(or How I Caught the Largest Trout of My Life)
“Where can I catch a big trout?” people sometimes ask, undoubtedly mistaking me for a person who is smart enough to know and dumb enough to tell. Our subsequent dialogue normally transpires like a scene from All the President’s Men:
“Follow the money.”
“What do you mean? Where?”
“Oh, I can’t tell you that.”
“But you could tell me that.”
“No, I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction if I can, but that’s all. Just . . . follow the money.”
Much like Deep Throat instructing Bob Woodward to follow the money, I direct my angling adventurers to follow the oxygen. Trout, you see, consume oxygen like politicians devour money. Find one and you’ll find the other.
From an angler’s perspective, the oxygen content of water is determined by two factors: temperature and turbulence. The temperature dependence is governed by something called Henry’s Law. In simplified terms, the amount of oxygen in water decreases as the temperature increases. Freezing water at the standard sea-level barometric pressure contains about 14 milligrams of oxygen per liter. At 60 °F the oxygen concentration falls to about 10 milligrams per liter. At 70 °F it’s down to about 9 milligrams per liter. These concentrations are typical of calm, stationary water. For the same reason that swirling a spoon in your coffee causes your java to absorb more sugar, the turbulent water around waterfalls and riffles generally contains more oxygen than the stagnant and slow moving parts of a river or stream. Find a river with cool, fast moving water and you will find more oxygen. Find more oxygen and you will find more trout.
All other things being equal, trout require cooler water than different species like smallmouth bass and northern pike. In rivers and streams where the water temperature consistently rises above 70 °F, active trout typically turn scarce while energetic bass and pike grow abundant. And when Earth’s mid-summer tilt inevitably provokes the temperatures to rise, the abundance of these lesser fish helps maintain sanity and preserve domestic tranquility for a trout fisherman stricken with the acute despair that is induced by an uninvited expansion of mercury.
Most of my nearby rivers and streams flow into Lake Superior, but the southern part of this slender peninsula is drained by a bounty of lovely Lake Michigan tributaries. Many of those—though marginal for trout during the hottest summer months—provide excellent fishing for bass, pike and other fish that John Voelker uncharitably classified as members of the lobster family. It was on one of those rivers, while attempting to entice a few feisty bass to assault a four-inch-long counterfeit sculpin, that I learned that all other things are not always equal.
The high summer heat was blazing when I ventured southward to while away the day casting for lobsters. My streamer inventory was sadly depleated, so the previous night I tied three Madonnas—a simple fly with a pearl-flash under-body, a rabbit-strip over-body, and a deer-hair collar and head. I had a few other scraggly streamers that I could use in a pinch, but I hoped that these three would get me through the day.
My preferred method for fishing streamers is to use a sinking line and the jerk-strip retrieve that Bob Linsenman and Kelly Galloup pioneered in their book Modern Streamers for Trophy Trout. “It might not make you give up dry flies and floating lines, but as sure as the day is long it will make your previously unproductive hours more productive,” Jerry Dennis proclaims in the book’s forward. I could not agree more.
The first two bass that attacked the Madonna missed. Part of the fun of Linsenman and Galloup’s method is that, when done properly, you can usually see the streamer—and any accompanying assault—throughout the retrieve. It is visual sport. The first hook-up, though, came when the streamer was out of sight, and the short-lived battle that followed reduced my streamer squadron to two. The line was cut crisply, so I suspected I had been cleaned out by a pike. Two more pike and my Madonna inventory would be exhausted.
The first fish I landed was a chunky smallmouth that devoured the fly just as it hit the water, before I had begun to jerk or strip. Ten minutes later I was onto another, and my ear-to-ear grin divulged a “no matter what happens next this outing will be a success” attitude that now controlled my consciousness. The next fish broke off, but this time the end of my line was branded with the tell-tail curl of a defective knot. I attached my last Madonna and triple checked the knot. Then I checked the knot again.
I moved down to a fishy looking run, launched the yellow Madonna across the river and began to jerk and strip. A massive torpedo slashed at the fly and missed just as I initiated one of the jerks. I was briefly paralyzed by the surprise of the assault, but when I started to move the streamer again the fish responded with another savage strike. Again, no hookup, but this behavior—coupled with my estimate that the fish was well over two feet long—convinced me that the antagonizer was a pike. Because pike often assail a fly on successive casts, I had to make a decision. I could lose my last Madonna to this pike, or I could move downstream and past the toothy brute’s lair. What the heck? Pike can be great fun to hook and fight, so I threw caution to the wind and flung my fly right behind.
The assault was spectacular and ferocious. The ensuing explosion sent a shrapnel of water, slime, and scales across the river’s surface, and all of my senses informed me that I had hooked a two- to three-foot pike. For an instant I was even certain I could smell that pungent odor I’ve come to associate with pike. After our fleeting but tumultuous introduction, the fish bolted toward Lake Michigan. I was unreasonably calm and cool at this point, mostly in preparation for the inescapable moment when a sharp fang would liberate my last Madonna from my line. I began to notice, though, that something was different. The fish didn’t shake its head like a pike. Its pulls were longer and heavier than those of other pike I’d fought of its size. After a little reeling and a lot of wading, I gradually closed the distance to the fish and was close enough to see the beast’s back when it slowly broached the surface. The sight of freckles provoked a sudden strike of incontinence.
My first attempt to land the fish was an embarrassing display of unprepared ineptitude. The widest opening of my landing net is 15″ and—with my ability to execute simple arithmetic temporarily suspended—I foolishly used the net to scoop a fish that was roughly twice its length. The result was precisely what a more reasonable person would have foretold . . . both times I tried. A butterfly net would have worked as well.
I dropped my overmatched net, shifted the rod back to my right hand, then awkwardly crammed my left hand into a mesh fish-handling glove. The fish was still close, but—sensing the same danger that I sense when my doctor crams his hand into a latex examination glove—the fiend made a desperate dash straight toward me and through my legs. A Salmo trutta variant of mano-a-mano. At this point, the defunct net was hanging from my waist and dragging like a drift sock in the water. My left hand was sporting the inelegant mesh glove, making it useless for, well, just about anything. My right hand was holding the fly rod above my head, and the 8-foot bamboo buggy whip was bent in a near-complete circle down toward my crotch. Line was speeding through my legs as the trout was aspiring to kiss my clumsy derrière goodbye. I managed to swing one of my legs over the line and return to some semblance of a proper fish-fighting position. Despite the mesh mitten on my line-handling hand, I again closed my distance to the fish. Then el toro launched another charge through the legs of el torero and we repeated the whole crazy scene. The fish and I shortened our distance one final time, though this time I feared it was the fish who had initiated the maneuver. My first seize of its tail held for about one second. My next grab lasted two seconds. My third stuck. I took a few clumsy photographs, released the lake-run behemoth, then moved to the safety of the shore lest the fish make another vengeful run at my knees.
Now, when someone asks where they can catch a big trout, I tell them to follow the oxygen. Unless they want to catch a really big trout. Then I tell them to head south and fish for bass in marginal water for trout.
(click to enlarge photos)