A Belated Birthday Gift

It was a day on which I envisioned landing a 21-inch fish in commemoration of my birthday.

  • By: Steven Spigelmyer
A birthday wish come true

Fly-fishing is the most therapeutic hobby in the world. Whether just standing in the middle of a river in awe of the beautiful scenery surrounding you, or in the midst of a fight with a trout, fly-fishing is soothing. It’s an escape from traffic, pollution, school, work or anything that could possibly stress you out. On the river nothing else matters, it’s just you, the fly and the fish. The only problems running through your mind are problems with yourself like“Why can’t I pick the right fly?”; or“How am I going to get a good drift past that back eddy?” Everything else is pushed aside, and left to worry about another time. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember a word of this as I prepared to float The Box Canyon section of the Henry’s Fork for my 21st birthday.

A relaxing day on the river sounded like an impossibility with all the huge fish waiting to eat my fly. No, today wasn’t about taking in the scenery and enjoying the boat ride; rather it was a day on which I envisioned landing a 21-inch fish in commemoration of my birthday.

When I hear people talk about landing a 21-inch fish I’m always amazed. Not that I haven’t seen a fish that big—I have—but I hear it with such regularity now that I become trout-conscious about my fish. I’m forced to wonder if the 18-inch trout I was catching were sick, or hadn’t been feeding properly. And it was this type of trout-consciousness that had me salivating about landing a fish better than 20-inches.

Fishing the Madison river I always know I have the opportunity to hook a big fish, but without a boat I often times realize that even if I do hook a fish of a lifetime, the odds of me landing it are very slim. So when my buddy Curtis offered to float me down the Box for my 21st, I quickly obliged, especially since the river owed me.

I wouldn’t usually ever say a river owed me anything, but when it comes to this section of the Henry’s Fork, it is true. I recall floating down The Box five times, and I only remember landing one fish in those five floats. The one fish I recall was from a trip down about 10 days ago, but after catching the fish and preparing for a picture I realized that my battery pack was conveniently plugged into an outlet at Curtis’s cabin. Catching that beautiful fish without a camera left me aching for more, so as I prepared for my birthday float I made sure I put my camera, and battery, in the boat right away. I was ready to kill em’; it was my birthday and the river owed me; nothing could go wrong.

Only nobody told the river that it owed me anything, or that since it was my birthday I was supposed to catch a 20-inch fish. In fact, the river didn’t even know I was supposed to catch one fish. I got skunked, caught a grand total of zero trout. It was a day in which I fished for more than eight straight hours, where I hit every run with precision, switched between every fly in my box but I still couldn’t get one measly fish. I was disappointed, discouraged, and completely deflated, and that’s what my problem was.

Fly-fishing isn’t something that should ruin a night of fun, definitely not a 21st birthday, but as we prepared to go out that night I couldn’t get my mind off that river. I could visualize myself hitting the perfect spot, only to have no fish take it. I had wanted a big fish so bad, but had been left empty handed. But something inside me said to be patient and relax, something good would happen. Then Curtis agreed to take me down river the next day, and it was apparent that something special was in store.

I tried to remain calm all morning, counting down the time until we could push off into the blue again. I had tried to push aside all thoughts of big fish, I simply wanted one, but even that proved difficult early on. I once again tied on numerous nymph patterns that received about as much attention as a hamburger would have—none. After the first few miles and first several hours of the day flew by without one fish, I began to lower my expectations.

Maybe I expected too much, perhaps I should be content with just floating and enjoying the amazing Idaho air and mountains. But I wasn’t content, far from it, so instead of re-tying on my nymph rig I cut it off, and tied on a big size 4 Golden Stone. It wasn’t the prettiest of flies, and it barely floated but I had seen the huge stoneflies all over the water the last two days, and hoped that this would be the ticket.

Almost immediately after I tied on I hooked my first fish of the weekend, a massive 6-inch rainbow. Although not a 20-incher, it was a fish and after not even being hooked up for 24 hours it was good to actually feel something on my line.

As we kept floating the sun beat on our backs, the mosquitoes in our faces and the cooler was now empty. We would need to get back quicker now, so Curtis rowed faster. Then slap, another fish hit my fly, a beautiful rainbow that was undoubtedly 16 inches. We rowed to a back eddy and I landed the fish. It made my day; I knew that I didn’t need another trout for the rest of the short journey back. I wasn’t trying to be greedy, I had an amazing birthday and was able to float down a river two days in a row, no matter what happened from there on I knew I would never forget my 21st birthday. And then it happened.

With only a mile left of the float, I began pounding my Golden Stone into every slick, behind every rock and on top of every drop off. And as I cast behind a boulder, letting my fly float perfectly in a back eddy, a small fish rose and gave me the tail (slapping my fly with his tail, but refusing to eat it). Curtis laughed at this, even mocked that the fish was smaller then the fly. All of a sudden my fly had disappeared, directly into the mouth a monster rainbow trout.

“That one’s not small!” I yelled, and then just as I said it the fish took a leap into the air that looked more like a sailfish then a trout. Everyone on the boat let out a“whoa” or“did you see that” and the fight was on. This was the fish I had dreamed about. I continued to fight him, struggling to keep him out of the faster water so he wouldn’t bolt down river. Then after ten minutes I let out the happiest scream of my life. The fish was in the net, in my hand, and in my camera. A true 21-inch trout, for my 21st birthday.