Monday, October 4, 2010

Catch of a Lifetime

I thought it was about time I told a story from a few years back about a fish that I continue to regard as my best catch ever. Fishermen love stories. I love hearing them above almost all other stories--the details, the excitement or grief on the face of the teller, the suspense and, most of all, the way a good story draws the listener into a moment forever frozen in time. This time, though, is my turn to be the teller.

It was March 18th 2006; the evening was an impromptu trip close to home. As dark settled on the water and night began to take hold, the fish swam by me close enough that I could get a decent look. The first thought I had was not one of catching it; the fish was beyond me and I knew it. My first thought was, "I want to catch a fish like that one day." The idea then sank in that "one day" may be "this day." I knew then that this fish would be life-changing...if I could hook up with it. I don't often hear it mentioned by others, but I often experience an acute sense of pressure and excitement in these situations--just the idea of casting to an amazing fish. The world seems to shrink exponentially from the moment of sighting, the preparation, the cast and drift planning, and finally--the cast itself.

I took my time on the planning stage, even collecting myself with enough dignity and self-restraint to hold off slinging my line too soon. A few moments of careful watching, something akin to studying, and a short while considering the implications of all the possible outcomes: hooking and landing, hooking and losing, never hooking at all. I knew I was in over my head with this fish; my equipment was barely more than an insult to it, my abilities were shamefully exactly an insult. I didn't deserve to land this fish, or even hook it; the dignity that I had just formed in the moment would not, however, let me go without a few hopeful attempts. Unanswerable questions loomed: "Was this fish even feeding; was it just caught and released or lost moments ago and now ultra-wary; was it an educated monster that by wit and experience had grown to this size by eluding or escaping every previous fishermen?" Unanswerable questions.

And so it went, a fly selected based on limited knowledge gained in the short moments I forced myself to pause, and one aimed cast with a clumsy and quick presentation. Honestly, my confidence in moment consisted more of a request--"Please take this fly, please!"--rather than a delicate and sophisticated offer--"Take this if you like; I doubt you'll be able to resist."

My stress in the situation of earnestly trying to catch this specific fish was heightened by the presence of other fishermen in the area. Perhaps you've experienced the sense of needing to be stealthy and aloof-seeming around other fishermen; the last thing you want to do is tip them off to the fact that there is an epic-class fish in the area that may actually be catchable. One of the fishermen, I thought, had an eye on "my" fish; worse, I thought that "my" fish may be more tempted by the offerings of that next-closer fisherman. Not wanting to spook the beast by throwing my cast while this guy was close in the area and possibly throwing his own at any moment, I entered into dilemma-mode: do I cast and risk spooking or wait and risk having it caught by another? Dilemmas often accompany extraordinary circumstances, and so realizing this I chose the former risk.

I cast; the other fisherman cast, and I watched as our flies bobbed on the water. My fly was closer as I was closer in general to the fish, and I saw movement beneath the glassy surface. The fish made a move toward the flies, but it was not obvious to which it moved or by which it was tempted. The lack of my own confidence birthed the assumption that the movement was intended for the other fly. I pulled my fly off the water and laid it back down far upstream to regroup. The fish had not spooked yet and neither had it been hooked; I hung on to that as my singular hope that I was still in the game of at least hooking the fish. I redressed my fly, checked my tippet, recast and again watched as my request drifted over. A quick, soft sip that was barely discernible in the riffle suggested I ought to tighten the line and set the hook. I did and found that I was now in stage-two of being in over my head. Hooking the fish was a challenge balanced on luck; landing the fish, now, was a challenge balanced on skill.

I had fought some strong fish before, fish that make reels sing and water boil. They became minnows the moment I hooked up with this fish. The battle consisted of a schizophrenic pendulum of screaming runs both away and toward me and moments of calm where I felt the weight of the fish, but not its fury. This was going to take a while, I knew. I grew older during the fight, I know that, but I also grew wiser. The fish was, whether it knew it or not, patient with me. I made a few mistakes and probably should have lost the fish several times, but somehow the hook remained implanted and my line stayed a singular piece. I began to think that I might actually land this....

And I did. Unbelievably I did. I not only somehow--miraculously--was blessed that night to have this particular fish swim by me, but managed to get it to take my fly. Beyond that is more on most days than I can convince myself is true--I brought that fish to hand and raised it out of the water for a closer look. Tired but noble, with fire in its eyes and colors seeming to radiate outward from deep within it, the fish was finally captured. I had imaginations about the beauty of the fish before that moment, but there is always more to be appreciated about a fish like this once it is cradled in your hand. Indeed, this was the catch of a lifetime, the fish of a lifetime.

That my wife. I "landed" her on May 11th 2007 at Covenant Presbyterian at 6:30pm, but knew long before that wedding night that I was really the one captured by her.

I love you, Cheryl!


  1. Excellent and Soooo true!!!

  2. Thanks, Will. You did a really beautiful job of "catching" me. I'm so glad that you didn't give up.
    I love you too!!!