up and got going.
I hadn’t had much action on any color of streamer. I worked my way around the bank for a half and hour or so, trying several different flies. One little rainbow was all I had to show for it. It was getting dark and I was about to call it a night. The internal call of “last cast” sounded in my head and threw my line out as far as I could. As I slowly stripped my leech, I had started to accept the fact that this was just a slow night and at least I didn’t get skunked.
My older brother, Steve, ties an amazing leech pattern on a balanced, barbless hook. I had crazy success with it when the two of us took our sons to the Green River and Flaming Gorge a month ago. The leech supply in my fly box, like all great flies, had slowly dwindled and I was down to my last one. So when I thought I hit bottom, I was anxious not to snag and lose my fly. I lifted up on my rod and the so-called “rock” pulled back. It pulled back hard!
I knew I had a fish on and I could tell immediately it was a really good fish. Growing up in Pine Valley above Woodland, the Uintas were our back yard and we’ve been going to Trial Lake for years. Trial Lake has lots of fish and it’s great for fishing with kids because everyone is going to catch fish. Worms will always catch fish for the kids. That said, Trial is not known for producing big fish, so the serious bend in my rod caught me off guard and was a little confusing.
The fish started taking line and it wasn’t slowing down. I had 3x tippet on (6.4 lb test) which for a streamer isn’t light, but it is definitely not heavy, so I knew I wasn’t going to be able to muscle this fish in. There are few things more disheartening for me than losing good fish from a barbless hook because I didn’t keep enough tension on the line. So I was trying to find the right balance between keeping enough tension to not let this fish flip off, and not allowing so much tension that I would break my tippet.
This fish kept taking line, more line than this reel had ever given out. My line was tangled. You know, those tangles where the line is folded over itself and you need to give it a hard tug to pull out the line from the reel? So I have a giant fish on, with a barbless hook and I need to keep tension on while I’m tugging line out of the reel and pressing my index finger of my casting hand, on the line and pinching it against the rod to keep enough tension not to lose this monster. The more line this fish took, the more I realized how special the fish on my line was.
After taking my line all the way to my backing (I’m guessing about 25 feet of backing or so), the fish turned and started to swim towards me. I quickly reversed course and started to reel as fast as I could to keep the tension on. Luckily for me, the fish wasn’t swimming at me as fast as she was swimming away. She turned again and took me back into my backing. It was almost like this fish wanted to go home into the depths from whence it came. My line was out there a long ways and my wrist and forearm were already starting to cramp.
How was I going to get this fish to shore? That was about the time that I realized that I didn’t even have a net. Like I said, Trial Lake is not typically known for producing monster fish, so anglers take a net to Trial out of habit and convenience, but definitely not out of necessity. This was different. I was standing on the rocks on the dam and I was seriously concerned about not getting this fish to hand without a net. My walk across the jagged rocks was less-than-relaxing as I headed to the beach. I was going to have to beach this fish and I was 30 yards away from a spot where I could land a fish this size and the daylight was pretty much gone.
I don’t really know how I got across those rocks, without falling while still keeping tension on the line, but this fish was starting to get tired. It was not fighting hard enough that I couldn’t continue reeling steadily. By the time I got to the beach, the fish surfaced for the first time and in the fast-approaching darkness, I got my first peek at her. You know when you see a fish with two bends in it instead of just one? This was a two bend fish and the ruckus this fish made on the still water surface was making me giddy. I was starting to feel like I had this fish beat.
If someone would have been observing from a distance they would have thought I had lost my mind. I was alone, in the dark, and had the fish of my life 10 feet off the beach, and my adrenaline was off the charts. By this time I was audibly repeating, “Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh! Oh my gosh! Please don’t lose this fish!” It was the type of self-talk that seems to be more of a prayer than anything else. My fish was on the bank.
As a catch-and-release fisherman, I keep maybe one fish per year and I don’t even eat them myself, but keep a rare fish at the request of my mom or sisters. I knew that this fish needed to be documented if it was any type of record fish. Even if it was just a personal-best, I needed something to show for this fish or nobody would believe me. I didn’t have a headlamp and the only light I had was my phone. Apple didn’t design their phones for fishermen because I couldn’t film with my light on (Apple are you listening? talk about the largest oversight in the solar system!). I got a couple of bad pictures with a flash and tried to get one with the tape measure to prove its length.
While trying to keep the fish wet, hold the camera with no light because it was in camera mode, and trying to put a tape on this thing, I got a pic of part of the fish with the tape reading 31 inches. I knew it wasn’t a great picture and worried that it wouldn’t support a record, if it was one. The thought crossed my mind, I could run over to the campground and interrupt someone’s fire to have them take a picture. That thought was quickly dismissed once I concluded that there was no way that I’d get her back in the water in time if I tried that. Now I had a bigger problem, the fish wasn’t moving anymore.
