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A personal biggest, a best, and the one that got away
Summertime fundraising "15 x 15" challenge rejuvenates the fly-fishing bug
As I reclined and flipped channels like the remote would find something new between the dozens of outdoor shows I’d already seen, the throbbing behind my kneecap finally eased, thanks to the third ice pack of the evening and four ibuprofen.
And then it was 12:30 a.m.
I had dozed off and messed up my night but good.
Whiskey forced his cold Labrador nose under my left hand to wake me. The remote had fallen from my right hand onto the carpet. The ice bag was warm. Steven Rinella was shooting turkeys with that old timer again.
Time to go outside and pee; it’s a new midnight thing for Whiskey.
While the old yellow dog stretched the limits of my headlamp out in the tall grass, I considered prep for the day ahead. The plan several hours earlier had been to ice that knee, take an hour to get my gear together, ice again, hit the sack, get up at 4 a.m., and be at my friend Scott Hood’s house and on the way to pick up friend Frank Kohn and head to the Lower Illinois River by 5 a.m.
What Oklahoma Trout Unlimited Chapter 420 members call “The 15 x 15” started Saturday. The All Fish All Oklahoma Fly Fishing Challenge is a club fundraiser. A $30 entry fee earns you the chance to join fun people as we all try to catch 15 different species of fish in Oklahoma in the 15 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day, all on a fly rod.
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Any Oklahoman can sign up for the challenge. The rules and registration portal are under the Tournaments link at tu420.com.
All who complete the challenge—and most do—get to be in a drawing to win a third of the total entry fees. The club keeps a third, and the rest goes to the Pat Daly Memorial Fund, a special pot for a scholarship program. People also can compete as part of a 4-person team, and the winning group—also chosen by random drawing—wins a guided float trip.
The rules are simple, and folks are pretty good about helping each other out with where to find some fish. New this year, big-fish recognition goes only to fish caught in public waters. Other fish can be caught in public or private water anywhere in the state. Big fish recognition comes with bragging rights only.
Big fish is what Scott had said we would encounter in the Lower Illinois. Big rainbows and possibly some big striped bass or hybrid striped bass. He had landed some real chunks lately, and I was excited to get a chance at them too.
What I had not been doing lately was fly fishing—at all. I have multiple outdoor interests, thus the All Things Outdoors title to this blog, and I tend to run in strings where some things fall aside for months at a time.
The 15x15 is perfect for me. It’s a tournament, sorta, but it’s mostly a challenge, a fundraiser, and fun fishing. Still, there is that drive for bragging rights—and there will be stories to tell. Always. It gives me all the excuses I need to treat that flyfishing bug that just needs to be re-awakened in me once in a while.
I knew my gear was a shambles from last year’s challenge. I’d gone fishing just once since Labor Day 2022. My vest hung in the office closet, the rods were in cases in their corner of my office. I would take my 2/3-weight rig in case we had time to hit a small side creek for sunfish and take my 6-weight for the big ones. My reels, extra spools, lines, extra flies, and miscellaneous stuff live in a small black duffle.
I just needed to tie up some leaders and tidy things up. I figured I could probably get it all set by the door, ready to go in less than an hour, and get a little more shut-eye before that 4 a.m. alarm.
I’d misplaced one important item and thought I’d lost another for a least a half hour, until I “found it” right where it was supposed to be all the time. I needed to thoroughly clean and recondition both fly lines, replace the backing on one reel, and reduce the backing in the other by about 30 yards. I didn’t have a single leader I’d trust and was skeptical of the aging spools in that black duffle. My fly boxes looked like they’d been hit by tornadoes. I grabbed the line trimmer, which is attached to my vest via a clip with a spring-loaded retracting cable, and the cable snapped and shot back into the spool.
Add 15 minutes of looking around for that extra snap I knew I had somewhere.
At 4:15 a.m. I called it good enough. I had time for a quick shower, to throw things in the truck, get dressed, make my morning smoothie, and sprint out the door.
My wife asked me later, “What was that orange line you left lying all over the living room floor? It felt great when it got caught on my toes.”
Oops. Thought I’d picked that up. Sorry, Honey.
At the river Scott Hood, always ready to fish, which he does at least once weekly, and the fastest man in the world at sliding into a pair of waders, had to wait at the car while I finally tied up a leader. He’s patient, though. The rush was over. He tossed me one of his TFTCE flies. His goal for the 15x15 this year is to catch all 15 species on that one type of fly—The Fly That Catches Everything. He has them neatly organized in a single fly box, in sizes 6 to 16.
I like the fly because it sinks quickly, and it’s a lot like an olive woolly bugger—which is my go-to fly anyway.
