It was an early September day in the driftless area of Southeastern Minnesota. After a typical day of work I hurried home to prepare for the days true business. September is my favorite month to chase trout as they eagerly devour bugs and other forage with little discretion in preparation for the spawn and impending scarcity brought on by winter. With the flies and rod packed in the car, an apple and a stick of string cheese packed in my gut, and adorned in some drab clothes and old shoes I left the driveway in search of solitude and salmo trutta.
My commute to the stream was not a memorable one. Much like others I probably cranked public radio and raced well above the speed limit anticipating that the extra mph’s might get me to the river before the next fish-obsessed drone hoping to make the best of that precious post work daylight. The stream I chose to visit on this day begins only a few short miles from where I lay my head each night with the best fishing found from a number of access points within a 15 minute drive.
On this fall day temperatures never exceeded 70 degrees and were on the decline by the time I arrived at the bridge around 530 pm. Clouds hung heavy in the sky and carried the true gray of a post rainfall sky. Every surface held a wet sheen and my clothes became streaked with water as I guided my 7′ 9″ three weight fly rod and myself through the tall grass, low branches and various prickly vines that protected the banks of the river. I made my way through the first major gauntlet and found reprieve in the front yard of a cooperative of small, rustic cabins. On the opposite shore a towering limestone wall fortified the bank. Vegetation still lush and green clung to every hospitable inch of the wall, hanging down in search of errant casts with flies ripe for the taking. Sloping above the wall was a forest of pines and hardwoods the latter of which dispensed leaves of various reds, yellows, purples, and oranges into the river to diminish an anglers chances. Wet leaves colored the ground and gave the air a musty yet pleasant odor.
I pushed on a short distance through more undergrowth, the same wall flanking the opposite bank. It was only when I reached the pool whose existence led me through a long work day that I peered into the depths. While small fish occasionally broke the barrier between water and air to nip small olive mayflies my attention was held by something deeper.
I tied on three feet of 5x tippet to my 7′ 6″ leader and set an indicator three and a half feet from the fly, hopefully deep enough to drift a fly right over the dinner table! For a fly I chose a heavy tungsten beaded pink squirrel variant that had fished well all summer.
With noses pointed upstream an army of trout lie in formation hugging the bottom of the milky green pool. This was no small army. Fish from 10-16 inches were common with numerous larger fish commanding the best positions. These positions, I learned quickly, were most difficult to work with the fly, protected by cross currents and a small but inconveniently felled sapling submerged a few inches below the water. In addition leaves peppered the surface aiming to foul up even the most well placed cast.
As soon as I set foot in the icey water a chill shot up my back. I progressed until my shoes filled and my knees numbed. The cold, humid air enveloped my upper body. I dropped my fly and with a flash of blue from my fly rod, sent a side armed cast aflight. Leaning forward awkwardly to avoid hooking a tree positioned directly in the most opportune casting lane I muscled the cast to the head of the pool. The fly plopped down dangerously close to the overhanging sapling and sunk, leaving the bright orange indicator to signal its fate. After retrieving the cast with no take I dropped the fly another two feet from the indicator to ensure the fly hit home. The next cast was the first in a succession of casts which brought fish to hand. Not all were memorable, but some were.
After hooking into a particularly small trout I caught my first glimpse of The Beast. As the troutlet scurried about the pool a massive shadow emerged from the depths beneath a complex cross current near the opposite bank. The small trout came to hand with minimal resistance as The Beast sunk back into the shadowy depths. Fish came to hand with relative consistency over the next 45 minutes. The Beast would occasionally show himself even coming within a few feet of my now numb lower extremities. I can’t be certain why but despite ample opportunity to target him I simply continued going after the rank and file cadets still at attention on the bottom of the pool. No change of fly, no cast in his direction.
By around 630pm over two dozen trout had seen the bottom of my net. With cold, damp air permeating my upper body and numbness climbing up my legs I decided the time was now to target The Beast. He chased my last catch almost to the net and instead of retreating to the depths sat tantalizingly close. No overhangs reached for my cast. No cross currents threatened to twist an otherwise perfect drift. Nearby trees held their leaves in anticipation and the water cleared.
After numerous sightings of The Beast I was developing a composite.
