Mr. Big Lived in a deep, cool pool in a tiny, unnamed tributary to the South Umpqua River in Douglas County, Ore.
I spotted him for the first time on a chillly early summer morning in the late 1970s, when I was probably 12 or 13.
Mr. Big became my obsession.
I’ve been thinking about Mr. Big recently for a couple of reasons. One, I’m traveling home soon to visit my parents, who still live in the little town where I grew up. The older I get the more these trips “home” seem to trigger my nostalgia.
And, two, I recently learned of the untimely passing of the former classmate who tipped me off about Mr. Big’s lair.
“There are some beaver dams on the creek up behind my house,” Duane told me one day. “The little ponds are full of trout.”
He offered to show me.
Duane lived about a mile from me. On the day of the planned excursion I climbed atop my Schwinn BMX bike and headed toward his house. I carried with me a spool of 4-pound-test tippet material, a package of Eagle Claw size 12 baitholder hooks and a 35 mm film canister loaded with about a dozen red wiggler worms dug from our garden.
When I got to Duane’s he jumped on his bike and off we went, eventually heading up a dusty road that climbed into the mountains.
On the way he gave me some critical additional details.
“There’s a hippie camp at the end of this road,” he said. “We don’t want them to catch us up here.”
The hippie camp was like a wilderness version of the proverbial neighborhood haunted house. Mysterious and scary. And, in retrospect, probably nothing at all to worry about.
The canyon was steep, the stream small and narrow. There were several beaver dams in a series. They were all small. The pools impounded behind them were narrow, maybe 5 feet across and a few feet deep.
We cut streamside saplings to use as poles and rigged up.
I crept up to the first pool and flicked my worm into the water. A cutthroat trout maybe 5 inches long darted out and grabbed the worm. Fish on!
The ponds were, indeed full of trout. Beautiful, tiny trout.
At the final pond of the day I crept to the edge and flipped the worm-baited hook into the water. A trout darted out from under an undercut bank. It was huge. And by huge I mean probably 10 inches long.
I gasped. The trout got to within a few inches of the worm before it realized something was amiss. It did a 180-degree turn and retreated to the safety of its hiding spot, never to be seen again that day.
I spent the next couple of months going to the Beaver Ponds, as we called the spot, and chasing trout.
I caught plenty of small trout, and I saw Mr. Big often. He showed himself frequently, but would never bite. I even resorted to a little underhanded trickery in an attempt to fool him.
I got in my normal spot but instead of casting into the hole, I pitched a red wiggler into the water. Mr. Big darted out, annihilated the worm and went back to his spot. I took a breath, cast my worm out and got ready for what was sure to be an epic fight.
Mr. Big darted out, got four inches from my worm-baited hook, stopped, turned and bolted.
I tried harder. I sized down to 2-pound test line and size 20 hooks. I tried grasshoppers and crickets for bait. I even tried juicy grubs I dug out of cow patties.
Mr. Big always almost always looked but never ate.
Duane had long since lost interest in tagging along on my quixotic quest and had been replaced by my brother, Greg. That actually was better for me because, while I reluctantly had to give Duane the first shot at Mr. Big every other trip, Greg was five years younger and I would never let him fish Mr. Big’s hole before I tried.
Summer was waning and soon my season of chasing Mr. Big was going to end. On a warm August day Greg and I headed out on what would likely be our last trip to the Beaver Ponds.
Reaching the spot we stashed our bikes in the bushes, rigged up our sapling poles and got ready to fish. Suddenly, we heard the rattle of an approaching vehicle.
“Hide!” I hissed.
We dashed into the woods.
A few seconds later a beat up VW van — of course, right? — trundled up the road. When it had passed and waas out of sight we emerged from our hiding spot.
Greg held up his hand. A size 12 Eagle Claw baitholder hook was buried to its shank in the tip of his index finger.
He had been holding the hook when we ran. The line to which it was attached had gotten tangled in our churning legs, pulling the hook deep into his flesh.
“We have to go home,” he said, holding back tears.
“But first I have to go try for Mr. Big,” I said.
Mr. Big didn’t eat that day, either.
The next summer we went back and the dams were all gone, washed away by heavy winter rains.
The creek was a tiny trickle. There were no signs of trout.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the summer of Mr. Big taught me a lot. About stealth. About the value of commitment. About patience. About accepting defeat. About how to remove fish hooks from fingertips.
Most importantly it taught me about how important it is to relish time with friends and family, and to enjoy special places like the Beaver Ponds, because they won’t be around forever.
Mark Taylor, Trout Unlimited’s eastern communications director, lives in Roanoke, Va. He always gets in a little fishing during his trips to visit family in his native Oregon, but these days he’s usually targeting steelhead.