Fishermen drive me somewhat batty. Fly-fishermen are the strangest of beasts. In the soul of most hunters of fish there is a torment that rages in the sublime space that separates ego and humility. This battle will make the best of men lie while espousing with a pious leer about how every fisherman lies except themselves.
Tape measures and smart phones have become the truth serum of the 21st century for anglers. The phrase; “Did you tape it?” can make the most expert (according to himself) angler stop mid-sentence. When this sentence is paired with; “How about a picture?”in the same conversation will often cause a kyrptonic effect that can wilt the teller of the most ardent story. Time and again I have reveled in dropping these phrases like A-Bombs.
Unfortunately the biggest, blatant fibbers are guides. Shocker! Not really. I have worked with many different guides from Alaska to Chile over the years and I might know five who tell the truth about their clients catch. My favorite personal anecdote about a guide’s “bigger fish for a bigger tip” mentality happened while I was working in Alaska. Just thinking about it makes me smile.
The lodge where I worked prided itself on getting the clients out on the local water with in an hour or so of their arrival. This was a great custom that really got everyone revved up, particularly the new clients. On this one particular day the van rolled in with a bunch that looked like they just finished a L.L. Bean photo shoot. They stumbled out into the Alaskan sun from the van with one new client clutching a rod tube with the price tag still dangling from it. I knew that he would be mine for the afternoon. Oh, lucky me!
Bill was an optometrist from lower Manhattan. He was large, 260 pounds or so, with horned rimmed glasses and an endless monologue of fishing stories. He had insisted on using a 5 wt. rod which was too little of rod for most of our anglers, but he had assured me he had caught lots of 20 plus inch fish. I guessed correctly that it might have only been one.
Onto the beach we roared, him bailing out of the front of the sled like we were storming the beaches of Normandy. As was typical for those who didn’t follow instructions, he caught his foot on the boat’s gunnel and fell face first into six inches of water. Yes, I did laugh and I also called him a dumbass.
I was always blatantly honest and in control of my guests when I guided which is a must in place like Alaska where lurking behind every rock is something that will bite you, stab you, or sting you. That is why me telling Bill the way it is from the beginning garnered his respect. Luckily for him, it was a warm day and the water didn’t find its way inside his waders. After a little embarrassed laugh from Bill and a large one from myself, I tied on the fly. I call it the fly because it was the only one I used most of the time. My friends from those days can attest to my stubborn streak about using the same fly for everyone.
Anyway, Bill managed a cast while still jabbering away in my ear from above. He was a good 8 inches taller than me, his droning tone was leaving me zombie-fied. He was lucky enough to hook a trout on his very first cast, not that this is unusual in Alaska. Bill’s little 5 wt bent almost tip to tail. The wimpy reel screamed as the line turned into backing as the spool turned at such a rate that I swear I saw little wisps of smoke rise as he tried to palm the toy-like reel. Several times I jerked his hand away just as he was about to slap his palm onto the spinning metal. He leered sideways at me and told me his personal guide in Montana told him how to palm a reel. I lit a smoke, took a drag and told him he wasn’t in Montana. Silence ensued for a couple of minutes while he pondered the asshole standing next to him.
The trout was pretty average by Alaska standards. It was exactly 21 and 3/4 inches long (you will understand why I remember in a moment). Nice fish anywhere. To me it was another day wearing rubber, nothing I hadn’t seen a kazillion times before. However; to the Alaska newbie their first Alaska Rainbow is often times the largest fish they have ever seen on the end of their line. Bill was no different. I am pretty sure he peed himself a bit when I grabbed his leader and corralled his fish.
I am glad he wasn’t a bear or I would be dead at this moment. He charged me like a hungry boar in the spring time, grabbing the fish as he knelt beside me, his girth knocking me into the water. Saving myself from going over with a very soaked left arm, I smiled and let him have his moment. Bill’s camera strap was dropped over my head as I was still trying to right myself. Hurriedly, I got up and told him how to pose. The next words were priceless.
“How long is it? 27, maybe 28 inches?” he almost said with tears. Unfortunately; Bill had drawn the wrong guide. Mr. Reality was about to pay a visit to Bill within minutes of him landing his first trout in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
“Bill;” I tried to say gently, but didn’t have the ability to. “Bill it is about 21 and 1/2 inches long.” I left out the “only” in front of the 21 and 1/2 because it was his first trout at the lodge.
“No way!”; he almost yelled. “This is the biggest fish I ever caught. It is at least 6 inches bigger than any trout I have caught in Montana and I have caught 22 inch rainbows on the Madison. My guide told me so!” He was deflating faster than the Hindenberg did that fateful day in New Jersey.
“Bill;” I was really trying to be gentle now. “I am a pretty good judge and I am probably within a half and inch.”
“There is no way!” he said with a tone that was a tad condescending. I don’t like condescending.
“I will bet you a paycheck that the fish is within half and inch of what I say it is;” I took a drag on my Camel for effect.
“Ok! deal! I am holding you to it!” he was cashing my check in is mind as I pulled the tape from my wader pocket in the most dramatic fashion possible.
There are certain moments in a person’s life that they will always remember. He probably has slow-motion dreams of me bending down with my ten cent sewing tape. I felt him cringe while my left hand held the metal tab even with the nose of the fish as my right hand pulled the vinyl tape straight and tight. This vision probably replays in his cerebrum on cold winter nights over and over after a bad day of shifting lens in front of cranky old ladies’ eyes. I looked up and smiled, what I saw was a grin and a nod.
The fish was measured just under 21 and 3/4 of an inch. Bill had me take a picture of him holding the tape on his fish. He was emailing the photo his guide that night he told me. I told him to wait a day or two when he could send him a picture of a bigger fish with this one. He did, multiple times and requested me for the rest of the week.