Losing It

Jack Kós laments the one that got away

Loss: one of the worst and most harrowing of feelings. In angling terms no pain is greater than losing a good fish late in the fight. I’ve never quite seen tears, but few moments in an angler’s life compare to the sheer intensity of such a loss. We all deal with it in a different fashion. I’m a silent mourner. I collapse to my knees, ashen faced, and bask in my own self-pity. My friends know not to say anything, because no words of consolation will help. Give me a few minutes and I’ll come right. My friend Andrew Hearne is more of a quick rip of the band-aid type. The words from his mouth, and the volume they’ve been uttered at, need to be heard to be believed. One such incident that was captured on video was immediately deleted for fear of the damage it could do to the moral fabric of society. But it’s a one and done. After that brief vitriolic outburst he returns to normal and gets on with the job at hand — catching the next fish. Others fall somewhere in the middle. They seem a little upset at the time, but really that’s just the beginning. Over the course of the trip they dwell on that one fish. It comes to signify the success of the trip, their skill as an angler or their merit as a human being. In other words they blow it way out of proportion by dwelling on it. In many ways I think Andrew’s got it right. Let the anger, frustration and disappointment out immediately, and move on. Of course, not all losses necessitate such theatrical displays. The loss of an average fish, or even a good fish on a red-letter day, is unlikely to warrant anything more than a quick, “Bugger.” But occasionally, be it because of circumstance or the particular fish at the end of the line, a loss will hit you hard and where it hurts. Like a spoiled toddler, the more you want something the harder it is to process the fact that you can’t have it. Over the years I can think of but a handful of fish that have truly devastated me upon their premature escape, and typically they have been very big. How big? Well, I wish I could tell you. One incident occurred when Andrew and I were experiencing a frustrating day on New Zealand’s West Coast. Having reached what was undoubtedly the best water we’d seen all day, we were both surprised and disappointed to find it empty. It wasn’t until we were almost standing on the fish that we saw it — a substantial smudge, finning in fast and heavy pocket water immediately above the pool. It took one drift with an oversized Klinkhamer, tied at the Collingwood backpackers the night before, to bring the fish up. Immediately the battle began with the trout tearing amongst fluorocarbon-shredding boulders and into the body of the pool. The fight seemed to go on forever. Perhaps it has grown significantly more epic in the annals of my memory, but at one point I could swear the fish and I were circling a boxing ring, exchanging blows. Eventually I was sure I had the upper hand. The fish was tiring and I was beginning to prep the net. That was my mistake: never tempt fate. With one final, vicious, kick of its broad tail it turned and snapped my heavily abraded tippet. I was left sitting on a rock, head in hands, wondering what I could possibly have done differently and whether I would ever feel truly happy again. I’m not going to pretend that I got over that fish immediately, because I didn’t. It lingered, and truthfully it still lingers. But I’m no longer bitter about it, and I look back on it with a certain fondness now. Anything that elicits that intensity of emotion ultimately has value and fuels our desire and drive to succeed in the next melee. Very occasionally a pulled hook or snapped tippet doesn’t signal the end. I’ve encountered half a dozen situations over the years where, through pure luck or gritty determination, a lost fish has ended up in the net one way or another. Two seasons ago, Tim Angeli and I were battling our way through an exceptionally trying week of fishing in North Canterbury. For three days we had landed just one fish, early on the morning of the first day (astonishing how ominous an early fish can be!). On the fourth day I did the seemingly impossible and hooked a fish. There was nothing spectacular whatsoever about the fishing, the fish or the fight, and yet the circumstances meant that we, collectively, needed to land this fish. From the start I felt the pressure as the potential success or failure of the trip lay across my shoulders. As the fight reached its conclusion and our hopes for redemption began to swell, Tim reached out with the net and I attempted to coerce the trout those last few inches when… ping. Flies and tippet flew back towards me as I turned my head to observe their flight. All of a sudden Tim’s voice shattered the melancholy that had settled on me like fog. “Yep, got ’em!” Oblivious as I was to Tim’s successful netting, he had been equally unaware of the fact that the hook had pulled and he had simply netted the fish as he had always intended to do. On several occasions I’ve witnessed Andrew Hearne, who certainly does not want for determination, take an opportunistic net-shot at a fish as its newfound freedom dawns upon it, and come up with the goods. At times his approach takes the form of a deft swipe, and at other times it’s more akin to a churning of the water. While these situations lack the purity of a fish coming to the net in a conventional manner, the sheer rollercoaster of emotions associated with hooking, losing and then, against the odds, subsequently landing a fish is one hell of a fun ride. Undoubtedly the greatest reaction to loss that I have ever encountered was by Nelson guide Mike Kirkpatrick. We were fishing a river system, renowned for big fish, early in the season before angling pressure made them shy and difficult. That was the theory at least. Over two days I caught just one fish, albeit an excellent one. Mike fared much better, with three fish to the bank in the first day and a half. At the very head of a pool, tucked right in to the edgewater we found a vividly spotted brown sitting just under the surface. After a couple of quick presentations safely to one side to gauge the distance, Mike cast his #14 Dad’s Favourite so as to come perfectly down the fish’s feeding window. The brown did exactly as it was supposed to do, and lifted confidently to feed. Upon feeling resistance, the fish attempted to head downstream straight for the ocean while I photographed Mike running after it. After an impressive aerial display, the fight entered that formulaic phase where slowly diminishing circles see the fish come ever closer to the waiting net. It was at this point that both Mike and I realised that the trout was stunning. There wasn’t a mark on it, and its bright orange flanks housed a myriad leopard-like spots. The anguish on Mike’s face as his rod unflexed whilst his fly sailed past his head was visceral, but fleeting. Ever the optimist, Mike whipped out his net and slowly crept in behind the now recovering fish, which was sitting in waist deep water a couple of metres from the edge. Formulating his plan of action, he stood like a heron observing his prey. In one fell swoop Mike pounced with remarkable commitment. A little too much commitment, as the photos will attest. They say he could have swum for New Zealand… Sadly the fish evaded him, but I certainly commend him for the effort, and for providing me with such an entertaining set of images and a memory that I shan’t forget anytime soon. Loss takes many forms, and it affects us all in different ways. As time goes on I find that what I remember most from fish I’ve landed is not the encounter itself, but the photograph afterwards. Memories become retrospectively constructed from the photograph and my awareness of the actual event fades over time. Yet when you lose a fish there are no grip and grins; no glory shots. There’s simply that painfully clear moment when you feel the rod unbuckle, feel tension leave the hand, and watch as your line sails back towards you. No photos, and yet memories so clear it’s as if they’re seared on your retina for eternity. The foregoing contains significant creative licence as to the actual extent of the anguish. After all, it’s just fishing.

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