The aforementioned club has nothing to do with one’s vision. It’s a loose-knit association that any fly fisherman can belong to, by virtue of catching a 20″+ trout on a fly tied on a size 20 (or smaller) hook. If you’re not a fly fisherman, you probably have no idea of the significance of this accomplishment. So, to give you some idea of how small a size 20 hook is, here is a picture of one next to a dime (space does not permit a photo of a 20″ trout, but you can use your imagination to fill in the image).
I’ve been fly fishing for trout for over forty years. During that period, most of my angling has been done in the rivers and streams of New Jersey and New York. From 1989-1999, I was a guide in the Catskills. And even though I have lived in western North Carolina the last fifteen years, I didn’t begin fishing the local waters until about three or four years ago. Instead, every spring since the move south, I have made an annual trip to the Catskills to fish the waters that I love, and with which I am so familiar.
I’d caught many trout larger than 20″—but never on a small fly. In fact, most were caught on very large flies called streamers, which are bait fish imitations, generally in the neighborhood of between one and two inches long. But three years ago, my luck began to change. In each of the 2012 and 2013 seasons, I caught a trout of at least 20″. One was a brown trout, and the other a rainbow. Both were caught on a size 16 fly. Close, but no cigar—as far as joining the elusive 20/20 club.
My unofficial “induction” (there is no “official” 20/20 club that I’m aware of) finally came not on one of the storied Catskills rivers like the Beaverkill or Willowemoc. It occurred, of all places, on a little stream less than 45 minutes from my home in Hendersonville, North Carolina (the name plumb escapes me—yeah, right!). And, it happened, not in the spring, but in the dead of winter—in January, if you can believe it. The fish was probably 22″ long, a rainbow with a beautiful red slash down its side, and an estimated weight of two-and-a-half pounds. The fly was a size 20 pheasant tail nymph, fished as a dropper behind a larger nymph.
Now, before you go asking me if I got a picture of my prize trout, I’ll tell you right off, the answer is “no.” To understand why, you have to wrap your mind around a concept called “catch and release.” We serious fly fishermen would rather cut off our arm than kill a trout. In fact, when speaking of the practice of catch and release, legendary fly fisherman Lee Wulff once said, “A good game fish is too valuable to be caught only once.” (I had the honor of meeting Lee, not long before he died at the age of 86, in 1991.)
So respectful am I of my finny adversaries that I have stopped carrying a net. Once I have a fish within reach, I slide my hand down the fine nylon leader, grasp the fly and give it a quick twist. Since I tie most of my flies on barbless hooks, I’m guaranteed of a clean release without having to touch the fish. Because of this practice, it’s virtually impossible to get a picture, unless one of my buddies is nearby with his camera. On this particular occasion, such was not the case. However, my friend Gene was close enough to see the fish and to attest to the accomplishment of a lifetime—at least for me.
Will I ever have another “20/20” day? The chances are pretty good. Why do I say that? One of the benefits of fishing the local rivers here in North Carolina is the fact that the insect life is sparse, and what flies there are tend to be tiny, and most of the larger fish are stocked by the state. But in order to catch them, it is almost always necessary to use very small flies—which makes it even more likely that I’ll have an opportunity to duplicate the feat.
Now, the challenge is not so much catching the 20″ fish on the size 20 fly, it’s figuring out how to insure that a fellow angler is standing in the water next to me when I do it—with a damned camera!
NOTE: If you enjoyed this post, you may very well enjoy reading one of the books in my Matt Davis Mystery Series. The last three books in the series, Opening Day, Twice Bitten, and Broken Promises, are all set in the small upstate New York town of Roscoe, famous as Trout Town USA and America’s Ultimate Fishing Town. Each one has at least one or more scenes in it involving fly fishing, which happens to be my passion, as well as that of Matt Davis, Roscoe’s fictitious chief of police.
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