Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Undefeated Heavyweight Champion

There comes a time in every angler's lifetime where they realize they have a fish on their line that they cannot handle. As with many of my experiences this episode starts and ends on the fabled Pere Marquette River.

Let's go back a few years. I was more of a physical specimen than I am now. I was younger, stronger, and possessed more physical endurance. I felt I was always more than a match for any Salmon that was in the river. The PM is notorious for big, nasty, mean Kings and I have fought my share.

I have been blessed with the having the luck and opportunity to land so many large fish. But, I can honestly say I have only caught two fish in the 30 pound range in all of my years, both on the PM.

I had one on this fall that was probably close to that and after fighting it for only about a minute, it came out of the water, not even a full jump as if to tease me. It was a big old red male the size I hadn't seen all season and I had it on my line. When my son and I saw the fish we both audibly gasped at it's size. We were just about to leave and I was in my fishing frenzy mode where I cannot leave. Ten more casts I tell myself and I have this crazy system that if I hook one in that ten casts I get twenty five more. This fish was hooked on number 9! The fight was over seconds after the partial jump as i felt several hard head shakes then.....slack. My thundering heart sank as I turned to my son to say "He's gone". We didn't see the brute again even after fishing for another half hour or so. All rules went out the window as the chance to catch such a fish, even at the wrath of my wife for being home later than promised. Praise her kind soul for staying with me for me frequent tardies!

Big Red as I named the monster King that I lost that day did not even compare to the real King of the PM I had met years before.

Somethings you can remember so well that even years later, the details are so fondly etched in our memories that time has a hard time eroding. It was mid-September and my favorite time to be on the river. The morning was cool and the sun had long since burnt the fog off of the river. My favorite hole wasn't as full of fish as I had hoped for. I had seen some fisherman a little ways downstream with fish on all through the morning. I had heard them yelling like the Michigan Wolverines just scored the go ahead touchdown against the hated Ohio State Buckeyes. I wondered at what all of the commotion was about and decided to head down and chat with my peers.

It isn't unusual that I fish alone and this day was no exception. Many of my friends have obligations greater than fishing, mostly involving children, work or family. I am a pretty outgoing person and can strike up a conversation pretty easily. It is one of my secrets to being a good fisherman. Don't be afraid to talk to other fisherman because they may willing give you the information you need to have an awesome day or leave the river skunked.

There were three guys fishing a deep run behind several beds. Two of them were standing in the river looking into the fast but clear water. The other fisherman sat on edge of an undercut bank like he would be sitting in a lawn chair. He was holding his rod in his lap and I could see he was shaking his head. Just before I was just behind them the fisherman who was sitting stood up and dropped a half dozen expletives as he threw his fly rod into the woods. He noticed me and apologized for the language. I am rarely offended so it was really no big deal. He told me how the Bronze Giant finally had gotten the best of him and broke his rod. He just had it replaced because the same fish broke his rod the day before.

I have seen fish break rods on several occasions, but I had never heard of the same fish breaking two quality rods on back to back days. While pondering the truth of the statement one of his pals excitedly shouted over the rushing sound of the river "He's back! He's Back" as the two fisherman in the river started casting. I looked to where they were fishing and saw a large coppery colored King. He was a lighter hue than the other Salmon spawning in the area, but often much of his back came out of the water from his massive girth as he shot out of the hole and onto one of the beds nearby to take his spot near a vacant female. The two fisherman cast again and again and talked excitedly. From their conversations I gathered the fish was very aggressive and each of them had fought him at least once.I did not talk for several minutes as I watched this behemoth in the water as it chased away much smaller Kings, some of them over twenty pounds. Yes, you heard that right, the other males over twenty pounds were MUCH smaller. I had never seen a king so large. I had caught a couple 30's and a lot of 25's, but nothing compared to this. I heard from the other three fisherman that he had to be over 40. I am often a doubter of many fisherman's stories, but this I could not doubt as I saw this fish with my own eyes.

