In the mind of any veteran angler lurk the ghostly images of fish — usually big ones — that never seem to fade from memory.
Author John Gierach, in his splendid little book, “Trout Bum,” called them those “once-in-a-season ‘Oh, s--t!’ fish.”
Anyone who has felt the weight of a big fish at the end of the line is probably familiar with that expression. It usually comes during those wild first few moments after the angler sets the hook.
The fish, realizing it is hooked, goes ballistic. The angler, feeling the fish surge, scrambles to gain some semblance of control.
Sometimes, the angler lands the fish, sometimes the fish gets away. Either way, a memory gets created.
Work, illness, injuries and family responsibilities have kept me from fishing much in the past few years, and none of the fish I’ve caught lately have been all that memorable. Perhaps that’s why the memories of fish I caught years ago linger so persistently.
Not all the fish were big.
The first trout I ever caught, for example, was a stocked 10-inch brookie that swam toward me and almost nonchalantly inhaled the worm I dangled in front of its nose. Ho-hum, right? Well, not for an 11-year-old who had never caught anything but creek chubs.
The first trout I ever caught on a fly rod, a 12-inch brown, also stands out because it represented three firsts — first trout on a fly rod, first brown trout, and first fish caught on a fly I’d tied.
Most of my “memory fish,” however, were larger — or seemed that way, at least.
Once, on the catch-and-release section of the North Fork of the South Branch, near Seneca Rocks, I landed and released an 18-inch rainbow trout. On the very next cast, I hooked a fish that could have dragged that rainbow around by the tail.
That fish tore the pool apart, darting this way and that, stripping line off my fly reel bulldogging deep along the bottom.
“Big brown ... BIG brown!” I thought, as I caught a glimpse of its bronze flanks.
Not quite. When the fish finally tired and came to net, it turned out to be a 15-inch smallmouth bass. I’ve been a fan of smallmouth bass ever since.
Another time, on the headwaters of the Williams River, I spied a sizable brown trout finning in slack water behind a boulder, just a few feet from the exposed root ball of a big hemlock tree. I hooked the fish on a dry fly and got ready for a battle.
The battle lasted just long enough for the fish to stitch my leader through the root tangle and break off.
Sometimes, the fight didn’t last even that long. Once, as I fished a small private pond for bluegills, I cast my fly-rod popper near a sunken log. A bluegill sucked the fly under, but before I could set the hook, I saw a huge swirl and felt a strong tug at the end of the line.
I raised the rod, but nothing was there. The popper came sailing through the air back toward me, and I caught it.
Impaled on the point of the popper’s hook was a scale about the size of a nickel. I saved the scale and showed it to a DNR fisheries biologist.
“How big a bass would it take to leave a scale that size?” I asked him.
“Oh, you’re going to be sorry you didn’t get that fish, John,” he said. “I figure it went pretty close to 8 pounds.”
There are others — many others — and, as I approach an age when fishing becomes harder and fishing trips grow fewer, I savor their memories as one would savor a fine wine.