I have caught my fair share of big fish. I’m not an expert, but I’ve gotten pretty good at handling fish in a way that the catch and release isn’t too stressful for these bigger fish. I have caught several fish over 5 pounds and 25 inches, but I had never had to do it alone and I had never had a longer, tougher fight with a fish. It was tough trying to get a good picture, but I erred on the side of getting bad pictures rather than killing the fish. I tried to revive her. While I held her tail with her head in the stagnant water, trying to get her some oxygen, I got a few more bad pics trying to document the magnitude of this fish. She wasn’t responding. I tried to let go of her and she went belly up.
She wasn’t going to make it. So, now what? I don’t keep fish and I am an hour from home. It is dark, my hands are now frozen from the reviving process in near 10,000-foot elevation ice water, and I have no way of transporting this fish. A knife to clean a fish is as unnecessary for a catch-and-release fisherman as a coffee can of worms. Because of the snow drifts still up at Trial Lake, I wasn’t able to get all the way to the parking lot and was parked a few hundred yards away. My only shot was to transport this big girl in my new “fishing tote” which I had just upgraded (a larger size to fit my boots, waders, vest, and flippers if I wanted to go float tubing). Cold water in the bottom of the tote would keep the fish in good shape until I could get some ice in Kamas.
I briskly walked the fish to my car. Luckily I had a case of water bottles in my car. I added my ice-cold water from my HydroFlask along with a the little ice it had along with water from a dozen water bottles. Then I headed back for my rod on the beach. Driving down that winding road at 10PM without cell reception and the fish of my life in the back made for a long drive. All of this had just happened to me and not a soul on Earth knew about it yet.
There was something intimate about this experience. Sure it would have been fun if my sons would have been with me or if my brothers had been there. But, there was something pure, almost sacred, about experiencing this alone. It was just me and this fish and I realized in the process that while it is fun to compete with my brothers and sons on who has caught the most fish or the biggest fish on each trip, that’s not why I love fly fishing. It’s more. It’s about the chase, the anticipation, the hope, the experience of getting out with loved ones, the quiet of nature and hearing your own thoughts in your head and the voice of the Lord, away from the noise and distraction of the world.
I finally got into cell range and I called my wife to let her know I was okay and to let her know why I was a little later than expected. Voicemail. I called my older brother. He wasn’t even back home in Draper yet (which illustrates by how little they missed this entire thing). I tried to play it cool, “What’s the biggest fish you’ve ever seen come out of Trial Lake?” He responded, “Maybe 16 or 17 inches, why what did you get?” I couldn’t hide my excitement, “I have a 31 inch fish in the back of my car!” He didn’t believe me at first. Then I stopped for some ice and sent him a picture. With better lighting, for the first time, We were both confident that I had caught a Tiger Trout.
I called my younger brother and asked him the same question with the same answer. There was just no way that any of us (or anyone for that matter) would have expected to pull a fish this big out of Trial Lake. Not owning even a bathroom scale, I asked my younger brother (who lives a block away from me in Heber) if he had a scale I could use to weigh this fish. It was a long drive to Heber.
I’m not sure what Jake thought when he first saw the fish. I had told him it was big, but I don’t think it registered until he saw it. We took some pictures and we weighed her. I stepped on the scale. The number was higher than it used to be when I was younger, but we recorded that number. I picked up the fish and stepped back on the scale. 14 pounds on the button! We measured it properly in the light. 33 inches. We measured the girth at 17 inches.
My previous “best fish” was also a Tiger Trout. That one was from Chalk Creek. My mom’s cousins own property up there, where they have several private ponds that were stocked years ago. Bill has been generous enough to take a few of us brothers up on a couple of occasions and on my last trip, I caught a 27-inch, 6-pound tiger trout on a grasshopper, on 5x tippet. I thought that was the fish of a lifetime. The entire night was just surreal. My mind was racing, the endorphins were tangible. It was a good day.
Turns out had I been able to revive this Tiger hen, it would have been the Utah State Catch-and-Release record Tiger Trout. The current record stands at 29 inches and was set in 2013. Mine would have bested the record by three inches. As far as I know it is likely a Trial Lake record fish. It would have been great to get my name in the Utah record books, but when it was apparent that she wasn’t going to survive, I wasn’t about to leave her in the lake to die for the sake of a record.
It’s funny, most of the time fishermen have nightmares about the one that got away. This time, it was the one that couldn’t swim away that became the fish for me that fills my dreams.