The Beast started with a sharply bent kype jaw and ended with a powerful, squared paddle of a tail. The fish’s body was deep and wide, colored in greenish brown and punctuated by black and red spots circled by silver. The fish’s belly shone buttery yellow. I’d estimated the fish’s length at 25-28 inches and heavy, easily the largest fish for a good distance up and downstream.
I’d made that fortuitous cast without consideration for the inadaquacy of my 7′ 9″ three weight fly rod. The fly nearly bonked The Beast between his eyes. The gaping paleness of his mouth flashed and my bright orange indicator served its purpose. I slowly, yet firmly raised the three weight up and back. The rod nearly doubled over as the fish lumbered slowly, but consistently upstream. Initially he was as uncertain as I was sure he was hooked. After about ten feet of steady lumber he rocketed upstream, out of the pool, through the nest riffle, and well into the next run. I clumsily took chase as the sediment sucked at my feet in hopes of dashing my pursuit. Mud and water splashed me soaking my clothes. With backing beginning to show and my reel screaming in pain I maintained composure.
With all my effort I caught up to The Beast. As I re-spooled my line the fish held at the head of a sharp trough. For a split second I entertained the idea that he tried. Back to even and around 200 feet upstream of our initial rendezvous point The Beast flashed with fire in his eyes and streaked back down stream. The scene played out in reverse, down the run and through the riffle, until The Beast returned to the chalky green pool of his origin. This time he gave me no time to catch up. Well into the backing and worried I’d be bested I gave chase as he continued down stream showing no signs of tire.
Until this point I hadn’t noticed a large submerged branch, spanning the river like a deflated rainbow. The branch was waterlogged and littered with pieces of dislodged vegetation that clung to the wood. With the cunning of a badger the well seasoned lunker saw an opportunity and took it, swimming under the dirty rainbow and beyond. My reel continued to feed line to the insatiable beast as the fish passed closer and closer toward freedom. I stumbled and splashed over to the branch and tried to lift it but the branch wouldn’t budge. I tried and tried to no avail. The best course of action was to drop my rod tip under the surface and feed the rod beneath the obstruction so I did. A foot or so in I felt a light “pop” reverberate through the rod. My heart sank into my cold, soggy shoes as I’d realized he was free.
I hung my head in shame, but also in reverence, as The Beast showed clearly who stood at the top of the food chain today. I reeled in defeat as I reeled in the now limp line that the fish had taken with such little effort. My fly bobbed in behind the indicator as the last length of line was spooled. My heartrate returned to normal. The sun had dipped below the horizon and the woods took on a cold, inhospitable shade of blue. I turned homeward and took leave.
But I couldn’t forget. I struggled to cope. Every time I shut my eyes images of The Beast thrashed behind my eyelids. I couldn’t focus. My wife would ask “can you do the dishes?” but I would here “did you catch the fishes?” Clients would say “you’re taking the wrong route” and I’d hear “you couldn’t land the big trout”.
But I couldn’t simply return to the scene of the crime. (Crime? I was robbed of my sanity by The Beast). He would surely be more vigilant. He didn’t achieve such proportions living recklessly. I consulted a number of experts. Deaner, Tim In The Woods, Sean, Jesse, Trout Walker-they all said “wait a week”. One of them added “when you do go, carry your 6 weight”. Good advise.
I couldn’t wait. I had to wait. It was the type of trial that builds character. To deny yourself of what burns in your heart. Actually, I just fished other spots until a week after my dance with The Beast. But the temptation was there!
This time I packed all my gear before leaving for work in the morning. After my last obligation I sped to the stream with complete disregard for the safety of anyone around. I finally understood what could compel a man to engage the police in a high speed chase, and I was ready. Fortunately it didn’t come to that! Armed with a 9′ six weight and a laser focus I returned to the pool where he had spit the hook. To my astonishment The Beast sat easily within range, feeding on aquatic insects as they drifted by. His mouth flashed frequently as I observed his feeding rhythm. With his rythm down I plopped a cast down ten or so feet ahead. I could see the fly bounce along the bottom until it reached The Beasts shadowy figure. My attention shifted to the indicator just as it dipped beneath the surface. This time The Beast took flight. His buttery flanks shined in the afternoon sun as he torpedoed into the air before splashing back to his watery domain. Then, with a swift kick of his massive squared tail and a violent headshake, he was free. Again.