Check it out!
We were walking crap water. Deep and rocky...but big rocks. Boulders and stones too big for carp to easily nudge them aside...the window to spot a fish was maybe 5-6 feet wide, then the water dropped steeply down to maybe 8-10 feet. Crap water, but also big fish water.
"If we see one, it will be a nice fish." David said, and I nodded in agreement and turned my eyes back to the front...this was my kind of water.
A few seconds later I froze and pointed. Big fish in the shallows, quartering away from me and just laying there like a pig in mud...roughly the same size too. I slipped my flies loose, stripped out some line and took a couple of careful steps to get into position.
The fish's scales were the size of quarters.
The cast was a good one, and I dragged and dropped the trouser worm slightly in front and to the shoreline side of the fish, the hybrid trailing behind. The fish slowly swam forward a few inches, watching as the t-worm fell, and then made a sudden, sharp lunge to the left and ate the lighter, still sinking hybrid in mid column. Fish on!
Immediately the carp rolled up to the surface and I could see the hybrid stuck firmly in the corner of the mouth. I pumped my fist...it was a solid hook up and looked like it wouldn't pull loose. Then the big carp surged forward and darted down the drop off, heading toward a boulder and quickly wrapping the line around a rock. I ran to my right and found an angle to free the line and the fish took off again, swimming deep and far and I started walking down the bank after the big fish. David moved into the bay, looking to double up and I watched my reel spin and listened to the music...a smile on my face.
Then it happened. I felt something rubbing on the line and then everything stopped...the line was still tight and the rod bent over double, but no more fly line left the reel and I knew it was over. I walked this way and that, trying to free the line (and hopefully the fish) but it stayed stuck to the bottom, unseen in the depths. I threw a bunch of slack on the water and waited, but the floating line stayed still. Eventually I pointed the rod and pulled.
All I got back was half of a leader, frayed and destroyed.
I catch my share of 20 plus lb carp...19 in 2012, and 18 so far in 2013. Still, I don't take those big fish for granted in any way. Basically, everything has to go right in order to land a 20. First, you have to spot the fish, then stalk the fish, get the angle, make the cast, get the eat, detect the take, set the hook, handle the first run, keep the fish clear of weeds or rocks, pray your knots hold...and lastly, hope your fishing partner doesn't blow the net job. If any one of those goes against you...forget it. If you kick a rock during the stalk, get carp blocked by a bass as the fly sinks, or have a beaver spook the feeding 20 (happened Saturday) you won't catch the fish. Simple as that. I am lucky, I get lots of shots at big fish, and I catch a few, I often write about those fish...but this is what usually happens (and happened Saturday):
I was walking one of my favorite gravel bars, a place I have caught many 20 plus lbers, so I was on high alert, and it paid off. At first all I could see was a tan dust cloud, about 80 feet down the bank. I got dry, and hugged the shoreline brush as I snuck closer. At 60 feet I could see the fish, a big, black volleyball head poking out of the light sediment cloud, white mouth opening and closing. It was grazing, facing into the steeply sloped bank, almost horizontal as it fed right on the drop off. I took a moment to check my knots, and hooks. I was fishing two light flies which would be perfect in this situation. I needed to get close enough to get a cast that would send the flies tumbling down the drop off, right to a waiting monster. I am no great caster, and with my right arm pinned by the bushes, I knew I needed to get close, so I started the stalk.
The good news, by keeping tight to the brush I didn't have to worry about my profile as long as I moved slowly enough. Making a stalk bent over in a crouch is hell on my back! The bad news...there were 40 feet of baseball sized cobble between me and where I wanted to be in order to know I could lay the flies right where I wanted them. I started moving, one slow and careful step at a time. 50 feet, then 40, 30, and miraculously, 20 feet and the fish still fed, unperturbed.
Having long since stripped enough line off of my reel, I made a cast, keeping it high and above the brush as the flies sped behind me...hooking the brush now would mean the end of the shot. The cast was good, but the instant the flies touched the water the fish stopped feeding. I froze as the flies sank, too far to get an eat as I had planned a drag and drop, but the fish was suddenly on high alert, not ready to eat anything. The big fish backed up, turned left and slowly swam up the bank. With a smaller fish I would have likely fired off another cast in an attempt to get the flies out in front, but that would have spooked this big girl for good, so I waited. The fish swam about ten feet, turned to the bank, and started to eat again.
