Daze on the San Juan

Bruce D. Hatten

Rio Rancho, New Mexico

On September 28, 1994 (the last day of my yearly trip) came the fish of my dreams. For the most part, I'd thrown parachute-type mayflies at the water that day (blue-winged olives), setting on anything that rose within an 18-inch diameter of where I thought my dry would be (it's simply impossible to see a size 20 dry fly on the water more than eight feet away). I caught some but missed even more. None were larger than twenty-three inches when landed and all respectfully returned to the water after a get-acquainted photo. I didn't think the day could get much better when I tossed the new emerger to a rising form that looked to be about 25 inches long. She slowly rose and sipped the fly from the surface. A definite "watermelon" as the type had come to be known between Chris and myself. Her silhouette belied her actual size. A girthy fish of the football type--nearly as wide around as long. An aquatic angel--she was beautifully colored and full bodied. Decidedly a mother-to-be. She was immediately returned to the water. We didn't even take the time for a photo session. At 24-1/3 inches, this was easily the largest fish of the trip. Chris and I created a new classification and called it "Mongo Fish". And that she most certainly was.

Daze on the San Juan

I tossed out again later that afternoon. I cast not less than twenty-five feet into the middle of the wide trough in "Willy's Hole", and missed a hair-raising strike. It was probably my own incompetence, or maybe my preoccupation with the bus boat that was making its way through the hole with total disregard for wading fisher persons. Who has time for proper etiquette anymore?

With only four pound tippet material I was in for the ride of my life. Not weighted, this stream-side developed fly has the outstanding ability to float as it thinks it wants to sink. Thus, the fly hangs in a mid-to-high level situation below the surface, making it easily accessible to fish on the feed. Unfortunately, I set into what was easily the largest fish of my life on the size 18 Mustad, a hook that ultimately gave to bend under the pressure of a large and well fought brownie after a 20-30 minute fight.

The fish hit my emerger pattern with such ferocity that I was awed by its size and incredible strength. I screamed to Chris on the far bank that this was the fish we had come for and had waited all ten days for. As line peeled from my reel with a distinctly mechanical yet musical whine, he dropped his rod and ran down to a position directly across from me and the great Leviathan in play. Chris noted that the fish was a Brownie no less than 29 inches long, "...and he's all yours!" "Yea Chris. Right. But how do I stop shaking?" The battle raged into near darkness and at least a quarter mile downstream. Chris attempted to net him several times, but upon seeing either Chris's feet, or the well-worn net he stabbed into the current, the fish bolted with newfound fight for life. Every time that fish got close to being taken, he bolted with the great force of a spooked bison. OK, perhaps I embellish a bit, but this was no mere trout, it was truly large game.

Not wanting to horse the beast for fear of breaking off, I was ‘dragged' several hundred yards downstream 15-30 yards at a time. After each downstream haul he would bolt quickly upstream equally as far, leaving me with more slack in the line than the reel could handle. This dictated that the battle would be waged between the fingers of my left hand and his cleanly hooked jaw. All the while Chris ran up and down the bank in an effort to be right in place when the net would prove most useful.

The beast's head wagged violently and through the rod I could feel his every motion. He only launched from the water twice in the course of the fight, but how glorious those acrobatics were. Jutting straight out of the river he maxed out at roughly three feet above the surface before gravity got the better of him and pulled him back down. Looking back on the experience now, it reminded me of a sperm whale throwing his hulking mass toward the clouds in the midst of wildly abandoned aqua play. For the better part of the struggle though, his head was down and grinding on the bottom.

As I stated earlier, the entire fight had elapsed in only a million years, thirty minutes, or an instant. Chris had attempted to net the fish about six different times, but each time "Mr. Mongo" actually seemed to gain strength and determination. There was no story book ending, no photo suitable for framing, and no bragging rights for landing the big one. It ended as abruptly as it had begun. I maintained constant pressure throughout and had him just where I wanted him--stranded in the shallows several different times. But this fish hadn't gotten so large being a pansy. He outwitted, outsmarted and eventually outlasted me and my gear. One moment the line was tight and the fish of a lifetime was just a few yards away, and the next moment the line hung limp in dismal loops floating downstream.

Daze on the San Juan

When I finally reeled in I found that the error did not belong solely to myself. The size eighteen Mustad had bent nearly forty-five degrees off-center and saved me the trouble of the ideal catch and release. Needless to say though, I no longer tie on Mustad hooks...

After replaying the scene in my mind so many hundreds of times and even more deliberating, I've come to understand that the "blame" lies mostly, if not solely, on myself. Quite simply, I played that fella too long. Out of a uniquely strange, yet well-deserved, respect, I allowed him to call the shots. That is not the way to catch the big ones. That's how to lose them. After a fight of that duration something was bound to give; the hook, the line, my knots, or that magnificent animal's lip. Assuredly, the lesson has been both sweet and sour. When you have what you want on the end of the line you don't wait for fate to intervene. You act. Intelligently. Deliberately. With confidence. In a certain perverted sense I'm glad it was what it was. I know he's still there and we'll all have another chance at him.

That, my friends, is the nature of the beast. The San Juan giveth, and the San Juan taketh away. I would encourage all to visit, embrace, enjoy, but above all, respect the mighty San Juan River for all the many pleasures and pains she has to offer. May the currents be unbroken by and by...

Daze on the San Juan

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