One hot August day, back before we knew computers could handle years beginning with “2”, Dr. Marcus Feely hooked the largest trout to ever come out of Fish in a Barrel Pond. The Neverwas Nonesuch Angling Society had never hung a fish on its walls, choosing not to emphasize trophies, but Dr. Feely insisted. He even paid for the mounting himself and bought the impressive brass plaque that hangs beneath it, engraved with his name, the date and the names of four men listed as witnesses. Sooner or later, whether you want him to or not, Doc Feely will tell you all about that fish.
I’ve heard Doc’s story so many times I know it by heart. It is dazzling and well-polished but there are doubters, most notably Peter Morton, the last living “witness” named on the plaque beneath Doc’s trout.
“None of us wanted our names on that plaque,” he confided one evening. “I don’t believe it happened the way he says it did and I want you to help me set the record straight. Write it down and put it up on that TwitBook thing you have on the internet. Thousands of people will see it!”
“Well, Peter,” said I, “it’s called a blog and I don’t think more than a dozen people will see it.”
“Come on, Quill, help me out here. I’ll give you twenty bucks! I’m the only one left who can poke a hole in that little windbag.”
I protested mildly that it was Doc’s fish and he should be allowed to tell the story his way but Peter broke out a bottle of single malt and I had no choice but to hear what he had to say. We sat by the fire in the lodge for nearly two hours, drinking and talking about that fish. We wanted to take it down from the wall for a closer look but Doc had bolted it to the wall so we stood on chairs and by the end of the evening I had to agree there was something fishy about Doc’s story.
What follows is the tale of Doc Feely’s very large trout, just not quite the way he tells it:
After a fishless morning, Doc had refilled his flask and was back on the water as a breeze ruffled the surface and dark clouds loomed to the west. He had been trolling, bouncing a pair of heavy wooly buggers off the bottom with nary a strike, but now his permanently bent rod was bent further than usual and his reel sang as it gave up line. With a twist of the tiller he adjusted his motor from full-speed to full-stop. Then he lifted his rod from its holder and began to crank, reeling in slack until his line was tight.
The boat creeped backwards and it became clear to Doc that he had, once again, hooked a brush pile. There were several of these sunken piles scattered around the lake, placed by the Fishery Improvement Committee to provide habitat for invertebrates. As far as Doc Feely was concerned, both the piles and the bugs were a damn nuisance.
He tugged on his line until the branch to which it was hooked broke free. His hooks were deeply embedded in the waterlogged wood, his leader was wrapped around it several times and, as the breeze picked up, two things became perfectly clear. First, this time he really was going to fire off a strongly-worded letter to the board about that bunch of bug-hugging brush-sinkers and second, it was too windy to recover his rig where he was so he brought the mess aboard and motored toward the shelter of Green Damselfly Cove.
The sky grew dark and thunder rumbled as Doc freed his flies and tossed the heavy, wet chunk of wood over the side. He examined his line and leader, made sure there were no knots where knots should not be, tightened those that were where they should have been and dropped the tandem of heavy flies into the dark, troubled water. He stripped line off his reel, letting it sink while he took a pull from his flask and reached for his rod. The rod did not make it to its holder, though, because at that very instant thunder rumbled again, this time from 50 yards away.
At that distance the thunder didn’t rumble, it roared and even though Doc saw the flash of purple-white lightning streak down the trunk of a nearby pine he wasn’t so sure he hadn’t been struck himself. With one hand holding his rod he cranked the tiller control and was off, just as fast as a guy pushing a wooden rowboat with an electric trolling motor can go.
Away from the shelter of the cove, Doc’s boat took the wind and waves broadside. Tossed and turned, he struggled to steer as the storm began to rage and fat raindrops fell from the blackened, lowering sky. He felt a tug on his line, took his hand off the tiller and reeled in, cranking for all he was worth and keeping his rod as high as he could. Bobbing and spinning in the flashing, roaring tempest, Doc tried to roar back but only managed a feeble, girlish squeal as he brought in line with his hands over his head.
He cursed the storm as the rain came down but he kept reeling while he drifted out of control. Lightning slashed across the sky and water sloshed at his feet as he pumped his rod up and down, trying to gain the upper hand, but his tugs drew no response. Incredulous that anyone could think brush piles in a pond were a good idea, Doc Feely was also a good deal scared and thoroughly soaked. Sputtering and squealing in the loud, pouring rain, he jammed his rod into its holder and took control of his wildly bucking boat.
