THE 20 INCHER
Ever since I can remember growing up along the limestone streams of Central Pennsylvania, my world and what was important involved trout. From the brook trout streams in and around my home, to the storied waters near State College and Carlisle where authors fawned over their merits and made all of us wish to wet a line. In the beginning any fish was worthy. Yet we would read the articles and dreamt about one day casting a #22 Blue-winged olive on one of those "other" waters, only to see it sipped in by a nose only slightly smaller than the front bumper of a VW Bug. It would take us into our backing and end with a beautifully shellacked mount on our cabin wall. A cabin that looked just like the ones we saw each Saturday morning on American Sportsman. It was so clear to me how it would be. All I had to do was get there.
Those days however were replaced with reality, and the acquired knowledge that a true trophy was better gauged by the waters one was fishing. A fat 10 inch native brookie on a stream narrow enough to jump over at any point was the trophy fish of bigger waters we saw on TV. And in the world of stocked public waters a holdover 16 inch fish was a trophy that takes every bit of fishing prowess any larger fish would require. Reality taught us that we were never going to see the 20 inch native brook trout of Canada's wilds in central Pennsylvania. It was another world. The 24 inch rainbows of Calgary's Bow River were just not part of our ecosystem, or the beautiful 18 inch Yellowstone Cutthroat we saw in all the magazines. So, although the waters around us would occasional surprise us with some extremely large hook-nosed browns, it was probably going to be the fish of a lifetime when-and-if it ever happened.
Be-what-may, eventually the dreams of mounting that big fish faded. I would see others mounted and think that it would be cool to have, but the driving force of early years just wasn't there anymore. To justify those changes in my own mind (as if there was something wrong with that mindset), I told myself that I would not mount anything unless it was 20 inches or larger, and caught on public water. Private water in my mind did not count, since water managed to produce large fish simply will. And I found them. But those 20 plus inch fish on private guided waters, though beautiful and amazing to catch, fell short of driving me to the taxidermist. Was I finding excuses to "not" mount a fish? Or simply setting the bar too high? Many years went by, including a dozen on the West Coast where steelhead and salmon entered my reality. Now what would I do? Is a 26 inch summer -run native steelhead a rainbow or not? Did it count? And once caught, what did that do to my vision of a 20 inch public water fish? Was it now somehow diluted? Either way, I moved along, with no mounted fish on my non-existent cabin wall, until I found myself back east again and on my limestone waters of old. All thoughts at that point had faded of ever mounting a fish. I had completely removed it from my thought process.
Then one fall afternoon I found myself wading the upper pools of the Yellow Breeches. One of those storied trout waters I grew up reading about. I was working a pod of fish that were flashing in a small run and doing pretty well for the day. When the bite died down, I took a few steps downstream and decided to try dredging the deep pool below me. On the second cast the indicator dipped and I set the hook. It was big! Not being able to wade downstream through the deep hole I hung on for dear life and watched as the fish took me nearly into my backing. Then against all odds and my 6x tippet, I began working the fish back upstream. Two additional runs later and I was kneeling over a rainbow like I had not seen before. I gazed down at the tail that lapped over the 20 inch mark on my net and it hit me. I had done it! After about a minute's hesitation my mind resolved the situation and I moved to take care of the fish. A couple of pictures lying on the net and the fish was back in my hands and in the water. As the fish quickly revived my mind began to work. What should I do? I had set that goal more than 20 years earlier, and it would truly be a beautiful mount. My hands opened and the heavy pulse of its tail against my palm told me it was gone and my decision had been made. I gathered up my gear and moved to the bank, sitting with my feet still in the water. I was as content as a fisherman has a right to be at that very moment.
Today, I look up over the tying bench in my den and smile. In a frame is a picture of that fish, below it is a pencil sketch I completed shortly after releasing it. It's a memory of a perfect fish, on a perfect day, on water often dreamed about throughout my youth. It's about a goal set, and the understanding once achieved, that the only real value held was in my mind and in that very moment, a moment where the only requirement was a fly rod in hand and a fish willing to rise.