The One That Got Away

photograph and text by Jonathan Ives

The parking lot below the Azicohos Dam was empty as we pulled in and turned off the truck’s engine. After three hours of driving in the darkness the sun was finally rising over the Magalloway River in western Maine. My father-in-law, Tom, and I left at 3:30 that morning to make sure we were the first ones on the river.

The cold water released from the bottom of this dam drops 250 feet in just over two miles. This section of churning whitewater is full of large landlocked salmon and brook trout that thrive year-round in the cold, oxygen-rich water. As I walked up to the river for the first time I shook my head in disbelief that it was even possible to fish here. The boiling hydraulics and large standing waves surged down the steep hillside in what could be considered one large waterfall. Tom smiled and walked up beside me.

“So, this is it,” he said using the end of his fly rod as a pointer. “You’ve only got small sections of pocket water where you can catch a fish and try to land it. They’re easy to loose if they get into that fast water.”
I followed the end of his rod but still couldn’t see any part of the river that didn’t look like class five rapids. Seeing the skeptical look on my face, he put his hand on my back. “This is a very technical river to fish. You lose a lot of flies and you probably won’t backcast all day, but I promise you this: there are some big fish living here.”

He slapped my back and slowly waded in up to his knees. He stripped out his fly line letting the fast current pull it downstream. Once his rod was loaded he then flicked it upstream, sending his flies into the maelstrom upriver. Three seconds later his rod bent over hard and I saw a large salmon jump out of the water. Tom twisted his rod toward the bank and pulled in line, trying to move the fish toward a section of soft water. Holding his rod up to the sky with one arm, he reached out with his other holding a net, his body forming a perfect “T.” As the water drained from the net I could make out a large fish thrashing back and forth. He smiled as he bent down to remove the hook.

“That’s amazing,” I said, walking out to admire the first fish of the day. “You caught him on the first cast!”

“Did you see how hard he hit that?” Tom asked, holding up a fat salmon around eighteen inches long. “You don’t need a strike indicator to know when they take it.”

He slowly lowered the fish back into the river, attached the net to the magnet on the back of his vest, and resumed fishing. I watched him make a few more casts before I walked down a small, muddy path that wound around the scrubby bushes and trees but never lost sight of the water.

I soon came to a fifteen foot stretch of river that slowed down behind two large boulders. There was a natural dam at the end where a line of small rocks directed the water back into the middle. This is where I would start.

I tied on two small nymphs that Tom recommended, a black stonefly with a small pheasant tail tied onto the bend of the stonefly’s hook by sixteen inches of tippet. Tippet is a thin fishing line that becomes nearly invisible underwater. Usually a fish is attracted by the bigger fly, swims up to investigate, and then ends up eating the smaller fly trailing behind it.

I slowly waded out beyond overhanging trees and let the current take my flies downstream as I stripped out ten, then fifteen feet of line. With the strong flow pulling my line tight, I flicked the rod tip upstream, watching my flies fall into the whitewater at the start of the small pool. I slowly stripped in the slack as they floated downstream quickly. At the bottom of the run I felt a good jerk that made my rod tip bend down quickly. I tried to set the hook but was too late. Only my flies came out of the water. I let the current load my fly line again and cast back into the top of the pool.

It’s amazing how confidence can catch fish. Having felt a nibble made me certain my next cast would hook a big one. My line floated back to the same spot, only this time I was ready when the rod tip jerked. I pulled up quickly and felt the rhythmic tugging of a large fish. I reeled in, keeping tension at the end of my rod. The fish swam upstream against the strong current, pulling my line out, then stopped behind the two large boulders at the top of the pool. I tried to twist my rod toward the shore to move the fish into slower water like I saw Tom do earlier. I felt the line go slack as the fish started swimming downstream and back toward me. As I began reeling in the fish suddenly jumped out of the water, almost hitting me in the chest. I leaned back, lost my balance on the slippery rocks, and was almost swept down river.

When I regained my footing I realized my line had lost all tension. My heart was beating like I had just sprinted a mile. I almost landed a huge landlocked salmon and I almost fell into the river, all within the same few seconds. I felt like Ben Franklin when his kite was struck by lightning. To feel the amazing power of nature at the end of of my fingers through a nearly invisible line made me understand why we travel so far to briefly feel connected.