By Rob Shane
If you told me I’d be stuck at home for an indefinite amount of time and encouraged to practice social distancing when I do leave the house, I never would have imagined it would result in me catching my personal best brown trout.
It all came together on a beautiful, brisk morning — the way most great fishing tales start. I put the boat in at first light and pushed straight for a large rock piling where I’d had some success at in the past. Still being early spring still in upstate New York, the water was hovering around 50 degrees, but I knew once the sun cleared the tree line and the water started to warm the larger trout I was after would start cruising.
What happened next though, I’d have never expected.
Fishing alone has forced me to step outside my comfort zone, and instead of the fly rod this day I pulled out the traditional tackle and tied on one of my favorite crank baits – a Bandit 200 in Spring Craw yellow. Yellow has always been the best color for me when it comes to big fish and this place just had the “big fish feeling” as soon as I pulled up.
I dropped anchor just after daylight, the morning dew on the grass starting to fade and the ominous fog finally breaking from the banks edge.
I’m not much of a gear fisherman. I’m a third-generation fly fishing enthusiast and as soon as I was old enough to tie my own knots my father stuck a fly rod in my hand and the rest was history. It wasn’t until a few years back when I got tired of trying to fly cast from my butt in a kayak that I started using my Shakespeare Ugly Stik more often.
I took a few casts at the rock pile, counting the drop of the bait and reeling back slowly. I mixed in twitches and jigs, and changed my speeds, each time trying to instigate a strike. Every 10 to 15 casts, I pulled the anchor and moved 8-10 feet along the structure.
After a good 20 minutes and a couple of birds nests, it finally came together. I made a laser cast off my right shoulder and landed within an inch of the boulder sticking just above the waters surface. Jerked the bait once to get it moving and slowly slid it down the rock face, letting it pause and wiggle for a second or two. Like a freight train, this brown trout took off with my bandit, almost pulling the rod out of my hands. The fight was on.
Immediately I could tell this fish was like nothing I’d ever caught before, a combination of mass, torque, and sheer strength. In the heat of the moment, I fumbled on the side of the reel for 5 seconds trying to loosen the drag before remembering that I wasn’t holding a fly rod. Just before the 10-pound braid snapped, I found the knob on top of my spinning reel and the fish peeled off every bit of 50 yards before turning for a run straight back at the boat.
He pulled out all the tricks; the death roll, viscious head shakes, and five or six acrobatic jumps. This fish had certainly done this before.
After 10 minutes, I finally got the fish boat side and in the net. My jaw dropped at the size of its belly — enough to make me break out the scale for an official measurement.
When all was said and done, this beast went 19 inches long and weighed, according to the scale, an astounding 16 pounds, 6 ounces. My only guess is that its most recent meal might have been a bowling ball.
After a few quick photos, I put him back in the water, turned off my Xbox and walked outside to mow the grass.
You see, I am currently quarantining with my wife at our home in Northern Virginia. Although we are both young and mostly healthy, she has a pre-existing heart condition that makes her more susceptible to complications from COVID-19.
At the beginning of March, we both made the decision that for the duration of this pandemic that we would forgo certain activities that might put us in unnecessary danger. Even with the Potomac River and the American shad run happening as we speak less than a mile from our front door, fishing was just not worth the risk.
Of course, pushing buttons on a controller and staring a tv screen from my couch won’t ever match the real thrill of catching a 16-pound trout, but it’s the only kind of #ResponsibleRecreation I can safely participate in right now. I know the real fish, real waters and real woods will be there for me when this is all said and done. Until then, this virtual experience will have to do, and I’m OK with that.
For our family’s sake, and the many others like us, please consider the risks you’re taking when deciding to head out to your favorite stream, lake, or shoreline. In the worst way, I want to be out there with you — when it’s safe for me to do so.
Fish local, wear your mask, and keep physical distance from other anglers. No trout streams near you? That’s OK. Bass, catfish and carp are great fun on a fly rod and live everywhere. This is also a great chance for you to dust off your old Ugly Stick too and learn how to fish an Alabama rig. (I had to Google it, too.)
Stay safe, stay healthyand stay positive. We’re all in this together.
Rob Shane is Trout Unlimited’s Mid-Atlantic organizer. He’s an avid fly angler, but occasionally uses spinning gear, too.