Whip Finish


Ralph Long - Feb 25, 2013

Pulling my truck into the parking lot along Tulpehocken Creek in Central Pennsylvania I found myself lacing up my boots alongside several early morning joggers. Gone was the half dozen or so fisherman you would expect to find through early fall. The leaves were all off the trees now, and the hatch activity could be expected to have gone along with them. We had been fortunate up until now to only have a few frosty mornings and maybe an inch of snow on a few blustery days so far. So with a December day beginning in the 50's, along with no rain, I chose to take a few remaining hours of vacation and fish the morning. My fall on the water had come-and-gone with me in the tree stand chasing deer with bow in hand. In place of my time on the water amongst the reddening maples catching fall trout, the archery season had graced me with a close shot, straight arrow and a fat young buck. And though not much for the wall, it was perfect table-fare for friends and family through the holidays. So while not really complaining, and rightfully so, I was long overdue for some piscatorial communion. As it was, having finished rigging, I found myself walking in silence down the wooded trail to the stream edge just as the last of the joggers in neon-striped sports gear finished their stretching and left the parking lot in a trot.

Today I was rigged for prospecting. My 5 weight Far-and-Fine was rigged with a 5 foot thread Furled leader, looped to a 5 foot section of 5x fluorocarbon. Tied on the end was a #10 Golden Retriever pattern, and looped into the leader just above my tippet junction was a ½ inch thing-a-ma-bobber. I fully expected to use this pattern throughout the morning, as it was my standard for cold weather nymphing. Moving to the head of the 1st pool above the bridge I settled in as the familiar feel of the cold current enveloping my legs relaxed me with a sense of familiarity. It's a feeling similar to a warm pair of broken-in slippers as you settle into a favorite chair in front of a fire. Bringing a sense of home, with the sound of a crackling fire replaced by the rippling sounds of water as it comes against your legs which are intruding into its current. I stripped out enough line to get a cast working, and then in what may have remotely resembled a cast, flopped my line and rig at the head of the hole, an inglorious yet effective cast none-the-less. Following the indicator with the tip of my rod I was caught slightly off-guard by a quick dip of a strike and I clumsily lifted the rod to set the hook. The pulsing on the end of my line meant one thing. I had picked up my first fish of the day despite my poor efforts, and soon was admiring a 14 inch brown. It was a beautiful fish as the yellows and gold of fall color was already giving way to the winters silvery sheen. A quick flip of the tail and I was rinsing both my hands and fly in the water and looking upstream, and few casts later and I was again moving upstream to the next section of the run.

Most of the morning went as such, a good number of strikes with the stream giving up several nice brown trout. No high pressure fishing, just a nice day of prospecting water I knew to hold trout. The grey sky never allowed the air temperature to warm much above 55 degrees and there was no midge activity to speak of. But as with any water you are confident holds fish the expectation of a strike never wanes. And so it was that I kept the rhythm going, trying to get as much stream in during the hours that I had. I had moved into position at the head of one of the deeper stretches and was about as far upstream as I could go without leaving the water. With my first 3 casts I had nothing to speak of, except for a slight "dink" of the indicator that almost made me flinch. My 4th cast drifted through the same area and just about when I thought it had been my imagination, the indicator dipped below the surface. A quick lift of the rod was greeted with a heavy fish. A VERY heavy fish to be exact! It took about 3 pulses of the rod to make up my mind that I needed to get this fish on the reel fast or I would regret any hesitation. True to the mark just as the last of the loose coils rolled in the fish shot downstream like a rocket, taking with it all of my freshly reclaimed line. I watched as the fish seemed to roll at the tail of the pool as if giving up to my palm on the reel. I just caught the glimpse of gold and the hint of a very large brown trout when I also realized that I was not breathing. Standing alone in the stream the nervous exhale came with an uncontrolled laugh of excitement. "Me and a fish", I thought to myself with another chuckle out loud. And then it turned again! The fish ran upstream faster than I could keep up with the reel and I was left stripping line in manually to keep tension. As it came even with me it paused on the bottom as if resting. The dull vibration of line tension, fish and stream current seemed to hum through my hand as I kept pressure on. And then like a Pacific Salmon in a run of defiance in a glacier-colored Northwest River, it began to surge upstream in 2-3 foot runs. It worked upstream, seemingly unstoppable but as I applied pressure when the fish was about 20 yards above where I stood it stopped and with one final surge it left the water jumping about 2 feet above the surface like a miniature golden tarpon, and SLAPPED down hard on the surface. I was stunned, partly because of the power the fish had displayed, but also because it had just revealed itself to be a large sucker!

And like that, as I stood in amazement, the fight in the fish began to subside and he slowly rolled against the current as I worked him back downstream to my position. Too large to grab with one hand, I brought it sideways against my thighs in the water and pinned it to me as the tail wrapped halfway around my right leg with the current. It was easily 24 inches in length and a beautiful fish. Its white belly gave way to buttery-gold which blended into a dark metallic gold flank. A quick twist of the fly from the meaty lip and I held the fish out of the water for a moment with both hands. It was clearly the largest sucker I had caught on any tackle in Pennsylvania, and it pleased me to no end to have landed it. I lowered the fish back into the water and without hesitation it shot back to the pool with quite a bit of strength. I stood there in thought for a moment, realizing that though it shocked me when I realized the type of fish it was, I never once felt the inevitable let-down that is normal whenever you realize you've hooked a sucker in trout waters. This fish fought as well as any I had ever hooked and was the first and only fish I had put on the reel all year. Looking upward I touched the tip of my nose in acknowledgement and understanding. A small piece of Falls Gold had been saved and offered up. It's amazing, I thought to myself with a smile, that even when you are certain of what it is you want and seek; sometimes the pieces of treasure you receive and need the most are so different and completely unexpected.

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