“I’m hung up.”
My brother looked back from the bow of the drift boat then picked up line to cast while I bent the rod deep and gave a few jerks.
We were anchored at the head of a long cut bank along the Big Hole river. Wet grass dried in the breeze and a grey sky rolled against the hills beyond the bank. I needed a long cast upstream and quick mends to get the flies down and I had been bumping bottom here and there since we stopped.
My father watched from his hunched forward position while I worked to get free from above him. Nothing doing. I reeled in all my line and grabbed it tight, then repositioned my efforts with the rod to work angles that might free the hook.
Satisfied with my best efforts I stood resigned to break off and lose the flies. In that moment the taught line slid. A few inches maybe, but upstream.
I was quiet, and then, “I can’t be hung up. The line just moved.”
Those words stopped us all and gave a connection into the instinctual hope every man, woman, and child have when they search for fish in the unknown and unseen world. Hope that this cast and this fish is the one. That this day is the day that has been waiting for them. It is their turn in the arena with a truly amazing fish.
We had a chance early on. A good chance. The fish was close to the boat when I hooked up and I had it on the reel. I looked down for a glimpse. It was a deep hole and without sun the water gave us no clues. My father manned the net like a harpoon, crouched and searching. Aware, as I was, of what was happening.
“Hang on, Pop.”
If I had pulled a little harder, I may have been able just to get its head up enough for the net to dip in and land the fish. I was almost there, but I could not pull any more. My rod was still doubled over, but I could almost see the tippet stretching.
Then it ran downstream. My brother ducked and I grabbed the leg brace and leaned over and up to my tip toes to keep the line off him. When the fish stopped, it was only ten yards past us. He rolled and showed me what I already knew.
Please don’t run again.
And then he did.
“Let’s pull anchor Pop.” There was subdued urgency in my voice.
He was hefting the anchor as I said it and away we went.
Probably the biggest lesson I have learned about fighting big fish from a drift boat is to expect it. Having a plan for what to do will prevent the fish from getting too big of a head start in the fight. Fighting fish from a drift boat can complicate how you fight fish or simplify it depending on what the fish decides to do and where you end up relative to the fish. If you have made the decisions in advance, it saves time and eliminates an unnecessary advantage for the fish.
Hooked Up While Anchored.
Consider this. If you catch a big fish on the bank and they make a run down stream that you are unable to stop or turn, the best thing to do is to get moving downstream after them. There are too many things that can go wrong with that much line out in the fight. If you would go downstream with the fish on shore, it makes sense to go with that fish in the boat. The decision to leave the spot you are fishing should not be a distractor. You need to catch up and get it between ten and two o’clock where you have a chance to fight the fish instead of the fish AND the current.
READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Get a Move on When a Big Fish Runs Downstream.
Hooked Up While Moving.
If you are static and the play is to raise anchor, you would think that if you are moving the answer would be to keep on keeping on downstream. And you would be right except for the fact that the fish has a vote. I have hooked into fish while bee-bopping downstream and that fish just stays put. The drift boat is moving down stream and the fish is not coming with. Back rowing helps. Back rowing early and often helps even more. Also, try to find spots in the river laterally that might make the rowing easy and slow the boat down naturally.
Line management is always something to be aware of, but I have found myself especially in trouble when I let my free line get away from me in a drift boat. There are too many things to get ahold of in a boat that are not a problem while wading. The sway brace. The anchor. The cooler. A backpack tucked away that finds a loop of line. When that fish takes line, and there is no more line to give, it is a race to free it or lose the fish to broken tippet. I find this happening most often when I get complacent, which has cost me many fish in and out of a drift boat, big and small. Watch for the oars as well and be ready to reach with the rod to keep the line clear.
Anytime someone hooks up there is an immediate sense of excitement in the boat, but a big fish can encourage a sense of joy and determination. If it is not obvious, I will ask. “Do you need help?”
If I am the one with the fish, I will speak up. Usually something calm and descriptive such as, “Big fish! Big Fish! Oh man, this is a big fish!” There may be room for some expletives in there and the communication is often followed by a less excited, “That was a big fish.”
Many smaller fish can be caught and landed by the one with fish on but if it is a truly monster trout, I say all hands on deck. The person not fishing can reel in to help keep the line from getting in the way and add another set of hands for dealing with the net. Especially helpful if the person on the oars has their hands full with the river.
Be Ready with the Net.
The fish could surprise you. It may run in towards the boat and it is possible you could land the fish early on. The longer you fight the fish the more chance it has of breaking free. Do not miss an opportunity to net a big fish because the net was not there to scoop it up.
Use Caution Going to the Shore.
If I am in the boat, I tend to stay in the boat. There have been times I have gotten out of the drift boat to fight a fish, but it always seems to be more pain than it is help. It also has to be conveniently aligned. Very conveniently aligned. The effort it takes to get to the shore with the boat and then get out leaves room for slack in the line and sacrificing a good angle on the fish.
Roll with Fast Water.
It may seem like if you are fighting a fish and the drift boat is headed for rough water, that you would want to avoid going through that water, but if you focus on hunkering down and keeping the line tight, letting the person on the oars do their job, you don’t have to fight the rapids and the fish. Flow through together and make your moves on the other side.
Do not rush a big fish. Enjoy the fight. Take it downstream and remember the basics of keeping the line tight and putting pressure on the fish. Let the fish take line when it needs it and gain it back when things mellow down a bit. It ends up being more fun and usually more successful.
In the end all three of us sat there like statues. The decision to drop anchor in shallow calm water versus fighting the fish through imminent rapids ended up giving the fish too much line and it shook the red copper john free.
I slumped over against the boat. A deep breath and a ray of sunshine that had broken through the building storm clouds helped. When I looked up, they were watching me. Their faces felt like a mirror. I saw excitement, sympathy, and disbelief. We had fought this fish together, and sitting there together, it reminded me of how we all search for the next story as much as the next big fish. Then I felt joy to have shared those emotions with them.
We made a play that day on the river, and it didn’t work. Lesson learned. Great memory. And hopefully, a great story. Wadeoutthere.
From the Podcast:
I finally got some clarity when I talked with Todd Fuchigami from the Ellensburg Angler. Maybe closure is the right word. Someone who floats and guides the Yakima River in Washington all the time confirmed our hard lesson: lift anchor and go down stream with a big trout. If you want to hear our conversation you can listen to our chat here:
WOT #6: Yakima River with Todd Fuchigami.