I didn’t even open my fly box. The 2/3 weight stayed in the car. I fashioned an eight-foot leader with a terminal tippet of 8-pound-test Berkley Lo-Vis. I was ready for big trout.
Downriver we tried a few spots on our way to the catch-and-release area, where we suspected the biggest ones waited.
As usual, Scott hooked three or four decent trout before I hooked one. He generously let me hit a small side channel of the river on my own. Narrow and swift, it almost always holds trout. Some of the best spots didn’t produce, and my casting arm was not back in synch. I was rusty as my fly box was jumbled.
I finally started to get it together as my first fish of the day hit hard. It was small but feisty. I chuckled that at least it was a trout, but as I sloppily lifted it from the water to swing toward my hand and a quick release, we noticed something different.
“Wait!” Scott said.
“Yeah!” I said.
It was a little German brown, so named because they are a European transplant to the U.S. They are not common among the stocked trout of the Lower Illinois, but a few slip in here and there. This was my first in 12 years of fishing the LIR.
When we got into the big fish, and by that I mean Scott got into the fish and I got some too. He caught several striped bass. I didn’t catch a single striper. He also hooked 17- and 18-inch trout, and one that went 20 1/2. We measured each of the big ones. Scott’s 20 1/2 inch holds the lead for the biggest trout, at least for now.
We hop-scotched down the river. Whoever caught a big fish let the other person go first. I landed an 18-inch football of a trout. Her well-worn tail fin showed she likely was one of many old brood females the hatchery occasionally unloads at the Lower Illinois. I hadn’t had a fight like that for years.
We discussed how the hits were soft, less a hit, and more of a sudden, heavy pull on the line. On my next “turn,” I felt that heavy pull and set the hook into what felt like a log, except it pulled my line upstream. It hit early in my cast. The few feet of line I’d stripped in zipped through my fingers to quickly pull drag directly off the reel. I was happy to let that Redington Behemoth do what it was designed to do.
When she fought upstream, I pressured her to turn down. When she turned to run down, I turned the pressure upstream. The distant battle didn’t last long. Soon enough, she came along like a horse that just figured out its lead, and I had to reel fast as I could to keep a bend in my rod. But about 25 feet out, she realized this was no lead she wanted to follow, and off she went again.
I hadn’t had a tussle with a trout like this for years. She just did not want to let her head come up and slide into the net.
Finally, in the net she marked 49 1/2 inches. That’s because Scott loaned me a piece of tape measure that started at 30. This was my new personal best, the biggest trout I’ve landed in Oklahoma at 19 1/2 inches long and so fat it’s a wonder her belly didn’t burst.
We continued our run on decent fish, with Scott still outpacing me two-to-one. I really, really wanted a striper, but no luck. My next big hit was a harder whack, and it hit the fly on the initial drop; I’d only stripped in enough line to remove the slack, and “bam!”
The fish was a fast and hard fighter. At 18 inches, it was the best-looking big trout I’ve caught in Oklahoma. I’ve caught plenty of pretty 15 and 16-inch rainbows. There’s just something different in that jump to 18 and bigger that is different. All its fins were perfectly intact, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say it looked like wild stock.
I was rolling, on a fly-fishing high, and couldn’t wait to get back at it.
WHAM! The next hit did not feel like the others. My line shot upstream and away, then downstream. My slack line burned through my fingers, and this fish was on my reel in a blink.
“Whoa! That’s a big fish,” Scott said. “Fight it well.”
The drag on the Redington was having a good little workout. This fish had pulled more line off that six-weight than ever before.
“Yep!” I yelled back to Scott. Everything felt good.
“Just be patient,” I thought.
One short run out, another back downstream and to the left.
Oh, it felt good!
And then it was gone.
If I had been breathing, I don’t remember, but suddenly air rushed out of my chest in agony, along with a piece of my heart.
I was so upset I couldn’t even swear. I just groaned.
I reeled in all that slack line and suspected what I found to be true. There at the end of the line, the last couple of inches felt a bit rough. At the tip, the line split at an angle with a tiny sliver of a curl. It had broken off right at the top of the knot. Not a surprising result after landing and un-hooking several large trout.
It was just a worn-out line. The drag wasn’t set that tight and it broke during a steady pull, no jerks, no sudden pulls, no extra force.
Why didn’t’ I re-tie? Why!? I know better.
I went out on the stream with an old 8-pound test line I wasn’t entirely sure I could trust and then proceeded to fish all morning with the same fly, catch several fish, and not re-tie even once. What a dope.
I'm guessing it was a big striped bass; possibly, it was the freight-train-like smack of a big hybrid. If it was a big trout, I hate to think just how big.
We’ll never know, but that’s almost always the case when the big one gets away.
Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have some leader materials to sort through and fly boxes to dump and re-organize before I lose any more sleep over the 15 x 15.