The Lunkers of Secret Creek

Hiding in Plain Sight

  • By: Maximilian Werner

How is it possible to have fished a certain river for the last 15 years and not noticed a small creek loaded with trout running right next to it? That I found it at all was quite by chance. I had started the day on the river, but after fishing it hard for three hours without landing a fish, I decided to call it quits. It was then, on my long walk back to the truck, that I happened to glimpse the creek gliding beyond the band of trees that had hidden the creek for all these years.

I knew I wasn’t the only angler to have overlooked this beautiful water when I couldn’t find a trail along the creek. If other anglers did know about it, they hadn’t made a show of it. On that particular day I was fishing the Hexagraph that I was demo-ing and I must have landed 10 trout in two hours, and five of them were good size fish. More importantly, I lost two very large fish. It is one thing to hope or imagine a creek holds big trout, but it is another thing to know they are there.

At 7 feet, 3 inches, the Hexagraph is designed for small streams. Although I had almost no trouble casting it, and it really let me feel every ounce of each fish, the vegetation (including stinging nettle in places) was so dense that my rod tip would get caught in it and bend farther than I care to admit.

Every time I catch a decent fish, there is a small chance I could break my rod. This is a risk every angler is more than happy to take. But breaking the rod in the trees or brush, while also unlikely, is a different matter. If I wouldn’t take the chance of breaking my own $600 rod (and I hope that I wouldn’t), I definitely wasn’t going to take the chance of breaking someone else’s rod, either.

Therefore, on a return trip a couple days later, instead of bringing the Hexagraph I brought a 6 foot, 3-weight I picked up for about $50. This rod isn’t elegant in any way shape or form, but it’s a workhorse that I could part with if it came to that. As I walked down the creek, I came upon several runs where a roll-cast was tight and a backcast was out of the question.

Given these limitations, I couldn’t run nymphs and nothing was on top. My default fly is the streamer, so I tied on a green, cone head minnow pattern with flashing tied into it and threw it into the water. That’s right: the brush was so tight in places, I had to throw in the fly by hand. Then I would let the creek take it 15 feet before stripping. The tactic had worked well, so I would stick with it until I was given some space to do otherwise.

By this time I had the creek pretty well mapped out and knew where the good holes were. A “good” hole on this creek is one that is relatively accessible and may-or-may-not look fishy. You take what you can get, in other words. But parameters like these also translate into several yards of unfished water, which does not sit well with me. I’m not sure where the creek originates, but I do know it flows through a long, wide stretch of private property before ducking under a barbwire fence and tumbling into public land. The first time I was here I skipped this area in favor of a more penetrable run below it. There I could see the sun shining through the trees. Here at the “headwater,” however, the sunlight made no such appearance.

In all that dark I hadn’t noticed a small path cutting through the high grass and into the trees. I had seen deer in the area and I knew their paths were for the most part passable, so I held my rod reel-forward and stepped into the tangle. Once I was inside the trees, I saw how low the brush was and realized this wasn’t a deer trail at all: It was likely made by smaller animals, like beaver and marmot and the little fox that sat across the creek and watched me fish the first day I was out here.

There are a hundred places I would rather be than in a dark, claustrophobic, mosquito-infested patch of trees and brush, so I pulled up my collar, buttoned my shirt cuffs, put down my head and with no grace whatsoever, I got the hell out of there. The grass on the other side was about four feet high and had gone to seed and with the slightest touch the seed heads would release their pollen, which was yellow and fine as dust. I generally don’t get allergies, but after a couple hits of that, my nose doubled as a faucet. The grass was easy walking, though, and in no time I was standing on the creek looking at very dark water.

Without the sun hanging overhead, casting its late morning light into the creek, it was hard to judge depth. That big trout prefer deep water and fry prefer shallow water illustrates how depth is relative, in this case, to where the trout feels safest. I put the run at two feet, which was about the cutoff for holding big trout. Then I flicked my fly forward and across the current. I began to strip just as the fly entered what I was sure would be the honey hole.

When no strike came, I quickly retrieved the line so I could give the sweet spot another go. I had about 10ten feet of line out when the water churned and a huge trout slammed my fly. I was prepared for a long struggle that I was afraid would end with the trout snapping me off. The competing concern was that the trout would break my rod. As of that day, the biggest trout I had caught on my 6-foot 3-weight was 16 inches, so naturally (and irrationally) I was worried. Why it didn’t occur to me that the line would break long before the rod is anyone’s guess. Like I said, in the heat of the struggle, I wasn’t thinking clearly.

Contrary to either of these worse-case scenarios, the big trout came right in, and when I got him more or less in hand and looked into his mouth, I knew why: he had practically inhaled the fly, which was seated far down his tongue. I hate to see a take like that because I’m fairly sure it causes the trout a good deal of pain. The fly wasn’t going anywhere, so I laid the trout next to my rod in the grass, took a picture, then sat down and tried to free the fly. But it was so far back and embedded so deeply, I didn’t know how I was going to safely remove it.

To make matters worse, the trout was too big for me to hold. The best I could do was cradle the trout while I inserted the forceps and tried to remove the fly. I was sure I was going to have to snip the line and leave the fly in his tongue. I’ve never been reassured by those who say that the hook quickly corrodes and then falls out of its own accord, and anyway there is something profoundly sloppy about leaving hardware in the trout’s mouth.

Under the circumstances, I mustered one final attempt to remove the fly, but just as I was slipped the forceps into the fish’s mouth, he wiggled out of my hand and fell back into the water, where he thrashed his head back and forth and cut the line.

Since then I’ve caught some big trout, but none as big as him. At 22 inches, he was easily the biggest trout I had caught and landed. And to think I caught him on a small, spring fed creek that I wouldn’t dream could hold him; a creek that was hiding right in front of me all these years. Sounds about right.

Maximilian Werner is the author of Black River Dreams, published recently by Barclay Creek Press. He wrote the 2nd place essay in the 2008 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award contest, co-sponsored by Fly Rod & Reel. He lives in Utah.