The big King was definitely the dominant fish in the group and it chased away everything that came close to him and his partner. This is the hope of any fly fisherman with spawning fish is that they strike from aggression to remove the fly from their area. It did not take long for this monster fish to hold up to it's reputation as it grabbed the fly of the downstream fisherman and started to thrash and swirl as it felt the barb of the hook in its mouth as it backed off the bed. The fisherman pulled back hard on his rod and yelled "FISH!!!!" as he felt the steady pressure of the fish on the end of his line. I heard two sounds next, a fly reel drag screaming at the top of its lungs and the fisherman yelling "NO! NO! NO!" as the fish turned and ran hard downstream, through the logs at the back of the run without slowing. Everyone there knew the fight was already over, but the guy kept his rod up hoping against hope. The fish jumped again and again each time farther and farther away until we could see the backing coming out of the reel. I didn't even have the fish on and my adrenaline was pumping hard. The guy with the fish started to cuss as soon as his line went slack and as he pulled his line in we saw the fish took all of his fly line as well. They decided they had enough with a broken rod, some lost line and some bruised egos. I talked to them for a few minutes as they packed up and they wished me "good luck" if the fish did come back.

I sat on the bank where the fisherman with the broken rod was moments before and decided to use my time wisely. I drank some water and had some beef jerky before retying with a new leader. I decided to go with 12 lb Maxima chameleon. Normally I never go above 10 lb., but this was an unusual circumstance. I tied on my all time favorite fly back at the time. My weapon of choice was a  size 6 B&O.

This had been my lucky fly that had I caught both of my 30lb fish on. I stood up and decided to watch the river for a few minutes when I saw that familiar coppery brown torpedo shoot up from out of the depths of the dark hole. I was surprised to find out that no fly line trailed behind the fish. I slowly stepped into the river and walked towards where the other fisherman had cast from towards the trophy King. As I unhooked my fly from the hook keeper I noticed that my hand was shaking. Calm, cool, and collected is often how I think of myself when Salmon and Steelhead fishing, but I was no where near being calm. I had my chance and I was prepared for the fight of a lifetime. I was short casting making sure to avoid the female and trying to draw the big male into a strike. On the second cast the big King moved a good 3 feet to just stared down my fly and floated back several feet before returning to the females side. My heart was thundering in my chest in anticipation of the strike that didn't come. The very next cast the Copper Locomotive wasn't playing around and moved ahead to literately pound my fly in what I could only describe as a vicious shark attack. The fish shot past the bed and was moving upstream with my fly in it's mouth as I gave a clumsy hook set and the hook was buried past the barb. The sheer power I felt was daunting as I realized this fish was like Muhammad Ali of all Salmon. I could feel it surging upstream shaking its head like it wasn't trying to loose the fly, but trying to kill the intruder.

Holding my rod high as the fish took drag at a steady rate it shot towards the opposite shore and on the otherwise of a small island. When fish get cocky with me I get cocky right back. Lumber doesn't scare me, but when I could feel my line rubbing as the fish went upstream from the island, I thought to myself " Oh, Hell no!" and gave chase. The water was shallow and I ran to the edge of the island where my line was running. The fish continued to jump upstream as I dunked the tip of my rod under the timber. I was able to pass my rod underwater and grab it on the other side as the fish had already gotten to the same hole I had vacated just a short while before. I almost had a cocky swagger as I gained line as I walked upstream to the hole. It was virtually snag free and it was an ideal place to land a fish with a nice sandy beach. I felt like i was sucker punched as I let myself have false hope as my line slacked and I could see the spray of water coming off my line as it bowed towards me as the fished sped past. This was bad new, very bad indeed. I tried in vain to recover the slack line to keep the fish from snapping as the line tightened. I pointed my rod downstream to lessen the shock and let the fish pull drag easier. When the line tightened the fish started to run again in the same path it took upstream, right past the island. When the line was taunt the fish felt the hook and it turned into a psycho acrobat, jumping and somersaulting a half dozen times before my line went slack. I reeled in my line to find my hook had actually broke in half right behind the eye. I use good quality hooks and have never had that happen, but I had never faced an opponent quite like this before either.

