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I arrived home last night from a four-day fishing trip. It felt good to be home, but the memories of the four days would not be easily dismissed from my mind. Whereas fishing used to be a common activity for me, and one that in hindsight I took for granted, over the past few years it has dwindled to a once a year affair, which has made it even more special to me than it otherwise might have been. And as is the norm with fishing trips in general, there are quite a few stories to tell, including the “one that got away,” but before I tell that one, a little history is in order.

I used to consider myself a fisherman–like an alcoholic or a marine, I suppose I always will be–and rightly so, since I invested so much time, energy, money, and research into the activity. From the age of ten, I couldn’t seem to get enough of fishing and as I aged, I steadily progressed from red and white bobbers, split shot sinkers, gold Eagle Claw hooks, and live earthworms, to all sorts of crank baits, spinners, jigs, plastic worms, and any other artificial lure that would catch catfish, bluegill, pumpkinseed, goggle eye, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and other assorted prey. I really wasn’t all that particular as to the fish; I just loved to catch them. And fortunately for me I lived in the Missouri Ozarks, where there are a never-ending supply of streams, rivers, creeks, ponds, and lakes to fulfill my every fishing desire. I also was blessed to have close fishing buddies in my childhood friend Jim, and in the later years my brother Tim.

But something happened along the way; I grew up and my job moved me out of the area and away from my buddies. Although I found fishing opportunities in the new towns I was transferred to, the lack of a fishing buddy and unfamiliarity with my new surroundings both contributed to a fisherman who rarely fished. Meanwhile, back in the Ozarks, my brother and brother-in-law had acquired a taste for fly fishing. Being strictly a spinning reel guy, I used to look with disdain at the fly fisherman; partly out of ignorance and partly out of jealousy. I never understood why the fly fisherman had been so romanticized in movies and books and I considered the practice to be only for those who weren’t man enough to wade up and down the stream in tennis shoes and an old pair of cut off jean shorts. Real men don’t wear waders after all.

Then one day my brother invited me to come down from Chicago and meet the boys at one of the three Missouri state parks dedicated to trout fishing. Since I love the outdoors and the company of my family, I wholeheartedly accepted the invite. It wasn’t long into the event when I realized I was totally outmatched in the art of trout fishing. For one thing, I was limited in my abilities due to having the wrong tackle and I soon found out that wading in the 55 degree water didn’t work out too well in jean shorts. My brother and in-laws caught a lot of trout over the next few days and watching them flawlessly casting their flies into a pool of cool, clear water, and the subsequent fight that ensued each time a trout would suck down the oh so real looking lure, I found myself hooked on the fishing technique I had once looked upon with such ridicule. Fast forward a few years and I had become a dedicated fly fisherman, complete with rod, reel, waders, and a funny little vest which beat the heck out of hauling around a cumbersome tackle box.

So the event last week, at Montauk State Park, was like so many before. We caught a lot of fish, we sat around nightly campfires and told stories and smoked cigars, and we saw a lot of wildlife I don’t normally see in the city; a groundhog waddling across the dirt road in front of us on our way back to the lodge; a six-inch spiked buck interrupting the traffic flow on a side road; an otter, competing with us for trout, that acted like we were the interlopers; a skunk that thought walking across the front porch of our cabin was part of his nightly journey to wherever he was going (we didn’t think too highly of his visits and the four of us ended up on top of the picnic table, giving the smelly creature plenty of room to get by); blue herons flying overhead and in front of us up river; a hoot owl somewhere down in the valley; a three-foot water moccasin which I almost stepped on and while trying to retrieve my fly from an overhead limb, a water snake swimming within inches of the rock I was precariously perched on; and hawks circling in the sky above, looking for their next meal. And did I mention the blanket of stars on a cloudless night or the hills covered with oaks, maples, pines, and hickory trees; or standing in a thirty minute downpour, the rain pelting the water so hard that trying to identify my indicator in the midst of it was all but impossible? And the food we ate would normally be placed off-limits by our wives due to various health concerns.

