You Never Forget Your First: A Brown Trout Story

In May of 2016, I accepted an invite to join my father and a group of Trout Unlimited anglers on the South Holston River in North Eastern Tennessee. Being 21 at the time, I assumed I would be stuck in a cabin with a bunch of guys my dad’s age, wishing I was somewhere else. Little did I know what was in store for me and my short 3 weight that weekend.

Up to this point in my fly fishing career, I had yet to break the 20-inch wild brown trout mile marker that I was dreaming of. I had spent years looking at other anglers tagging #strippinfor20s and beautiful kyped-up wild brown trout. I knew I would have shots at fish that size on this creek, but I doubted I would manage to get my cast right or even have the right flies to get that big bastard to eat.

We start the day at the highest point on the tailwater, casting sulfurs to countless rising trout. It’s a foggy morning and for about an hour I can’t see to the other side of the creek my dad’s working. For whatever reason, I couldn’t make it happen, I kept missing foggy hook sets and decided I need to head to a fly shop for better intel.

After picking up what I was told were “fish catchin’ flies”, we head to a different stretch of water. This section seemed more my speed, riffles with small pools behind them promising to hold trout.

We start fishing again at the end of the dam release when the water is coming down from the higher water during the release. As the water level falls, I notice a dark shadow sitting in the cushion of slack water just above the riffles I’m running my dry-dropper rig through. I think to myself, “That’s a biiiig sucker…”, but before I can finish the thought, I see the telltale white flash of a gator-mouthed brown trout feeding on nymphs.  

“You’ve got maybe three casts at this big boy,” I tell myself.

First cast: Lands just to the right of the fish, and I cringe as I see my fly line go right over him. I thought for sure I had lined the fish and he would spook. But, nope, this fish is committed to his spot on the bottom.

Second cast: Lies just to the left side of the fish. I sigh, realizing that there’s no risk of lining him this cast. He rolls on my nymph but doesn’t commit to the eat. Now, I’m shaking. He still didn’t spook and this is probably my last chance to present to this fish.

Third Cast: Right on the money. My rig lands perfectly in the fish’s feeding lane. I watch the dry fly on my dry-dropper rig with more intensity than I have ever focused on anything. As it passes the fish, I see him roll on my nymph (or at least where I think my nymph was at that moment). I see the dry fly start to pull under the surface film.

“No way he just ate that,” I think to myself.

Hookset.

“Big f**king fish on!!” I yell in the direction of my father and our group.

Now my heart is pounding. I give zero thought to how deep the water is or how I’m going to survive this fight with a big brown on a tiny 3-weight with 6x tippet. I just start following the fish upstream as he runs for the nearest brush pile.

My adrenaline is firing like never before. I have this fish solidly hooked and there is no way I’m not landing him. I follow him upstream for what feels like miles (it was more like 100 yds). All the while my dad and the TU group are watching from the bank.

“If I lose this fish, I’m never going to be able to live with myself.”

As I finally get the fish close to myself, I reach for my net. First swipe, I miss him and nearly clip the tippet (the easiest way to lose a big fish). He takes another few yard run and then I have my opportunity. I scoop his head into the net and lift. I did it. My knees go weak.

I look down at my net and see this fish in all his glory, he didn’t even fit in the thing, his tail laid on top of the net handle. I’m in awe. I bring the fish to the bank for a few quick pictures and to measure him: 24” on the nose.

We release the fish, exchange high fives and the usual “What’d-you-get-him-on” questions.

Now, I can count the number of big wild browns I have landed on one hand. But this fish will always be my first -and you never forget your first.

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