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King of the Stream: Chasing a Trophy Trout

Follow along as Jim Wahl attempts to conquer the King of the Trout Stream | Iowa Outdoors magazineBy Jim Wahl
From the July/August 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine

It was 90 degrees in the shade. The cool 60-something degree water felt good, especially since I was overdressed wearing heavy insulated chest waders. I was excited about trying out a new spot I’d never fished before. From the height of the grass bordering the stream, it was obvious no one had been on this stretch for quite some time.

After a considerable walk, I spooked a bedded deer on a small island within the stream. Since he ran downstream I figured this was a good spot to jump into the water and start fishing back upstream. 
It didn’t take long until I found a likely spot. I cast my elk hair caddis fly in the tail end of a shallow pool and immediately had a strike. I set the hook, but came up with nothing. This happened repeatedly and it was obvious the fish were small. Several casts and two small creek chubs and a common shiner later confirmed my suspicion.

I slowly moved further and cast in the fast water below a sharp outside bend. The spot looked perfect for trout and it was. On my second drift I had an aggressive rise and set the hook. This was not a minnow. I was sure it was a trout and after a brief struggle I had a beautiful 11-inch brown trout in hand.
I inched forward in the same spot and cast my fly further upstream searching water that had not previously been fished. On my third cast I hit the perfect spot, just below where the stream turned and fast water met slower moving water. The surface exploded. I set the hook and immediately a huge brown jumped nearly two feet out of the water. It was over as quickly as it happened. He successfully threw the hook.

Slightly shook up, I stopped fishing and tried to gather myself. I thought, “I just lost the largest trout I have ever hooked in an Iowa stream.” It had to be in the 18- to 20-inch range—a brown trout produced naturally in this stream.

After a brief rest, I inched back into that perfect spot. I flailed the water with that same elk hair caddis and never a take. I was just about ready to move on and the surface exploded in the sweet spot ahead. I couldn’t tell what he ate, but I was sure the aggressive fish was the one I lost moments before. I continued to fish, but to no avail. Then it happened. A grasshopper fell into the stream and the water exploded. Just a few minutes later, another hopper made the same fatal mistake with the same results.
At that point I thought, “I’m going to quietly back out of here and fish upstream, but return to this spot with an imitation hopper I knew was waiting in my fly box.” Fishing upstream produced another 11-inch brown, but my mind wasn’t there. All I could think about was going back downstream and trying to fool that huge trout that was king of the stream. 

I pulled out a newly tied grasshopper imitation fly that had never been fished. It was huge in comparison to the number 16 caddis I had been fishing. I finished securing the knot and nearly sprinted in excitement to the pool with the sharp bend where the huge brown lived.

As I approached the spot, there was no evidence of the German brown monster. The surface was quiet and no unfortunate grasshoppers fell into his lair. My first two casts were timid, failing to reach the sweet spot. I extended my fly line and false cast several times to reach out further on the next two casts—still no fish. On my fifth cast the water exploded. I instinctively set the hook and I had him on again. This time I was hoping for better results.

It didn’t take long and the king of the stream jumped, this time even higher than the first. I was no more than 20 feet away and got an excellent view of the fish. I had underestimated his size from our previous encounter—he was more than 20 inches long. The larger number 8 hook attached to the fake hopper had imbedded in his jaw and despite his aerial acrobatics, he was still hooked. 

He quickly moved upstream, stripping line so fast I couldn’t stop him. Reaching the far bank he buried himself into a deep cut bank and didn’t move. I felt the pressure of my fly rod and was sure I not only had him hooked, but I was gaining some control of a chaotic sequence. Not being able to move him, I waded in deeper all the time keeping constant pressure, allowing no slack line which would give the advantage back to the fish.

At this point I made a decision to move in even closer. With my hand I followed the fly line down to the leader, and from the leader down to the tippet. I knew he was there. I reached in further and put my hand over the back of his head. I was certain in a moment I would have him secured and celebratory photos would be taken prior to his release. But the king of the stream had another idea.

My hands on his back prompted a sudden burst that I couldn’t control, and I lost my grip. He ripped off line faster than I could imagine and suddenly turned and dove straight through my legs. My fly rod was bent in half with the tip extended between my chest waders. Suddenly it was over. He broke my line. I stood for a moment stunned, wondering what just happened.

I eased out of the hole and found a spot on the bank. My legs were shaking and my hands were quivering. What a thrill to outsmart this monster fish, but what a disappointment to not bring him to hand. “I’m a 60-year-old man,” I thought. “This is silly to be reacting this way.” 

No, it’s not. 

That’s what fishing does to me. It turns a grown man into a boy—the excitement, the passion, the anticipation, the reward—all of those things and so much more.

I don’t care if I ever land that monster brown. My satisfaction is knowing he’s there. I will make one promise, though. I’ll be back. The next time better prepared. If I get another chance that’s great, but if not it won’t matter. The king of the stream for a moment turned a man into a boy, and for that I will be forever grateful.

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