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The One That Got Away, But Came Back To Flip Me the Fin Again

By Tom Chandler 8/6/2009

Big fish stories aren't exactly rare among fly fishermen, and one tournament fishing friend summed up the fishermen's approach to lost fish pretty nicely when he joked that "I lose very few small fish."

Still, when the pictures arrived in Ian Rutter's email, I immediately knew the truth. The Ugly Truth.

One of my largest big fish stories was about to come back and haunt me, and that even as it lay dying of old age, the giant trout surfaced one last time (belly up), and flipped me the metaphorical middle fin.

Sometimes, big fish suck.

The Backstory
Several years ago, I flew to East Tennessee for a weeklong "fly fishing, and nothing but" trip - normally cause for much rejoicing. Sadly, I was ill - the kind of "ill" that would normally put your on your ass for a couple days.

I'd love to cast the trip in heroic terms - our lone, chiseled hero battling millions of evil viruses intent on bodily domination - but the truth is less gratifying.

For starters, I lost the battle. Before I even got on the plane.

Once in Tennessee, I coughed continuously, metronome like (every five seconds). Sleep eluded me entirely the first few nights, and life got progressively more surreal, and after the first couple days of fishing, I clearly (in retrospect) lacked the ability to drive (if the alarm on fishing buddy Rich Margiotta's face was any indication).

Still, you don't miss a float trip with Rich Margiotta and Ian Rutter, even if you're barely able to spell your own name.

And thus the stage was set.

With the Clinch's blanket Sulphur hatches years behind us, I ended up throwing a big streamer, looking for one of the Clinch's monstrous brown trout.

Early in the day, I'd found one, but in classic Chandler fashion, was too dense to recognize it. In fact, just after a "normal" sized rainbow trout turned away from his pursuit of my streamer, a much, much bigger brown trout rolled right in behind it - and stuck his nose on the tail of the streamer.

If you haven't seen it in person, you have no idea how electrifying an event it can be. Unfortunately, I didn't see it in person - I was captivated by the small rainbow swimming away.

Meanwhile, Ian's in the middle seat making strangled noises, and I'm standing dumbly in the front, wondering what all the fuss is about.

"Strip!" he yelled, and I said "Why?" and pointed at the little rainbow. "He's nowhere near the streamer."

As Ian turned red and the veins started popping out, I kinda wondered if he didn't need to calm down. You know, relax a little.

Then I saw the brown trout. And - successfully I might add - didn't soil myself.

Naturally, that brown trout didn't eat the streamer, and just as naturally, this isn't the big fish story. This what we literary types call foreshadowing.

The big fish story came later. Much later. About the time I was approaching an unconscious state.

The Real Big Fish Story
We all saw the gout of water that shot up near some flooded timber. I thought a beaver had flipped out, but Ian knew it was a big brown trout, and because he threatened to throw me in if I didn't act quickly, I somehow got a cast off in the general direction.

The trout charged the streamer, but because I'd lost my sunglasses just before the Tennessee trip, I didn't see it.

The trout actually ate the streamer, but I didn't see that either (see above).

The line went a little spongy in my hand, but by that point in the day, I'd pretty much lost the will to live, and simply kept stripping away (and coughing).

The then trout un-ate the streamer and turned broadside to the boat (I didn't see that, but Ian sure as hell did), and both Ian and Rich stopped breathing.

That was my big fish.

Ian described him as a "zero to hero in thirty seconds" trout, leaving me to ponder how he really felt about my numerical status in life (zero?).

Naturally - whacked from zero sleep and too much cough syrup - I didn't care all that much, figuring the fish was only seventeen inches long.

Now - a couple years later and 80 yards away from My Brush With Big Fish Greatness
- this floated to the surface:

He was dying (presumably of old age), and yes, Ian measured him and he was 34 inches long.

That's almost three feet of big dead fish regret.

Of course, I have no way of knowing if that was my big trout - it's not as if it was wearing my wristwatch or anything.

Still, Ian - who'd actually seen the thing the first time - gave me better-than-even odds, and I realized that some people can be downright mean without even realizing it, though it's possible he thought he was doing me a favor (the seven stages of grief apply to losing really big trout too).

Perhaps some people find closure useful.

Still, I don't blame Ian completely for my lost fish (a really caring fishing buddy would have beat the thing to death with an oar while I was busy not setting the hook), and yes, I'm still grasping for a moral.

Maybe it's that fly fishermen produce big fish stories the way Paris Hilton produces photographic moments, but hell, we didn't need a big, dead brown trout to know that.

Maybe it's this: It's possible that the bigger the fish in the story, the greater the chance the story's actually true.

Either that, or my original thought holds: Big fish suck.

See you (crying) on the river, Tom Chandler.


Tom Chandler

As the author of the decade leading fly fishing blog Trout Underground, Tom believes that fishing is not about measuring the experience but instead of about having fun. As a staunch environmentalist, he brings to the Yobi Community thought leadership on environmental and access issues facing us today.

Ian, Nice Monster Brown. am coming over your way tomorrow Have never fished the cumberland but am going to give it a try. will be on my bike and am going to camp for a few days Any pointers on where to camp that would put me close to good/ some wade access. Have you ever fished Rim Shoals? Thanks for any info you could share with me. Flip
great story, beautiful fish. This is why we love fishing. Thanks
Tom, maybe the thing died from laughing? I tip my hat to your humane dispatching!
Biggest brownie I ever caught was revived for a while, carefully, lovingly, then swam gently from my hands into my smoker. Dave
To the best of my knowledge, the "unofficial" state record brown in CA "surfaced" in a similar fashion on a west slope lake. My largest brown to date was very hard to revive but did swim out of my hands after a long coaxing in the current. The big browns are really delicate. It's ironic since we obsess over them so. Great story.
Tom, I believe your fish was bigger than that. Which of course makes you a bigger weenie for yielding to a virus. And makes me a bigger man for not making the mistake you made, by cleverly not fishing. ha d
If Ian had been using the net shown in the picture, there's a good chance you wouldn't have landed him anyway!
Great story! Too bad you didn't catch him when he was "only" say 30 inches...but the story is just that much better now. That is a monster fish for sure and pretty cool that Ian was there to see it and get pictures...
Unbelievable story! What are the odds of that ever happening again!? Either way, what a fish!

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