It’s been one hell of a year, action packed from start to finish. We at Hiptothestrip fished with a lot of great guests this year with an abundant number of excellent fish being brought to the net. People from all over the country traveled up to the greater niagara region and took full advantage of the great fishing throughout this past year. But this is the time of the year when my schedule tends to free up and I usually get to spend my time fishing my local water with a group of my buddies more often than not. With most of my time in the fall and winter being spent chasing the many anadromous fish species that enter our great lakes tributaries, I love to spend my free time in the winter chasing wild trout in the headwaters of the tributaries.
The other day I went brookie fishing way up on a trout creek in some very small water. I caught countless 6 inch brook trout with a few larger one thrown in. Spent the day surrounded by snow covered pine trees listening to the sounds of a small freestone spring creek. Perfect day off in my opinion. I went home that night and put the pictures of the day up on my Facebook account and was quickly told by a local young man that catching small fish sucked and so did I. Now at a certain point when what you are doing starts being seen by enough people there are bound to be the inevitable internet troll, and as a rule I generally never give that shit a second glance, but this guy just kept on me like it was a competition. After the debate I decided to explain the thought process behind why I personally choose to chase what he would consider small fish in comparison to the lake run sized fish he has encountered in the past, not that I give two shits about his opinion, but because I feel bad that he seems to only be fishing to catch the biggest fish possible and to me fails to see the greater significance in the pursuit of something maybe a little more difficult than what hes used to. That by definition is ignorance, and all ignorance is at heart is a lack of education. So Mr. Critic since you want some attention, here you go. Relax and take notes.
I’m blessed to live in a area of the country with countless angling opportunities for a wide variety of fish species. With hundreds of miles of meandering wild trout water, some of the best muskie and small mouth bass fishing in the world, and of course the ever popular great lakes migratory fish spawning runs, my options have never been limited. As a young man I grew up with a small creek in my backyard and plenty of bass ponds. Consistent farmers tan and perpetually scraped up legs from fishing everyday – presented proudly as a badge of honor. I caught more sunfish and creek chubs than anything, but never had a bad day regardless of the fish count or size. It was always a new adventure regardless of the outcome. My childhood neighbor, a retired Bethlehem Steel worker and avid fisherman himself noticed my obsession with the outdoors and took me under his wing. This special bond of friend and mentor resulted with numerous fishing trips around my area including a steelhead spot on a local creek in a town 20 minutes away from where we lived. That was my first exposure to these fish. I caught my first one when I was ten years old, on a worm I think, and was just blown away with the size and power of this fish. I was hooked. Big ass trout and lots of them, they were jumping out of the water literally. I looked forward to the run every year. I couldn’t get enough and at this point, I had not gotten to the level where I was catching these fish regularly but I sure did try a lot. And then one night I was at my neighbor’s house after a day of fishing with him and he showed me a picture of a trout on his kitchen counter he had caught and found a 8-inch stocker trout in its stomach. I asked if he had caught it at our steelhead spot. “You had to have,” I said with almost certainty because I had never ever even saw a fish close to that size in any of the smaller wild trout water I fished all spring and summer when the steelhead weren’t in the rivers. And I fished a lot, even for a kid.
He proceeded to explain to me that he caught it at a place we had fished frequently and in fact, was not a lake run fish. I was blown away. In retrospect the fish was probably 25″ but it far eclipsed my best catch out of that creek by at least 8″. I couldn’t believe that it had what was my usual catch, whole in its stomach. And that’s when it dawned on me, I just wasn’t fishing the right way for them. It took a few years to figure out where the big fish were and when they were going to be there and most importantly, what they wanted to eat when I did find them. There is not a huge density of trophy fish in most of my trout water so it’s really about the hunt. There are a lot of factors that go into a section of river that will hold a fish of that caliber, and even more factors go into a fish like that making itself vulnerable. I mean that’s how, in a stream that has one or two fish over 20″ every mile or so and gets a lot of catch and keep pressure in the spring, they exist. These fish are true unicorns in their own right. They achieve this status by being so selective about when and how they feed, the mere mention of a fish of that caliber in that water is met with instant doubt and disbelief due to the rarity of an encounter. That is until you run into an old timer and you mention something in passing conversation and they look at you with that squinty grin because they’ve seen Leroy before and know what the deal is. Also, there is something to be said to the fact that the biggest fish in any body of water is still the biggest fish in the water. 5″ to 50″. Like I said earlier, in a creek full of 5-inch fish there are those few bigger ones and those are the badest sons of bitches in that creek. And I dig that.
When every fish in the river is big and the only way to catch a bigger one is just a game of chance, I really lose interest. What gets me out of bed every morning is the hunt, the pursuit of that fish that just defies reason. Fish that make your knees shake and haunt your dreams because it might be months or even years until you see a fish like that again. And that’s the game I tend to dedicate the majority of my free time to. It’s like chess, all the right moves will result with a win. The second you think you got it locked or that you’re owed a fish like that, Leroy will show up and leave you just as fast as he appeared. All you will be left with is a brief memory and a sinking feeling in your stomach. But every so often when you get it right you get a chance to meet the monsters that lurk beneath. I treat them with all the respect I feel they deserve. Gently hold them up for a picture and bow my head in respect. I couldn’t survive in that river in those conditions. So to the keyboard critics that feel like my small fish don’t measure up to the trophy lake run fish you’re used to seeing in your news feed. You’re right, they don’t. They aren’t even in the same league honestly and I’m glad you don’t see that.
By: Justin Damude – avid outdoors man and professional shit talker