Friend’s story of a big fish in a small river

My New Vest – by Joe Odierna – Guest Contributor

Caleb Smith State Park, July 16, 2020

I finally decided to retire my tactical vest and go back to a traditional one.  I called my fishing buddy,  told him the news and he replied “Well now you have to break it in, when we going fishing?” Tom is well acquainted with the park as he has fished it since the 70’s and having him show me around is an offer I just couldn’t refuse.  The next day we are at Caleb Smith State Park. We booked sites 6 and 7.

A couple of weeks prior, he caught a beautiful 20 inch rainbow so I am hopeful that they are still around. They don’t stock fish that size, more like 12 -15 is what you’d expect.  A 20 incher most likely came out of Vail Pond where inaccessible weed filled water allows them to grow undisturbed. It is practically impossible to work a fly in that muck much less catch a fish, but I’m sure they just love living in there, getting as big as torpedoes.

Vail Pond, Pier 11 in July

We meet up at 7:30 and there is one gentleman in front of us and two more are scheduled taking beats 3, 4, and 5 which are known to hold more fish, even if they are freshly stocked.  The attendant opens the gate and does her rounds to make sure nothing is amiss with the park before checking us in.  She comes back and places a pretzel container with a cut in the top on the ground.  We tell her our names as we place the $25 fee in the container so as not to have any issues with COVID.  We are, of course, all wearing our masks!  If you go, bring exact change.

The gent in front of us must have had site 4 since he drove in, Tom and I walk.  He shows me the sign to enter site 6 and offers to come along to point out a few likely spots and techniques that have worked here before.  I have only been to Caleb twice before, once during a TU cleanup and one other time. 

I like to cast 20-30-40 feet.  There are not too many spots at Caleb where you can do that.  Roll casting, using the current, and dapping are the best tactics here.  Trees and bushes abound.  The path we take to 6 is dense with trees, blow downs, bushes and it isn’t really a path but a small tributary we traverse in order to get to the river.

Joe working Beat 7

We came out in a nice little area where fish should have been everywhere.  Tom suggests I fish every spot a trout might be as they usually do not show themselves too readily.  He starts above me, giving me pointers on presenting the fly since I’m still trying to haul out 30 feet of line.  That isn’t going to work here.  “Roll cast, then feed line down to ’em. Mend to the left to get it in the current heading under the bush, then feed some more line” is what I hear.  I am getting the hang of it, but to no avail.  No one was home or, if they were, not interested in my offerings.

Rather than continuing his coaching, Tom goes downstream to let me find my own rhythm. Our plan is for me to work my way to him.  No sooner does he leave than I see her.  A behemoth of a rainbow just cruising her way downstream.  I motion to Tom and he suggests that I wait her out to see if she comes back.  In the meantime, I see a nice 14 incher behind some weeds and try my luck.  This fish is so motionless that I am thinking it is a branch.  Not like I haven’t done that for 20-30 minutes before.  Turns out that this is a trout, just not interested in anything I tossed – or maybe I tossed too much, too often.  I offered a sulphur, sulphur emerger, and an Adams.   No reaction even though I notice some naturals passing by.

After some time here I walk to meet up with Tom.  He motions to me to come over, and signals for me to do it QUIETLY.  Who, me?  Not be quiet?  Several fish are rising.  A couple on this side of the bush and a couple on the other.  He offers me the fish, asking how I would prefer to approach them – from above or below.  I prefer casting from below so go back upstream and take the path that goes down to the weir. He heads over to the other side of the bush and takes a seat on the bench.

USGS Station on Beat 7

In the woods, I march my way down to the USGS Station. When I get there, what do I see? Another behemoth, just like the one I saw up above, resting right in front of the weir.  Maybe 15 feet off the opposite shoreline. I think about the rising fish but I can’t pass this up, so I send my sulphur right to her.  My cast is a bit short, so I try again.  This time right on target.  The fly slowly approaches the trout and just as it gets to where I start to get excited, the fly speeds up and rockets past the trout and over the weir.  The water, though it looked slow, is in fact speeding up as it nears the fall.  After a couple of tries I tie on a small sulfur nymph thinking it will drop below the surface and right into her mouth.  After fixing my tippet, tying on the fly and making one bad cast, I try again and put it right in the tree behind me.  I swear I could hear Tom chuckle.

Now I’m tying on more tippet, a new fly, and watching the trout, when out of nowhere comes a second trout, as big if not bigger than the first.  It swims right over to the first one and kind of nudges it as if saying, “Come on honey, let’s go for a swim.” And off they went, slowly upstream. 

Now’s my chance.  I can finally get a decent cast in, right in front of the two of them, and hopefully one will take my fly.  Yea, right.  Nothing doing. 

Next I try the far bank which is completely covered in shadow, the water shallow and the bottom murky with a small trickle of water coming in.  Surely an ideal place for a trout. I cast and think I see a small one approach my fly, but my fly submerges, snagged on a branch.  I slowly pull the line trying not to snap off my fly nor disturb any fish.  I get the branch to move and am able to break off the part which holds my fly.  I toss the part I recovered out of the water so as not to snag on it again but leave what is under water.

Well rested, the original rising fish in the channel between the midstream bush and the bank get active again as Tom sits on the bench across from them watching.  I tie on a size 14 sulphur emerger and try my luck.  There is more than one and I, at first, target the nearest. A little farther upstream of this fish, right at the distance I like to cast, another fish rises that I had not seen before.

Fish on!

I switch targets and cast to him.  And BAM, I’m on.  I yell to Tom, “I got one” and start reeling.  It feels heavy but not much of a fight.  Not much of a fight because it is coming straight at me!  I see the fish and get nervous as it has been a challenge my entire fishing career landing big fish.  I’ve hooked more than a few, but always manage to lose them; either they get hung up in the weeds, go into a submerged log, or I simply miss netting them.  I guess I need more practice – like this. 

The fish is huge and coming toward me.  I get my net and assume it will go right in.  As soon as it sees the net, it wants nothing to do with it or me and heads down, spinning me around. I keep as much tension on her as I feel will bring her in, but not so much as to snap my 5X tippet.  She responds and, finally, I get her to the net and IN. 

I can’t believe it.  Tom and I are amazed at the size of this fish.  I had yet to land a 20” trout and this one, finally, did it for me.  I measured her on the mother of pearl inserts in my net handle: not 20, but 22 inches, on the Nissequogue, at Caleb Smith, Beat 7.

Joe’s 22 inch Rainbow

(See it on YouTube!)

Well, after coming down from that high I started fishing again.  Tom elected to head upstream and after a bit of casting to the first fish I remembered what Tom had said to me earlier in the day.  “These fish usually will only strike your first cast, so make it good.”  I freshen up my tippet and put on a new fly, a size 16 parachute sulphur emerger, one with a small white foam post vs hair or fibers.  It sits nicely in the surface film.  I return to the small fish back in the shadows and first cast hits the mark. Bam.  I’m on. 

Now this doesn’t feel like a small fish and when I see him jump a foot out of the water I know it’s not. He charges me and jumps again, and again, and again; then I see him heading back to the shadows, right past the remains of the branch I got tangled up on before.  Why didn’t I take all of that branch out?

Somehow, I manage to flip my line over and around the branch just as it was starting to get tangled and the trout jumps again.   A few seconds later he is in the net.  A “small” 19 inch rainbow.  This had to be the best fishing day of my life! Well, at least the best day at Caleb.

Another Rainbow for Joe

Oh, by the way, I really like my new vest, comfortable, light and, apparently, it attracts big fish! 

Good Day!