Bright flashes reflected off the water lapping at his ankles and tremendous booms bounced off the hillsides as he accelerated into the waves, trailing line behind in the chop. His rod throbbed and his reel screamed as the line played out but Doc didn’t stop. It was full speed ahead, brush piles and lightning strikes be damned.
Ninety feet of line and close to a hundred yards of backing were stretched tight between the reel and Doc’s flies and, because someone else had tied them, the arbor and nail knots held. Something had to give as his electric motor strained, his rod flexed and waves crashed all around. The bow of his boat came up as rainwater collected in the stern and he was in danger of taking on water over the transom when his line relaxed a bit and he began to make headway again, dragging the heavy obstruction behind him.
Doc Feely, in spite of what he might tell you, had no idea what was on the end of his line and there was no heroic stoicism to his storm-lashed journey across the lake. He squealed and whimpered all the way, tossed about and at the mercy of wind and waves. Images of shore and the dock strobe-flashed before him as he was swept along, closer and closer, until his upraised bow hit the dock with a crash, dropping the stern and allowing the churning lake to pour in. The boat slid back, pivoted and was hit mid-ship by a surge. Bamboo splinters flew as Doc’s formerly bent rod snapped beneath a cleat and his squealing became more of a banshee wail, not so much for the loss of a rod as for the dunking he took when his ship went down.
He stood there, up to his shoulders in water four feet deep, while the storm moved on. The wind diminished and the rain stopped. Rumbles of thunder faded and the turbulent water calmed. Fish rose, taking insects downed by the tumult and two feet away, right before his very eyes, a may fly nymph swam to the surface, shed its skin and spread its wings to dry in the sun as a rainbow appeared to the east.
“Goddam bugs,” said Doc to himself as he brought his hand down hard, crumpling the delicate form that had been three years in the making.
Doc Feely stepped out of his sunken boat and began to wade ashore. He slipped on a rock, catching himself before he fell, but his foot caught a loose loop of backing and he went down with a splash. Now sitting, he reached down and started gathering coils of Dacron. Faster and faster he pulled and soon he was gathering his bright green fly line, drawing in the mysterious weight at the end. When he finally reached that end it is possible he peed himself (it would have been hard to tell, he was so wet) when he realized the dead weight he’d brought in was a fish.
Doc had not snagged one of those infernal brush piles after all!
What Doc did not know was just how close he’d come. The brush piles were doing what they were supposed to do and teemed with aquatic life. Some fish, especially the over-large, past-prime brooders stocked as trophies, spent nearly all of their time around the piles, hanging near the bottom and gorging themselves on whatever crayfish or insects crawled or swam close enough to inhale. Doc had missed the brush pile by inches when he dropped his flies overboard but not the pile’s resident brown trout.
The fish he now held had been dimly aware of the heavy flies that settled at its side and was considering moving when the lightning struck and Doc took off. The line had tightened and the two flies followed but the lead fly’s trajectory drove its hook into the trout’s right side pectoral fin. Momentum carried the second fly over the fish’s head and back around, again and again like a tether ball on a pole, wrapping the gill covers shut before the point of the hook slipped easily into the back of its head, where spine meets skull, killing it instantly.
Even if that fish hadn’t had its brain pierced there was little chance of escape. It had been bounced, twisted and jerked about so much during Doc’s wild ride home that it was completely wrapped in fly line, with a nifty half hitch at the tail.
The details and analysis were not important to Doc at that moment. There would be plenty of time for that stuff later on. Working quickly, he untangled his fish and pulled the hooks from its fin and head. Stepping back out to his sunken boat he retrieved his broken rod, then he scrambled onto the dock and stood in the sunshine hugging his fish. Thrusting the splintered bamboo high above his head, Dr. Marcus Feely let out a long, primal yell.
His cottage mates had heeded the weather forecast and spent the afternoon watching the Red Sox and drinking beer at the Tartan Moose Tavern. They were just returning when Doc cut loose and they came running, expecting to see something wild and dangerous. When they realized the noise was coming from Doc Feely and then saw the giant brown trout he held, their reactions were exactly what you would expect.
“Where’d you buy that fish, you chucklehead?” asked Peter Morton.
“What’s your water doing in my boat?” asked Jim Davis.
“Fishin’ with chopsticks?” asked Jon Van Camp.
“Why’s that fish got a hole in its head?” asked Bill Moss.
Doc drove home with his fish on ice that evening, upset that his friends had doubted him before he’d even said a word. So what if he hadn’t been fishing as long as they had and so what if he didn’t go in for that hoity-toity dry fly nonsense or know the difference between an emerger and a nymph? He had the fish and they didn’t, never mind how he’d caught it. There was plenty of time to fill in the details later.