Once while fishing the famous Taylor River with my friend Will, he hooked into a real dandy of a fish. We had been fishing in a popular spot called the Avalanche pool, notorious for big trout made fat from protein-rich mysis shrimp coming out of Taylor Reservoir. There hadn’t been much excitement prior to this fish, so when I heard Will say, “might need you on this one, buddy!” I knew it was on. I’ve known my friend a long time, back to our early days guiding some years ago, and he isn’t prone to exaggerating fish size or making a big to-do about an 18-incher. I waded over to assist when my headlamp first revealed the giant he was tangling with.
It was by far the biggest fish of the trip and the biggest salmonid I had ever seen, save steelhead back in the Great Lakes. The ebb and flow of the fight continued until I heard,
“Here’s your chance!” I took a step out into the dark water and stabbed at the trout with the long handled wooden landing net. It was a foolish move by me and one made out of panic and excitement, with a predictable result. I had essentially karate-chopped his leader with the net. The almost audible ping of the line snapping made my heart drop, and two seconds later, when we should have been celebrating and preparing the camera, Will was reeling in slack line and I was apologizing.
Being in charge of netting someone else’s fish is a truly thankless job. If you do your job right, no one remembers you. If you do a poor job, you’re remembered forever and for all the wrong reasons. Experienced fly fishers have been on both sides of the cruel pendulum, but it’s very difficult to shake the aching hurt of blowing it when another angler, thinking they are about to land a terrific fish, watches their net man bungle the whole thing. If I’m the angler and have just hooked a great fish, I have chosen the right fly and cast it in the right spot, then presented it properly. The fish ate, my hook-set was solid, and then I kept him buttoned up throughout the fight that probably involved deep runs, some jumping, and more than a few head-shakes. All the net man has to do is slip a giant webbed basket in the water and corral the now-tired fish. Which of those persons sounds more likely to experience a mishap resulting in the loss of a fish?
Had Will’s fish been landed I would have been felt like a hero and waded over to show him the contents of the net under strain from the weight of such an impressive specimen. Everything had gone right. That is, until the net man made his appearance. That’s the way things go for this oft-overlooked angling role. No one goes into a tussle with a trophy fish thinking their close friend (perhaps a short-lived title) or trusted guide will botch the net job, but it happens. And it happens again, and again, and it will keep happening as long as people like me get excited when our friends hook big fish.
So here are a few words to the wise—tips to make sure you and your buddy don’t ride home from the river in silence:
Tip 1: Put the net in the water at least a few seconds before you plan to use it, and get it under the fish. The idea is for the net man to “scoop” the fish, not stab at it. And a more stationary net is less likely to cause a break-off.
Tip 2: When it comes to readying yourself, don’t rush things. This one is much easier said than done, but pick and choose your spots. Fish will muster all their remaining stamina and power to flee the webbing of a net, so if the fish is large be sure it has burned some of its energy before trying to net them.