Used Fish

An excerpt from A Creek Trickles Through It

On The Fly Freshwater

by Jim Mize

Photos by Jimmy Jacobs

An 18-inch brown hovered just off the bottom with a Foxee Clouser protruding from the corner of his jaw like a cigar stub. Every time I raised him, he bulldogged his head, sawing on whatever hook shank or tippet he could find to bite. That’s when it dawned on me, while waist-deep in a long pool on a catch-and-re1ease stream, that I  was catching a used fish.

The way I figure, once a trout on a stream like this hits 18 inches, he’s been caught a number of times and tossed back. I really don’t mind sharing, particularly with other fly fishermen, but this fish  had been used.

Sometimes you can see a few battle scars on these fish, as if the miles had some wear. Perhaps it’s a healed cut or an abnormality in  the jaw. Fins, particularly those around the belly, start to round off. But maybe that’s from the stream and not the fisherman. Still, if this brown were for sale, he might be marked down about 10 percent.

You have to wonder about the previous owners, too. Were they tough on this fish and failed to maintain him well, or was he only caught on Sunday afternoons by little old ladies after church? It’s not like you can take him to a fisheries biologist for a second opinion.

Fishing these catch-and-re1ease streams, a person generally can  kick the fins on a few more fish, so to speak, and determine his preferences. Do you like these practical brown trout, known best for their ruggedness, or perhaps a sporty rainbow with graceful curves and colors that please the eye?

Then there’s always the economical little brookie, which you can sometimes catch more to the mile than the other models. They are easy to tow and generally fill up on any kind of fuel.

The old brown apparently had decided during my mental ramblings that he was unlikely to gnaw through that hook shank so he turned his side to catch the current and headed downstream toward a submerged log. It still had a few limbs braced against the bottom providing enough clearance for a fish to swim under.

He drove for the log and I leaned to my left, trying to steer him back into open water. The compromise we struck sent him to the  lower end of the pool where he turned and parked just out of the  current. I raised my rod a bit higher but he stuck as if he’d put on his  emergency brake.

The more I tried to maneuver him my way, the more tricks I learned that he had. But then again, at my age, I also had a few of my own. It occurred to me then that if he was a slightly used fish, I was a  high-mileage fisherman. Not only that, it had been a long time since I’d had my oil changed or my tires rotated.

The brown by now was spent and slowly began to glide toward the  pressure. I raised my rod and led him into my extended net, watching his brilliant orange spots appear as he rolled over on his side. They sparkled like the bright lights of Denver that Willie Nelson sings about. For a used fish, he had a magnificent paint job.

Once I had mentally put the both of us into the used category, I reasoned that it might not be all bad. He looked no worse for wear and certainly had plenty of horsepower. He had gone from zero to 60 in seconds in a tribute to his German engineering.

Maybe I also had a few more miles left in me, and although I might not fetch what I would have years before, at least I didn’t get turned in during the “Cash for Clunkers” program.

The old brown rested in my palm underwater, breathing as heavily as I was. His gills opened and closed, the tail began to flex and he gently glided off my hand, across the shoal and into the shadows from which I had taken him for a test drive.

I have always been a sucker for old things, whether guns, rods or furniture. This old brown seemed to match my tastes better than a brand-new fish. Sure, he had a few dings, but he was sturdy and had held up well over time. Besides, I sort of liked his gnarled lower lip, curled I supposed by sneering at the men and predators he had eluded.

He reminded me of an old oak desk I bought 30 years ago that  looked 30 years old when I bought it. Some blue-haired English teacher probably broke it in during the Truman presidency, collecting apples on one stained corner and wearing grooves in the drawers  keeping the grade book up to date.

That old desk is my favorite because it has a story like I figure that brown had a story. He’d learned the difference between heavy tippets and light ones, he had come to recognize the grinding of rocks under  a wader boot, and he had discovered that the old tree he hid under when the sun shone brightly was fairly handy in a pinch for breaking off a Foxee Clouser.

This brown is one I’d like to come back to from time to time and become familiar with. On our next encounter, that Foxee Clouser probably won’t fool him again. I’ll have to pull another trick from my years of experience and see what we two old arm wrestlers can pull on each other.

So, like my old desk, maybe this brown and I are not used in the  sense that we’re used up. In some ways, we’ve become better with use. Perhaps the two of us are really heirlooms.

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