Whip Finish


Ralph Long - Mar 12, 2012

We all hold within our memories those special fish in which we've either caught, or for some, lost. They are ours to keep and enjoy for a lifetime. Never to be erased, at least in the case of fish caught. And for the ones lost, most often they remain until we either successfully land a larger fish, or at least one "as nice as that one we lost." With that catch the negative memory of a lost trophy thankfully tends to fade pretty fast.

For many however, it's the "first" fish that sticks with them the most. Recently I was talking to a friend who had just landed his first walleye on a fly. It was an important landmark for him, and one that will always be with him regardless of any larger walleye that happens to come his way in the future. Earlier this summer my youngest son caught his first brown trout. The moment is stored safely in my mind as much as his, defined by the smiles on both of our faces at the time. I recall my first fish on a fly so many years ago, even though it was only a palm-sized bluegill. But it was caught on a hand-me-down Daiwa fly rod with a South Bend reel and intermediate line. The fly was a Parmachene Belle wet fly. I watched the entire thing unfold as the fly sunk below the surface and "my fish" beat the other 6 that encircled it. You see, some things never leave you.

But the best firsts for me are the ones in which a true trophy is landed by either you or another and the unique status of the catch is completely overshadowed by it being a "first." There is pure honesty and absolute bliss at hand for anyone to see who are there to witness it. There is no pride of competition involved, no trophy status to apply, because there is no comparison to be made. This is most often appreciated the most when it is another's catch that you are present for. The key being, while they are smiling and holding up their first fish, you on the other hand are looking at the fish seeing nothing but how large or perfect of a trophy it is. This is simply due to the fact that while they have no comparison to make but you do. When it's a fish of yours you more than likely won't appreciate the bliss until sometime later. After you have caught many more of that particular fish and look back at the pictures. It's then that it sinks in and your mind realizes just how impressive that fish was. I look back now at a 25 year old picture of myself holding a summer run steelhead in Washington State. It was a 34" fish and the coloration was perfect. I recall that fish vividly. But looking back I wasn't thinking that I might never equal that fish in size or beauty. All I could grasp at the moment was the fact that it was a steelhead and that I had somehow miraculously landed it. So many prior to that had broken me off, pulled the hook, or shook me loose.

A good friend last year landed his first trout on a dry fly while we were fishing in central Pennsylvania together. It was also the first time he had identified the hatch, and specifically caught the fish he targeted on a fly he had tied to match that specific hatch. The grin on his face told it all! Yet I was looking at the fish, the buttery gold colors, perfect fins and slightly hooked jaw at 16" and thinking WOW what a beautiful wild brown trout. In a stream full of stocked fish, he had most likely landed the premier jewel on that entire stretch of water. I'm sure someday, if he hasn't already, he will look at those pictures we took and realize what he was holding in his hands at the time. Until then however, the "first" will do just fine.

Years ago, I landed my first salmon on a dry fly while fishing for sea-run cutthroat. Actually I caught two fish in back to back casts. Both of them were reflections of one another at a freshly minted 20" length. Not huge salmon but fresh from the salt and beautifully chromed fish. It was a first for me and before I had even gotten past the excitement of landing the 1st fish, I was standing on the gravel looking at another one just like it! I would not trade that moment for anything. Yet thinking back on it now, the complete set of events are what impacts me most of all. Both fish were caught on a #10 Elk hair Caddis. Not once since that time have I caught a salmon on a dry fly. However that fact never resonated with me for a single second during that speck in time. Pure Bliss, but I see it now.

Unfortunately though, late in life that bliss is no longer afforded us. Having walked so many more waters and landed countless fish we've developed a natural internal barometer. Over time you come to appreciate the natural beauty in the places trout inhabit, and the wonderful anomalies that make a certain fish a trophy. This fact all too often wipes us clean of that childlike bliss of "being in the moment". In some ways it's better since we include more of our lives as part of that moment, or at least on a much more regular basis. We better appreciate a wild fish due to the fact that we've caught and handled so many stocked fish. We come to appreciate that perfect rise, or the glint of sunlight cutting through a cloud of Tricos as they dance above a riffle, because we know just how seldom those perfect situations truly do show themselves. We begin to "see". Yet what's lost to us is gained on our observations of others. Where once we were able to revel in the bliss ourselves, we are now that much more suited to identify it as it happens to others. Where, unbeknownst to them, we are realizing just how precious it is and how fleeting a time it resides within us.

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