The battle was exhilarating as I had run up and downstream after the fish. My skill held tight and so did my resolve as I figured on a faulty hook. I was ready for round two!

I went to my resting spot to snip off the remains of my last fly. I retied the same size and pattern since it seemed to work effectively. The big brown King took it's time returning. I figured it had taken a large amount of energy to jump all over the river, especially with me chasing it. I grew impatient waiting and fished in the run just below the redds where several females were. I caught two other males of significant size that had renewed my confidence somewhat. Almost after an hour I finally saw the big bruiser return from the depths and hooked a female  that my fly drifted to close to. She slid downstream and was fairly easy to land for her size.

I wanted to land her quickly as to not scare the fish I targeted. I was worried that after being gone so long the big bruiser would be skittish and run off. After a few casts he was back up to his old tricks scaring the other smaller males away. I still had on a B&O that was working quite well on the other fish as well. I was persistent with my presentation getting closer to the male hoping he would strike. A good fifteen minutes had gone by and I was excited from the anticipation of an upcoming strike. I made a cast that went past the fish and mended my line in for fear of accidentally foul hooking such a large fish. I knew the fly was near him when I seen him drifting backwards shaking his head. I reefed hard hoping I wouldn't pull the hook out. I was rewarded with a screaming drag as the fish headed downstream this time, to the same log pile the other fisherman lost it on. My luck wasn't any better as the fish tore large amounts of line as it sped downstream and through the pile of submerged timber. My heart sank as I could feel that my line was dragging on something and thought it would break right away. I ran towards the pile keeping my line slack hoping for a miracle. I could see the log I was wrapped. It was a branch hanging down in the water and my line was inches from the edge. I was trying to push the tip of my pole out to the branch, but the fish would have none of it as it keep heading downstream. I kept getting closer to the end of the branch, but I was skidding farther into the hole which was close to the top of my waders. I was in no real danger because the gravel bottom  became shallow quickly as you went downstream. I thrust my right arm out as far as it would go and my 10ft, 8 weight fly rod just cleared the branch. I was free of the log!

I reeled down and pulled back hard on the fish and it just went crazy again. This was one wild beast of a fish. Never have a I felt a fish pull so hard. Several times I thought I might loose my rod and gripped it harder than normal. The fish was too far downstream for me to chase and was going to go around the next bend on me when I decided to drop my rod and strip line out fast. This trick sometimes works because fish fight away from the pressure.The slack in the line will cause it to drag behind the fish creating pressure from the back. I waited patiently hoping the fish would head upstream.I was slowly reeling in line and watching the river in front of me to see and signs of the fish. My line caught up to him just as he was just downstream from me. he was closer than I expected and he shot upstream a mere couple of feet from me. It was then I got a good close look at him and even spotted some flies on him. On the far bank was a particularly nasty jam of logs and he took off right for it. I knew if he got there it was over and I put rod, reel and leader to the test as I fought hard to keep him out. We fought back and forth in the deep run with the fish getting the upper hand. I knew he was tiring because he hadn't jumped in awhile and it seemed that I actually had a chance of landing him. I even had a few moments where I had him close enough to see. My net was upstream by the bank and there was nowhere to beach him. My best shot was to tail him. I worked him back several times just out of reach. I figured I had one good shot. My opportunity never came. I'm not sure if he got a surge of energy or he saw me in the water, but he took off again upstream jumping all the way, right through the timber we went through on the way down. Again my line was rubbing then, nothing. I reeled fast hoping the fish turned, but it just broke my leader.

I was out of breath as I walked back to sulk on the bank. At least I had a legitimate chance at a fish that weighed close to 40. I actually had two chances! Oh well, I figured I would come back the next day and try my luck again. When I arrived early in the morning, there were the three other fisherman from the day before, but no bronzed bruiser. I told them of my encounters the day before and we all had a good chuckle. We all had taken turns at a monster of a fish that was a willing fighter and we all lost miserably. I still remember those days well as I have not seen a fish of that size these many years since we last met.

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