A Big Dam Brown by Mark Usyk

Besides the whole getting purposefully lost thing, besides the finding my inner peace thing, and besides the whole getting outdoors thing, there’s something to be said about the whole “you never know what you might find at the end of your line” thing. I think fly fishermen, more than others, seem to think that they can go out in search of a specific fish and with the right patterns home in on that one species all day. Part of that mindset may come from fishing dry flies on Trout streams, as what you’re doing is giving the Trout what you can already see they’re eating…sometimes. But there’s still that margin for variations in victories, like when the Creek Chub or White Fish are competing in the same waters for a meal. You might not be completely disappointed that it’s not the hog of a Brown you thought it was, but it’s a dose of reality that, just maybe, you don’t know quite as much as you think you know. Close the dry fly box and open up the meat locker full of fifty shades of streamers and the confidence of guessing what’s at the end of the next tug  probably goes right out the window, unless you’re fishing in your neighbors Coy pond on a drunken dare by the light of a full moon.

This past year I’ll admit to chasing more Trout than anything else, but I wouldn’t call myself a Trout Bum. I have a regular job, a house, a car payment, a wife and kids, I’d say I’m just a Trout “enthusiast.” The Trout Bum only makes enough money to keep fishing and keep a roof over one’s head, be it a home with an overgrown lawn and dirty siding, a motel room close to this week’s river, or a tent. The Trout Bum has no time to settle down with a family and if it does happen it was never seen coming and most likely doesn’t last long. I’m not entirely sure why I chased Trout so much other than I really like fishing rivers and streams because I have no boat for large bodies of water to chase Bass, and the places I was going to hunt for the Browns and Brookies were nothing short of remote and beautiful. And fishing places where the dominating species is the Trout may have helped me to begin to fool myself into the false thinking that I too was able to pick what fish I wanted to catch, and go out and catch that very fish and nothing else. But a streamer cast in water holding a mixed bag of fish is all it takes to be snapped back to reality. No matter what you think you know, you are not in control.

I left the 7wt hanging on the wall for a change, even though I was going to the dam, where I knew from past experiences, and past deliberate trips to hunt specifically for Pike that there were indeed Northern’s patrolling the white water rolling over the borders of the dam’s discharge pool. I hadn’t been successful, let’s not go thinking that I know what I’m doing just because I know they’re there, but I did lose a couple, miss a couple, and see a couple all on different occasions at this very spot. But during many attempts I’d also caught Smallmouths and Walleye as well so all bets were off. I decided I was going to catch a couple Walleye and I rigged up the glass 5wt with a sink tip line and grabbed my streamer box. The same streamer box mind you, which I pulled from during the Pike attempts, and the same streamer box that I carried with me while chasing both Large and Smallmouth Bass. But I was Walleye fishing this time. I knew what I was going to catch after all, and I knew the 5wt would be just fine.

After a bunch of casts from the concrete wall and not so much as a flash of fin or scales I waded out through the weed bed up to the face of the dam like I normally do. The wall was my normal spot for Walleye, out here I’d caught Smallies and missed Northerns. So I’m not sure why I waded out there since I was after Walleye, but regardless, there I was, convinced every cast held the potential for a nice Marble Eye and nothing else. I was casting a streamer that usually did really well in the Oriskany Creek for Smallmouths, so again, why I was in this spot, fishing this fly, convinced a Walleye was about to bend the rod is a little beyond me looking back, but it must have made sense at the time. I made a cast across a fast shoot of white water that blasted out of the corner of the discharge pool, I counted to 3 to let the lead dumbbell eyes get it down into the turbulence a little and then made a fast strip to make it appear that a baitfish was making a break for it, rushing out of the white churning stuff to haul the mail across open water for cover in a panic. Now you can speculate that a Walleye would be sitting on the bottom just under the fast rough stuff waiting for a minnow to be washed out dizzy and confused, an easy meal. You can speculate that the Walleye might for a second study it’s prey and decide that this was indeed a helpless and tasty meal, but in all reality to speculate that a fish having a brain the size of a pea has much room for anything that resembles reasoning might be a far stretch. Let’s speculate that a fish is hungry, it sees something dart as if to escape, and as running from a grizzly will most certainly cause it to run you down and eat you, the fish on instinct gives chase and opens it’s mouth.

The streamer probably hadn’t even cleared the white water yet and the line when tight, the rod tip danced, and I strip set the hook. The rod doubled over and the fish cut into the white water and line peeled off the old Medalist reel Holly had bought me at a garage sale years ago.  My first thought was that Walleye don’t fight like that, once they’re off the bottom they just kind of stop fighting and you haul them up like a sack full of wet socks. Maybe it was a small Pike the way it was staying down deep and continuing to take line. But then I thought, “No, must be a Smallmouth.” It was fighting to frantic, using a lot of muscle and erratic movements. Whatever it was…it was pissed. I hauled back on the rod and the white glass arched from a foot above the cork handle out and back down to the tip, pointing out the spot under the water where the prize fought back. For a second I thought I should ease up or lose it, but then I remembered I had on a leader of 20lb test Fluorocarbon, a decision I’d made that I thought might aid me in the event that there were Pike teeth in proximity to the streamer on some odd chance, so I doubled my pressure and decided to winch in whatever it was without much more of a hassle.

Realizing it was losing, it jumped. It jumped again, and a third time. I pulled my net off my back and after two misses scooped up the win, not a Walleye. I’d come so sure of Walleye that my mind raced at the sight, how could I be so wrong? My heart pounded, harder now that the fish was safely in the net than when I didn’t know what it was! Not only was it not a Walleye, but it also wasn’t a Bass, and also wasn’t a Pike. My hand slid under it’s body and I hefted a good weight of gorgeous Brown Trout! As I waded across the weed bed to the rocks I almost tripped and fell in twice, my mind still racing and ignoring what my feet where trying to do. I don’t hardly ever catch big fish, and I never measure them, because that’s just not what it’s about for me. That being said I knew this was my biggest Trout ever and really wanted to know how long it was. Well, hang on. I’m a fisherman, which means I know how long every fish is automatically without ever pulling a measuring tape out, and this one was well over twenty inches, but I wanted proof. The best I could do was lay the fly rod down and hold the Trout next to it, then measure the rod at home to provide the proof my fishing buddies would need before believing such a story.

When I revived the Trout I took note that this was the first one big enough to allow me to hold it just in front of it’s tail in the water, most were always small enough that the tail would slide right through my hand. I almost waded back out to fish some more then thought better of it. I’d leave the Walleye alone, they could buy that Trout a beer later on for breaking my concentration. At home I measured the rod to where the fish’s tail ended and it came out to 18 ½”, so we’ll call it 22”. But there was that nagging fact that I’d gone for Walleye, so sure of them, and caught none. I was finally not chasing Trout, and what did I do? I caught a Trout. I wondered to myself, “No Walleye…was that a win or a fail?” It’s probably better not to speculate.