After the first day of fishing, I was in last place in the number of fish caught category (we always keep track of who catches the most and who catches the biggest fish) and the numbers weren’t even close. I could tell I wasn’t about to make up the deficit over the next three days, so I focused my attention on going after the biggest fish; the category I had never won before. It wasn’t long before I began to doubt myself and wonder if I even knew how to fish.

When Thursday evening arrived I was in last place, the leaders doubling and tripling my totals, and I was dejected and ready to go back to the cabin and lick my wounds, hoping Friday would be a better day. On my way downstream heading back to the waiting pickup truck, I found myself halfheartedly casting my fly to the right and to the left, sometimes dragging my line behind me as I went, never expecting to catch anything, just going through the motions. And then I came upon a portion of the river where a tree had fallen; exposing the roots and creating a deeper pool at the end of a run of swift water. I thought of my bass fishing days and what this situation would have led me to do back then. So I flipped the fly a few feet above the roots and let it float down; planning on retrieving it at the last possible second before it became tangled in the roots.

At that exact moment, the indicator disappeared and I reacted instinctively, as I had for so many years, and set the hook. Fish on! I could tell immediately that it was a good sized fish, feeling similar to a two pounder I had fought the day before. I had my plan in place and I played the fish just like I had all the others; reel him in and then let him have a little line, and then repeat. I did this a couple of times and got him near the top of the water and I could see he was a big rainbow, but what I didn’t realize was that as I was playing the fish, he was playing me. The fish was certainly giving me a good fight, but I was easily winning this battle, everything going according to plan, and I thought it wouldn’t be long and I would have him safely in the net and declare myself the winner of the largest fish contest.

And then it happened. As if the fish had just finished swallowing a can of Popeye’s famous spinach, his energy level suddenly increased two or threefold and he turned and bolted down into the depths of the river. Snap. The fish was gone and I was in shock. I gave out a primal scream that could be heard for miles up and downstream, no curse words were uttered as far as I can recall, and I just stood there with a flyless line dangling in my hand. How could it happen? What had I done wrong? My brother tried to console me, having arrived at about the time the fish had turned, but I would have none of it; rejecting his advice as to how I might have prevented this debacle from happening. I replayed the event over and over in my mind the entire evening and I’m sure I wasn’t the conversationalist I usually am; not being in the mood for chit-chat. I didn’t sleep well Thursday night.

On Friday morning I decided to get back on the horse and so I returned to the scene of the crime. My second cast at the root wad produced a one and a half pound rainbow and the sting of the previous day was starting to fade. On my next cast I got another strike and it was a good one; not quite the size of the one that got away, but bigger than any I had caught up to this point. At the onset, I determined to fight this fish differently than I had a day earlier and my brother’s advice returned to my mind. I controlled the line with my left hand, feeding it out each time he made a little run, and maneuvered him into the shallower water, preventing him from diving into deeper water and a repeat performance from Thursday. After a few minutes of an enthusiastic tug of war, I grabbed my net and landed the fish. An educated guess identified my prize as a three-pound rainbow and I was so excited that my “Wooooeeee” could be heard by anyone within a couple of miles in all directions. I had now caught the largest fish of the trip and felt pretty comfortable going into the last day that I would at least win one of the contests.

Friday night around the campfire I was feeling not only sore from three days of hard fishing, but also pretty satisfied in the events of the past few days. As I conversed with my brother and nephew, my mind was thinking ahead to Saturday morning. I would only have a couple of hours to fish before packing and returning home to my wife and dog. I sure missed them, but I wasn’t done fishing yet. Saturday turned out to be the best two hours of fishing of the entire trip and I landed nine more fish; ending the four days with thirty-two fish, of which one was three pounds, two were two pounds; with a number of fifteen inch rainbows and browns to top it off. It was a good week. Even though my brother had doubled my total catch, I had won the largest fish contest and had spent time around the campfire with people whose company I dearly enjoy, and who I don’t see often enough. Next year will not arrive soon enough.