I suppose the "one that got away" story is as old as the fish story itself. I also suspect that the second chance "one that got away" story is encountered with a lesser frequency. This is one of those stories.
Dutch Creek is a smallmouth bass stream on the east edge of Wisconsin's driftless region. It takes a long, meandering course through farm fields, a small town and along some rather pretty bluffs. Most of it is very wade-able. The section we fish the most has a public easement. There are usually cows in the pasture through which it runs, so the bank side brush is kept under control. It was one of my favorite spots to fish after working a night shift, as it is so easy to fish at relaxed pace without worrying about snags, difficult wading and so forth. Matt refers to it as "mini-putt fishing". When we first fished the creek three years ago, we were mostly just figuring the out the lay of the land, or water if you will. Last season, we had it pretty well dialed in with several successful trips to the creek. So far this season, it has been a little more hit and miss. I've never been skunked, but there are days when I've caught only rock bass and chubs, no smallmouth. I kind of had feeling it was due for a change.
I fished the creek late in the morning on September 24th, and finally had that day when everything (well, almost everything) went right. I normally don't bother counting how many fish I catch, partially because it seems boastful and partially because I just don't bother, but on this day it had the feeling of a potential personal record breaker. After the first few fish, I started to keep track. At the end of a little over 3 hours of fishing, I was a little shocked by the numbers: 29 smallmouth, 16 rockbass, 14 bluegills or sunfish, 6 creek chubs and one shiner. Over 60 fish in just over three hours, or about a fish every three minutes. Not bad at all. But it wasn't all sunshine and roses.
I went further upstream on that day than I usually do. Towards the end of the fishable water, there is a wide, slow relatively flat pool that I had only fished one other time. It is rather featureless and just does not have a real "fishy" feel to it. The one other time Matt and I fished it, he caught one decent size smallie at the mouth of the mega-pool, but that was it. I did not have high hope for this section, but figured I would fish it while I worked my way upstream to more promising water. I decided to fish it from the bank, as the few rocks and structure were more or less invisible from the standpoint of the wading fisherman. I figured that way I could just target the pockets of structure and move on. I was a little surprised when I pulled a bass out of the first clump of rocks I cast to. I was shocked when I cast to the next couple of rocks.
As I moved up stream, I noticed two more rocks that formed sort of a soft V-shape. I cast into the V and was stunned when a huge bass swam out to take my fly. This fish took the fly with a casual indifference, almost laziness, of the dominant predator in his eco-system. In fact, I'm not sure who was more shocked when I set the hook, me or the fish! I guessed the fish was between 15 and 16 inches long, but was more impressed by his football-like girth. We have have bass like that in some of our bigger waters, but it just seemed completely out of place in a small stream. I brought him in quickly (while in a bit of a panic), but the fish broke off as I tried to net him. I went from having my heart in my throat to having my heart completely sunk!
I was able to return to the creek on September 28th. Conditions were similar. The fish were active, but it was not quite the "gimme fest" that it was on the 24th. However, I did not fish it as thoroughly this time, as I knew what my real mission was: a rematch with the piscine boss of Dutch Creek!
I had slid down the bank into the creek, thinking I could walk with the fish some up and down the length of pool, letting it tire without risking losing it. I also figured it would be much easier to net him in the creek versus on the bank. Unfortunately, this plan only partially worked. After taking a couple of steps in the creek, I sank in the muck. When I tried to extricate myself, the muck tried to eat my sandal. I figured I couldn't fight two battles at once and win, so I was stuck, with my feet planted with one of the biggest and angriest fish I had ever hooked on the end of the line on a standard-sized tenkara rod. This was going to be interesting. Maybe I'm imagining things, but he seemed even more feisty this time than last. Prior to casting to him, I reviewed in my head how I was going to play him.
The fish made several enthusiastic runs. I basically let him run, and then tried to steer him when he started to put tension on the rod. The Badger Classic rod spent most of the fight bent in half, but handled the boss just fine. I came close to netting him twice, but when he started to put what I felt was too much strain on the tippet section, I let him run again. I was nothing short of elated when I finally got him in the net. He stretched from the butt end of the rod to the "T" in Badger Tenkara, which happens to be 16 inches. His overall stockiness, though, is what really impressed me. There are simply no other fish in that creek (that I have seen) that can compare. I had caught the mythical big fish in a little creek!
So, what did I learn on this outing? Well, there are such things as second chances in fishing, but more importantly, I learned (again) the importance of being prepared. You may occasionally hook a big fish on tenkara by luck rather than skill, but it will probably take more than luck to land it. Learn to let the fish "ride the rod" and how to steer the fish. Check your knots and your tippet. And go out and chase your white whale!