SI Vault
Prodigy in a puddle
William Humphrey
September 18, 1978
Resplendent in the roadside pool, the huge trout was too big to be caught, yet too big not to be fished for
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September 18, 1978

Prodigy In A Puddle

Resplendent in the roadside pool, the huge trout was too big to be caught, yet too big not to be fished for

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With a shrug and a shake of his head, the boy gave up on me, at least for the day. He had done his best.

I went up over the bridge and around it to the other side of the pool. I waded into the water behind the fish. I dared approach him no nearer than 35 feet. I flicked my fly line back and forth in false casts, adding to its length. When I judged the line to be extended the proper length, I straightened it forward and let it drop. The fly touched water just where I wanted it to and, so it seemed to me, touched softly. Nevertheless, the fish bolted for the bridge. What I had done was to disregard one of the most famous fly-fishing dicta of Charles Cotton, Izaak Walton's friend and companion: "Fish fine and far off."

In fly-fishing, the lure—the artificial fly itself—is nearly weightless, so it is the weight of the fly line that the fisherman casts. A fly line is far too bulky and conspicuous a thing to fool even the most foolish fish, and among trout of any size there are few foolish ones. To get "fine and far off," the fisherman is forced to interpose between the line and the fly an additional piece of tackle, one which, in the already unequal contest between him and the fish, gives the decisive advantage to the fish. This is the leader, the translucent terminal addition to the fisherman's line to which is attached the fly.

Nowadays leaders are made of nylon monofilament, but in the past they were made of something which gave a better idea of their gossamer nature: the drawn and finely stretched gut of silkworms. A leader's diameter is measured with a micrometer, in thousandths of an inch. It tapers from butt to tippet, going from something about the size of carpet thread down to something that looks as though it had been spun by an anemic spider. In fishing for trout, a leader less than 7½ feet long is seldom used; anything shorter than that can put the highly visible fly line—or its equally alarming shadow—too near the fish. The maximum length? There is none. It is whatever the fish demands and the fisherman can cast, because the longer the leader the harder it is to handle. In broken water, early-season, deep, fast, turbid water, and with small, unsophisticated fish, one can get away with a shorter and coarser leader; later in the season, with the water low, slow-moving and clear, and always with big, wise and wary old fish, the leader grows ever longer, ever finer, the fisherman further handicapping himself with each foot he adds to the tippet, hoping to stop at the point where the leader is fine enough to fool the fish but still strong enough to hold and land him.

Now, when I say "big, wise and wary" trout, it should be understood that I am talking about those of three pounds and more. Even the skilled and dedicated fisherman catches very few that big: rare is the man who has taken a single trout of four pounds or more. In the Eastern U.S. nowadays a two-pound trout is a big one. My Cyclops was fifteen times that size and, surely to the fifteenth power, wiser, warier. Thus, paradoxically, the biggest of fish was to push me to use the lightest of leaders. Our campaign against each other was to be fought over thousandths of an inch, with me yielding steadily to him.

And so we began. With each concession I made to him I came nearer to deceiving and hooking him—and further from landing him. I had begun with a nine-foot leader terminating in a tippet of .011-inch diameter, with a breaking strength of nine pounds. This the fish not only disdained, but he also let me know it was a gross insult to his intelligence and unworthy even of mine.

As, during the succeeding weeks, I grudgingly added length to and subtracted strength from my leader—and as I learned to cast the clumsy thing (which took a great deal longer to do than it does to tell)—I had the satisfaction, and the anxiety, of seeing a growing change in the response of my adversary.

Conscious that my time was short, I applied myself closely, and under the fish's strict tutelage I was becoming a better fisherman. He demanded nothing less than perfection. A careless cast, one that missed its aim by an inch or that landed with the least disturbance, and he was gone. Such ineptness seemed not so much to frighten as to affront him. He then retired beneath the bridge as though to allow me to beat an unwatched retreat. How fatuous of me it seemed ever to have thought I was going to catch that wonder of the world. In this feeling I was unfailingly seconded by my companion, the towheaded, freckle-faced little boy on the bank.

Until, that is, he gave me up as a hopeless case, lost interest and no longer appeared at the pool. The appeal of fishing as a spectator sport is limited at best; with never a nibble, I was unexciting, the laughable spectacle of a wrongheaded and stubborn fool, deaf not just to local wisdom but also to plain common sense. I was relieved to be rid of him.

I was improving steadily, but all the same I remained as far short as ever of the mastery, the magic, needed to entice this phenomenon of a fish into taking my fly. The longer I fished for him, and the better I got at it, the more elusive he seemed to become, as though he were leading me into the most rarefied realms of trout fishing. I got good enough, or so I felt, to be justified in wondering whether there was a man alive who could catch this fish.

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