I don’t think it has ever really happened to me. One time, I came close. I’ll get to that in a minute. Perhaps coming close doesn’t get you in Field & Stream, or it won’t even justify somebody telling others to “come over and hear this!” I’m talking about catching a fish on the last cast. Not just a fish on the last cast, but a fish caught on the last cast after a day of being skunked.
As I mentioned earlier in the week, this fish-tale is taken with the same sort of seriousness as a sasquatch sighting or a chupacabra encounter. Like the “big one that got away” or the “sorry I overslept, man – my alarm must be broken,” all fly fishers that spend time with other fly fishers have heard this preposterous story.
Was it really the last cast? Or, after catching said fish did they keep at it with a new sense of confidence?
Had they really been fishless up until that point? Or was their 8-inch stocker a perfectly legitimate catch before the “real fish” was conquered?
Delving into the story can require some Columbo-esque detective work. But can you blame someone? The only thing more satisfying than a trip redeemed by a late day catch is a trip transformed by a Hail-Mary, last-ditch, stuff of fly shop lore, angling miracle.
It was day two of a three-day trip to the Upper Delaware River system. It was my first time fishing the region, and the immensity of the water was a little intimidating. I’d fished big rivers – big tailwaters, even – but this was just so much water. Surprisingly, on that first day I got into fish. Even though the weather was bipolar (“Why is it so hot for October?,” “Crap, I’ve got to hunker down to get out of this freezing rain!,” etc.) there were caddis a-plenty. Fish on the lower West Branch were more than willing to oblige.
Day two wasn’t as kind. We walked, and walked, and walked. Ankles were twisted, fly boxes were dropped, and streamside brush readily consumed tippet. I did manage to accidentally catch one rainbow right before lunch. (Yes – it was an accident. I think most of the fish I catch on nymphs are just unlucky to be biting at the exact moment when I begin my backcast.) Consequently, as only a fly fisherman can, I didn’t feel entirely satisfied. Again, perhaps this is my revisionist perspective in light of the whole story.
We were going to head back to the cabin, content with the steak and college football that awaited us. “One trout is enough to make me happy,” I lied to myself. It was a lie, because I was staring at the water the whole time. I don’t know what I was expecting to see. Fat, acrobatic trout jumping and waving their fins at me? Regardless, my self-deception was weak enough that I suggested we pull over to fish right above where the East Branch meets the West Branch to form the main stem of the Delaware River. I waded out on river-worn legs, and tied on the productive caddis from the day before.
Scanning the water, I saw a small riseform about twenty yards upstream. Here was my opportunity: a fish I catch using my wits and skill – not just the angling equivalent of Luke blowing up the first death star. (Guess what movie opened today?) Remarkably, my cast was true. The fly drifted delicately towards the spot of the rise. The fish took, and I immediately knew she was more than a little trout. Although I’d caught some thick fish the day before, this rainbow really demonstrated the strength that draws so many to pursue the trout in the Delaware River system. She got into the current, and it took a while to land her.
I felt better about my day. I was ready to be done. The hours and hours of fruitless casting and hiking evaporated. I was content – and from a fish on my last cast, nonetheless! Then I saw it: another riseform. About the same distance upstream, but on the opposite side of the main flow of the river. As quickly as my countenance had improved from that fist fish, it morphed into the insatiable need to hook this new challenger. Fickle, fickle, fickle.
Long story short, it was a brown of about the same size and proportions. I didn’t cast again, as I didn’t see any other rises. No sense in ruining a doubly good thing. I slipped and skidded back to the bank, legs and back temporarily aestheticized from adrenaline.
For a community that thrives on the totality of the experience, anglers’ perspective can really change based upon how a day ends. I’m sure that upon exploration of rods broken in doors, sunglasses sat on, and driftboats run into docks, negative moments at the trips’ conclusion can be equally altering. But the act of completing one’s time on the water with a successful hooking, playing, and landing of a fish is unparalleled. You set out to do something, and the way you wrapped up the time allotted for that activity culminated in completing it. How about that?
This whole sport, like much of life, is all about perspective. A single fish at the end of the day is infinitely more satisfying than one at the beginning. I wonder if that has to do with the nature of fishing outings. We go, knowing we’ll have to come back. We can come back after watching ospreys, having a good cup of coffee, and breathing fresh air – or all of those things plus stories of the epic battle between man and fish. We can talk about the buzzer-beater trout, and hold our heads high.
So, believe the guy in the fly shop or not, it happens. The “last cast fish” is out there. I know from firsthand experience that there are a lot of them. But, I also know that most of them lose their status because I wanted to get into one more, other “last cast fish.”