I made a short, ultra careful stalk, one foot slowly in front of the other. Then I made another cast, this time putting the flies right in the zone rather than planning on the drag and drop. The second the flies hit the water the fish stopped feeding, turned and headed up the bank again. I froze, and let the fish settle, about 20 feet up the bank.
The same slow, careful stalk, only before I started moving I clipped off one fly, leaving a single, lightly weighted hybrid between me and a 20 plus lb carp. I somehow got into position again without spooking the fish. I could see the huge head, slightly wagging from side the side. The tail, like a fan waved and pushed and a huge bucket mouth flashed underwater as nymphs and plant matter met their demise. I watched for a few seconds, the made a short, but very accurate cast.
The second the hybrid hit the water, the big fish stopped feeding...backed up, did a 180 and swam off into the depths.
Most of the time, not everything goes right.
One year ago today, we lost my dad. He went his way, fresh off of a day on the river, his boots still wet, and his heart full of laughter. I think of him often, and miss him dearly. Thanks for everything dad...will do my best to make you proud!
My dad was a hero. I don't mean a hero in the sense that most dads are heroes for their young sons and daughters, though he certainly was that as well. I mean he was an honest to god all American hero. My dad flew Cobra gunships in Vietnam. He was the kind of man that stepped forward when everyone else stepped back. He volunteered for the missions that no one else wanted. My dad was the pilot the Blues and Scouts wanted flying cover when the shit hit the fan. They knew he wouldn't flinch. He would fly into danger to help them get clear of danger. Once upon a time my dad wasn't John Bartlett, he was "Bloody Bart". He was a hero.
When I was four my dad took me bear hunting. I shouldn't be able to remember much, but I do. I can clearly see the marshy field from our spot on the edge of the tree line. I recall the color of the twilight, and I can feel the rough denim of my dads jeans as I slipped my hands into his back pockets to keep up with his long legs. Mostly though, I can hear the boom of his 30-06. We shot a bear that night, and as I sit here writing my ears are still ringing. I feel as if they have been ringing since my mom called Tuesday night to tell me he was gone.
How many young boys can say they have walked the wild of the Kootenai River? My dad took me. He was the engineer on a work train out of Libby, MT. As such, he spent four days inching along the tracks while the crews cleaned and repaired sections...one tie at a time. In the morning, he would run me out with him on the big locomotive and drop me off somewhere on the river. There I spent the day...me, my fly rod, a half dozen royal coachman's and the trout of the Kootenai. As evening approached I listened for the whistle of the train and waited on the tracks for my dad to come and get me.
His heart had been failing for years now. Last year the doctor told him his ejection fraction (the measure of how much blood your heart is pumping) was less than 20% of a healthy person. Rather than ponder all that he could no longer do with only one fifth of a heart, my dad shot back at the doctor and the world "IT IS A GOOD THING MY BALLS ARE FIVE TIMES THE SIZE OF MY HEART"!
My dad lived his life. He loved his life. He went at everything full throttle and never slowed down. He is gone now, and the world is undeniably a darker place. I am not a religious person, but much like my dad I believe in a higher power. And just like him, I see that power in the wind through the trees and the waves in the water. So I know where to look for him. No one that met him could avoid being touched by him, so he surrounds us all. I see him in Elia's quiet determination. I see him in JJ's fierce competitive spirit. I see him today when I am down, and I will see him in myself tomorrow...when I get back up. I know where to find him and the next time I am walking my favorite flat, I know I can count on him to give me a little extra ripple on the water so I don't spook that big fish. And if I listen real hard after I blow the shot...I bet I can hear him laugh.
Dad, we thank you, we love you, we miss you.
Personally, I find these guys much tougher than spring fish. You basically always have to feed the Big C fish the fly, but in late summer, you really need to feed em. The good news, lots of sun, good visuals. The bad news...weedbeds. Bottom line...the Hybrid still crushes!
Gravel fish are the best...and toughest.
My quest for 20 fish over 20 lbs might fall short for the second year in a row. 19 last year, stuck at 18 right now (though like an idiot, I didn't actually weigh a fish that was pretty clearly 20 lbs when fishing with Dan Frasier and Travis Hammond. Just held it up and dumped it back in the river like a bass. DUMB!). You can feel the cold weather approaching, and the bigger fish are starting to enter the shallows less and less...combine that with a lack of fishing time as the season winds down and it doesn't look good.
I might have to start slumming with salmon and steelhead soon.