Thursday, January 14, 2021

Closure on the Closer

It was the last day of the year and final day of open season at the reservoir. Jeff and I pulled up at the same time from opposite directions. In a normal winter we would have been meeting at a frozen lake, but with no real ice fishing options we agreed instead to a morning session at the res. Jeff lives close by and had never fished it before, so he was in for a good lesson.

The morning was still pitch black and the rain seemed harder than forecasted. Though the thermometer read over 40 degrees, it was the type of wet cold that seeped into your bones. It had been raining quite a lot. In the span of just a few weeks, the drought that lasted most of the year was erased and the water level of the reservoir had risen dramatically to near full capacity. Great for drinking water, but from a selfish angler standpoint, it severely cut down the number of fishing spots around a place with limited access to begin with.

On our walk through the woods, I missed my mark for the spot I planned for us to fish. Instead of backtracking to find the trail, we stubbornly punched through thick underbrush to the water’s edge. There was no casting room where we landed, so we clumsily walked the shoreline over downed trees and boulders to the intended location. It was far from graceful with bait buckets and long rods in a tight corridor. When we finally got to the right spot, I realized my backpack wasn’t on my back. It was full on amateur hour.

While Jeff got situated, I retraced our steps to my truck where the pack was still on the front seat. It turned out to be a blessing—lying perfectly on some cobble along the shore was a giant cookie wrapped in cellophane. Jeff had dropped it in the scramble to the spot and we had a good laugh before splitting it for a hearty breakfast. Now we were ready to fish.

I wish I could say that we slayed walleye and trout at dawn, but it was quiet for the first two hours. The only constants were the rain and the wet chill that took a toll on our dexterity. Even the simple task of re-rigging took twice as long. The conditions also hindered my desire to pick up the lure rod and probe the areas around our baits. It was a hands-in-pockets-in-between-sipping-coffee type of morning.

Finally, a slip bobber started dancing on the surface. It was one of Jeff’s that had drifted towards a submerged tree near shore. When the float slid under, he connected with his first fish from the reservoir—a healthy rainbow trout. Catching at this waterbody on an inaugural outing is a feat in itself considering how many times anglers leave with their tail between their legs.

The bite seemed to be turning on because just a few minutes later another of Jeff’s bobbers disappeared. After a solid hook set, he had something on long enough to feel heavy weight on the other end. The immediate rush came crashing down when his line went slack. Jeff reeled up everything except the hook and shiner. Where it had been tied to his leader was a dreaded curly sue that revealed the knot had failed. A mishap that every angler has experienced at some point or another, but a gut wrenching one no doubt. There are state record-caliber fish swimming in this body of water and chances don’t come often, so the unknown of what was lost was painful.

There wasn’t much time to dwell on it before a third takedown occurred in the same area. It was one of my bobbers with a large shiner set 10-feet down. I gave it a second longer than customary and drove it home. The fish felt substantial and swam up in the water column. At the first glimpse, I thought I saw white-tipped fins of a walleye, but soon a broad, spotted tail of a trout broke the surface. Jeff laid a landing net in the water and I steered the fish in.

Inside the net was a thick silver bar of a brown trout; easily my largest from the reservoir in years. It was a male seeforellen with a slight kype to its jaw and in pristine condition except for an old injury to its right pectoral fin. An impressive specimen on its own, but what happened next is seared in my memory. When I went to remove the hook, along with my shiner there was another baitfish in his mouth. Initially I thought it was an alewife, the main forage in this impoundment, but upon closer inspection I noticed a hook through its back. Well I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the very same fish that Jeff lost only minutes earlier! We were floored—the excitement level on that patch of rocks was already high, but this put it into another stratosphere.

After plucking both hooks and shiners from its mouth, the greedy trout was photographed and sent on its way. We stayed for one more hour hoping for another bobber to go under, but the bite window had closed as quickly as it opened. Not often are anglers awarded that kind of closure after a missed opportunity. We’ve all been left guessing what kind of fish or how big it was after losing it. There was no guessing here—that brown trout was so dialed-in on hunting alewives that rainy morning, he let his guard down and got fooled twice by Arkansas shiners in mere minutes. Lucky for him, he was released unharmed to get bigger and wiser for next time. 

It was a neat way to close out the fishing season at the reservoir and to put a bow on a bizarre year in general. Cheers to a year ahead full of good health and new adventures—stay safe and tight lines!

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