The creek was low. The casting was difficult. Thunder was rolling over the ridge. And I had no idea I was trespassing.
That was the scenario when I hooked, landed and released the largest wild trout I’d ever caught in almost 50 years of wading Appalachian streams.
Catching that big rainbow delivered an adrenalin high that even a day-ending deluge couldn’t erase – and then I saw a note stuffed into the door handle of my car. Uh, oh.
I was in Pendleton County, West Virginia, hundreds of miles from home and fishing with a newfound friend from that corner of the Mountain State. My new friend – I’ll call him Ambler to protect the guilty – was my defacto guide.
I drove and Ambler navigated as we meandered through the countryside one autumn afternoon. Ambler kept commenting on how nice the water had been just two weeks ago and how much every creek had dropped. He was almost apologetic.
“Turn here,” Ambler said, pointing to a gravel road off of the two-lane blacktop. “We should be OK here. It’s worth checking out.”
It was. The creek was obviously down, but there were some nice pools, a few runs and enough room to cast – with care and accuracy. I had driven so far from my Tennessee home that I just wanted to get rigged up and at least say I’d fished in West Virginia.
I like small Appalachian streams and have fished them in South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Maryland and Virginia. Small streams mean I’m happy to catch 8- and 9-inch trout in tight water and am delighted when one even close to 12 inches takes one of my flies. That’s why I don’t bother with a net.
Ambler assured me some wild, stream-bred bruisers cruised our target creek. The creek’s size made me doubtful, but I did notice Ambler carried a net. We waved at a guy on his riding mower as we eased toward the creek. I took it as a good sign when he waved back.
My searching rig is a highly visible (to me) dry fly trailed by a bead head nymph. This day, it was a Thunderhead and a red-tinged nymph. My rod was a limber 8.5-foot, 5 weight Moonshine pack rod I acquired at an auction.
Small rainbows hit both flies, yet there was nothing to brag about beyond West Virginia’s beauty. We pressed up the creek as sunshine gave way to clouds and the barometer dropped.
A chute of water pushed past a towering rock wall on the opposite side of the creek and gradually opened into a nice pool. I worked my casts up the pool and finally placed my flies into the racing water of the chute.
Wham! It was a nice hit on the nymph, and Ambler and I both smiled. Even a 10-inch trout in fast water can deliver a good fight. Then, all hell broke loose.
KA-WHAM! The water practically boiled. Another fish had gotten involved. I had dreams of a double, something that happens on a rig like this fishing for bream in a farm pond, but not on a trout stream.
A much bigger trout managed to inhale the Thunderhead, knock the first fish off the nymph and race downstream. I’ve caught big browns from a drift boat on the Clarks Fork River in Montana, but this was different. I was scrambling down a rocky streambed, watching the rod bow and trying to maintain composure.
Whether I turned the fish or it decided to reverse course on its own, it zoomed back upstream toward the chute and the rock wall. Then it charged downstream again. All I could think was “Keep the line tight, dummy!”
Ambler and I finally saw the fish. It made me quake. I was certain it was going to outdo me. I just don’t link up with big fish like that while wading. I barely noticed the first fat raindrops.
Ambler eased into the creek and readied his net . . . and missed the first opportunity. The fish was ready for another round or two, but I navigated it back close to Ambler, and he eased my momentary trophy into his net.
Rain fell harder. The knot holding the Thunderhead unwound as I removed it from the trout’s jaw. I had been seconds away from a soul-crushing escape.
The fat, feisty rainbow was almost 20 inches long – huge in my book and certainly one of the kings of that creek. I eased it back into its domain, and Ambler and I climbed out of the creek. I practically skipped to the car as the rain poured down.
My heart sank when I saw the note, but my karma was good that day. It was the most polite
“stay off my property” note any angler could imagine.
The note was almost another trophy. In legible cursive handwriting, it informed me I was where I didn’t belong – and then, with precise directions, invited me to get back in the creek at two other locations.
No recriminations, no threats to call the sheriff, no anger. Just West Virginia hospitality that compounded the joy of catching a personal best.