It might surprise most fly fishers that it is almost easier to catch a big fish with your bare hands than it is with a fly. I learned this while fly fishing with my good friends Craig Mathews and Yvon Chouinard on the Granger Ranch in the Madison Valley.
It was during finals week at school, and I decided I needed a breather from all the stress that I’d built up from studying. After losing it a couple of times, I decided to call Jeff Lazlo, the owner of Granger Ranches to ask if I could come down “to relieve some stress”…aka do a little fishing. He was happy to let me come down and for Yvon and Craig to join us. After hanging up, I set all my gear out by the back door, ready to leave. The next morning I loaded the car and took my leave for the Madison Valley.
During the drive, about halfway through near Ennis, I about crashed my car. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a little red figure, and when I came to a stop the figure became clear. It was a fox pup—not one, but seven or eight! I put my camera together and started taking pictures. No sooner had a taken my first picture than a young woman stopped to join me, and then someone else, and so on until there were at least a dozen photographers. After taking my fair share of pictures, I continued on.
When I finally got to the creek, Jeff, Yvon, and Craig were waiting for me. I quickly got my stuff ready and I hopped on the back of Jeff’s 4Runner. He drove us to one of his favorite stretches. Like always, whenever I’m on the Granger Ranch, I am left speechless by its magnitude and beauty. All I hear is the creek running, the breeze moving the grass, and the birds singing their tunes.
You know the quote “With age comes wisdom.” Well it really is true. Yvon, on his first couple of casts, caught a beautiful 20-inch brown, then followed up with more. I was truly amazed with his talent. When Yvon is out on the water it is like seeing a young boy fly fishing for the first time. This day, as usual, he had a great smile on his face and hopped from hole to hole. It was a tremendous sight.
After fishing for a couple of hours we decided to have some lunch, which was provided by Craig’s wife Jackie. Afterward, we decided to split up and fish different areas of the water. Craig and I went up stream, while Yvon went downstream.
As Craig and I were fishing a narrowing reach of the creek, no more than four-feet wide, we stumbled upon a true monster. It was at least an eight-pound brown; I had exaggerated expectations but its size was shocking. We threw everything at it, from streamers to a mouse, and it wouldn’t budge. That’s when Craig said to me, like a Zen master educating his pupil, “Try using your hands.” I thought he was bullshitting me. But he persisted and finally I said, “What the hell.”
Craig watched me make the stalk. Slowly, I crept to the other side of the creek where I could see the fish, with its dorsal fin protruding. I reached my hands in, expecting to be humiliated. As soon as my fingers were in the water it swam away. But no sooner had it fled, than it returned to the same spot, this time underneath the bank in the roots of the overhanging vegetation. Craig signaled me to continue. I repeated the process of putting my hands in the water. This time the brown didn’t swim away. I began inching my hand towards the fish until eventually my right hand was underneath its stomach. The girth of this behemoth was unbelievable. I couldn’t even get my whole hand around it. I began massaging its stomach to relax it. After a minute or so I finally grabbed its tail, and ever so gently I pulled it out from underneath the bank, then gently extended my other hand in the water and held its stomach. I brought it to the surface.
It would be a photo op for the scrapbook. Suddenly, the fish broke the surface, reminding me our encounter was happening on his terms, and used its tremendous strength to wriggle out of my hands. It was a humbling, unforgettable lesson offered me by a Zen master with an extraordinary knowledge of trout. It wasn’t the brown trout who had become a fish out of water; it was me.