Column Lynn Burkhead Staring at an empty hole in the water

Some anglers make a career out of big fishing moments, catching bucketmouths that wow the Instagram crowd and become a viral sensation almost overnight.

Others catch a giant fish with significant measurements of girth and length that becomes a replica fish that hangs proudly on the wall for many years to come. And for still others, a huge fish is the focal point of a treasured photo hanging in a den or desk, an image that captures a moment in time that will never be forgotten.

Not me. Instead, I made a career out of angling staring at an empty hole in the water, the kind of hole made by a big fish that got away.

Take, for example, the huge largemouth bass that I hooked up a few years ago on my eight-weight Temple Fork fly rod. One minute the silver fly I was casting that day—a Murdich Minnow, a classic smallmouth in the north, and actually a pretty good fly for bigmouths in Texas, too—was shoving its way through the water with each strip of the clear intermediate line that I cast.

And then suddenly it disappeared, disappearing into a hole in the water created when a huge largemouth bass ate it a few feet away from me. Trying to channel my inner Flip Pallot or Lefty Kreh, I tried to hit the big bass hard with a manual tape hit.

Instead I weakly hit the fish with a full set of trout, as my guide friend Rob Woodruff calls it, raising the tip of the rod like there was a rainbow of 12 inches at the end of the line and not an 11 or 12- pound bass.

For 10 or 20 seconds it was the thrill ride of a fly fisherman’s life as the line came out of the rod guides and into parts unknown. And then suddenly, while dreaming of seeing a fly line return that I hadn’t seen in quite a while, the line went limp. And once the excitement was over, all that was left to do was roll in an empty fly line and think about what might have been.

It’s a feeling that I know unfortunately. Take, for example, a trip long ago with my friend Doug Rodgers, down the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico. While we were fishing with Matt Pyles on a legendary run called Texas Hole, the strike indicator for my nymph rig suddenly disappeared from view.

For a brief second I stared down the hole in the water on one of America’s best trout tail streams. And then I remembered to lift the rod and strike hard, driving the tip of the hook into the jaw of a big rainbow or brown from the San Juan River.

When I did, nothing happened. In fact, I felt like there was nothing but dead weight on the other end of my fly line. Perplexed, I turned to Pyles, who was rowing the drifting boat, and asked him what he thought.

“Sometimes when you hook a really big trout here on the San Juan, it takes them a second or two to realize they’re hooked,” he shrugged, digging into the oars again.

Seconds later, the big trout came to life and headed downstream at high speed. It wasn’t long before my fly line evaporated from the reel, my back was exposed quickly, and the five-weight Temple Fork fly rod was bent in half.

It was then that Pyle broke the bad news to me, noting that with all the drift boat traffic ahead of us, he would have no way to chase and follow the fish. Instead, I was going to have to apply some serious heat and pray for a good ending.

I followed the instructions and re-tightened the brake, starting to fight with a large trout heading for parts unknown. Unfortunately, the heat of the moment doesn’t go well with a big fish, a small fly, and a 6X tippet.

Shortly after, I mumbled again and spun an empty fly line, wondering aloud how big that trout might have been. “Oh, he was tall, okay,” smiled Pyles. “A fish that does what that one did usually weighs six, seven, or eight pounds.”

Perfect, I thought, thinking of my growing collection of those who got away.

A few years ago I looked at another empty hole in the water, this one right after my surface popper hit the surface of a small lake in East Texas. As I did, a huge bass I dubbed Orca leapt out of the water, arcing in the spring air like a bass in an old Heddon Lures commercial.

While fishing with my buddy Rob he yelled something about hammering the hook into the jaw of the five pound bass. I tried to do just that and felt resistance for a few brief seconds. And again, there was another empty fly line to reel in.

See a trend here? Well, me neither.

And then there was that sultry late summer morning a few years ago with Randy Oldfield, one of the best bass guides of all time in East Texas and a man who has seen plenty of fish double digits get into his boat.

That morning, despite the slowly increasing heat of an August day, I had hoped to fish one of the best bass lakes in the state with one of his best guides, catching bass from my life.

And I almost did. In fact, on my third cast that morning I cast a Bill Norman DD-22 decoy in a Tennessee Shad finish to a rig that had been submerged when the Sabine River Authority closed the dam on the river and created 27,264 acres Lake Fork.

On Randy’s instructions, I brought the crankbait across the old platform and into the ditch on the other side. Halfway back to the boat, my lure hesitated. Or rather, it stopped. When I kept casting there was suddenly solid resistance and I growled loudly and told Randy I had a fish.

He asked if it was a good one and I said, “I don’t know yet.” Seconds later we both knew when the big Lake Fork bass rolled to the surface 35 yards from the boat. In fact, we both realized in an instant that not only did I have a good one, but I also had the fish of my life!

As I fought off the big lunker, the bass kept banging his head and trying to dislodge the hooks. I kept casting and brought the fish to the boat. But as Randy swung the net off to the side of his bass rig, the big, heavy mouth saw the flash of the net, made one last bid for freedom, and once again shook his head violently.

And as she did, there was a sudden, awful sound of “SNAPPP!!!” that my monofilament line gave way.

As the fish slowly disappeared into the deep, warm waters of Fork Lake, I slumped in the chair and wondered aloud how big the biggest bass I had ever seen up close really was.

To my question, Oldfield politely told me that I probably didn’t want to know. When I persisted, he again told me to let the sleeping dogs lie. Finally, on my third question, he looked at me, grinned, shook his head, and said, “Lynn, that fish was at least 11 pounds or more, and most likely 12 pounds or more. And next spring, she probably would have been ShareLunker.

All I had wanted to do then – all of the above moments, really – was weigh the fish on a certified scale, measure it for a replica, take a picture of me and the fish of my life , and kiss him Jimmy Houston style before letting him swim away to fight another day.

What made the loss of this Lake Fork giant even harder to swallow was that I had to confess to Oldfield that I hadn’t changed my 14-pound test mono to the 17-pound mono line. or better than he had recommended. Too busy with work, family and other things that week, I thought “Does it really matter?”

In the end – and as he usually does when a guide instructs an angler on what to bring and what to do on a fishing trip – yes, he did. And it’s a hard lesson I’ve never forgotten and a bitter mistake I’ve never repeated since.

But in the end, even though the fish escaped and I failed to get a career-defining big bass cue and a memorable grip and smile photograph, I still smile and remember of one who escaped on a hot summer day deep in the heart of East Texas.

Because sometimes, as I constantly try to prove, or so it seems, the fish wins and runs away. And that’s okay because the memories of great fish fights that end up being lost somehow never seem to fade.

I know this because I am a real expert on the subject.

About Patricia Kilgore

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