During my time off for Thanksgiving, I paid a visit to the Clinch River. It’s been a favorite haunt of mine for years. The Clinch is a scenic waterway, great place to get some peace and quiet and one of the best fishing destinations in East Tennessee.
I spotted this sweet prince about 4pm on Wednesday the 23rd. Exactly one year prior, the very same day in 2015, he (or a fellow Brown) straightened a size 20, blue zebra midge on me. I may have been near tears then, but I was all grins this time. I’d been waiting a full calendar year for the opportunity to dance with another big Brown.
The Clinch is what I would describe as a “tough-to-fish” river. Teeny-tiny nymphs seem to be the only things that get looks, especially from the big fish. Recollecting last year’s experience, I went to the exact same fly I’d lost him on one year ago. I pulled out my size 20 blue zebra and went to work.
My 3rd or 4th cast earned a slight chase. Which got my heart pumping, a little more. Like most fish of his size, the Brown quickly lost interest. Undeterred, I soldiered on, proceeding to try about 20 different patterns to see if I could spark an interest. Nada.
Frustrated once again, I decided to call it a night. On my way home, I told a good buddy about my 2nd attempt at the Brown, and how it was the fish of my dreams.
“It was probably a carp,” he replied. He’d soon eat those words.
Thoughts of the Brown continued to consume me. My entire drive back to Knoxville – where I’d be enjoying Thanksgiving festivities with my family – was spent dreaming of a victorious and triumphant return to catch this trophy Brown.
Friday at 8:15 am, I returned. The water would soon settle post-generation. From there, I would begin my assault with a new level of determination. I was prepared to do everything I could possibly try to catch this fish.
On my way to the hole where I’d previously spotted him, I caught a 15 inch Rainbow. After that, a 16.5 inch Brown. And as I was basking in the glow of my second catch, my brother yelled up from below. “I SEE THE FISH!”
Feigning nonchalance, I told him to go for it. Knowing that very soon, I too would have my shot.
I meandered down to verify this was, in fact, my arch nemesis Trophy Brown. One look provided the validation I needed. He was just one pool down from before.
Did I truly want my brother to catch him? I’d tell you yes. But the honest truth is that I selfishly wanted my shot at the title. So when nature called for my brother Jonathan – in a different sense – I positioned myself for the perfect drift.
<Note: I’m fishing a 4 weight with 5X dropping a size 20 purple zebra midge off of a small pheasant tail.>
Cast one: Good distance, the perfect depth, but just left of this beast – who’s holding confident and steady in his position.
Cast two: Same, but just past him and to the right.
Cast three: Perfect. My indicator drops right over the fish. Set!
The fear and excitement sets in, but the visual I expected isn’t there. The line is tight, and yet, the fish is still in the same position. It wasn’t my Trophy Brown. It was a different fish, only 11 or so inches.
I unhook it, resettle, and cast again.
Cast four: Perfect drift. Perfect angle. The indicator is just over the fish. It ducks under the water. And a sense of fear suddenly ensues.
The shudder in the water is something I still can’t explain. The yellow belly flashed, and the pure power of the fish actually, physically shook the water.
He’s hooked! The realization momentarily stunned me. I yelled to my brother, “He took! Johnny Boy, get the net!” When all of the sudden, the Brown takes off.
Before I can get my line tight or heighten tension on the reel, this fish is already downstream 30 yards. The next 10-15 minutes? A state of black-out — full of panic, fear, and anxiety. Think Will Ferrell in Old School.
Frantic and yelling to my brother to keep up, I followed the fish downriver and find myself hollering out requests for net assistance from 2 unsuspecting fellow fisherman. “Hey, can I get a hand with some net help?” Moments later, the Brown shows me the true meaning of power, making a last minute run for a downed tree. The unsuspecting angler yells something along the lines of, “Holy sh*t, that’s the largest fish I’ve ever seen!”
At this point, I’m overcome with panic. I’m this close to losing this fish.
He reaches the tree and lodges himself on a log with a notch at the base of the river. I don’t know if he’s tossed the line and about to run, so in a desperate last attempt, I lunge my arm to the bottom of the stream, grab him by the tail, and – somehow – surface this beast.
My net can barely even hold the writhing monstrosity I’ve just landed, but eventually he succumbs and goes in headfirst. I breathe the heaviest sigh of relief I’ve ever released as a fisherman. It’s over. I’d caught the fish I’ve always dreamed I would catch.
He taped at 28.5 inches. Releasing this fish is something I’ll never forget. The ecstasy and joy surrounding this achievement is something I’ll never be able to describe.
The act of fly fishing is one of patience, determination, skill, and luck. And on November 25th the stars aligned for me. Catch or no catch, trophy or not, I’ll continue my trips to the river for many years to come – thankful for the beauty of the Clinch and the memories of catching this amazing Brown.