I headed up the West Coast for business a few weeks ago. My job for the day was to investigate a possible bacterial disease outbreak in a sea trout aquaculture system and I was considering to throw a fly into the sea as an added bonus to the trip. While I find the barren West Coast landscape attractive, the cobalt blue Atlantic stroking its shore reminds me of the feeling I get when I see silicone boobs…There are few things that can spoil a perfect day for me, but cold water and fake body parts are at the top of the list.
Nevertheless, I had packed in my fly rod, scheming that I’d squeeze in at least one hour’s fishing after finishing my work for the day. The time to hike a few kilometres over soft sand came sooner than expected and I reached my fishing destination just after lunch. Keeping in mind that I still had a return trip of four hours ahead of me, I quickly rigged my rod and tied a Clouser to 6.75 kg (15 lb) tippet (variations of Clouser Minnows are my favourite search patterns in the sea and I have a lot of confidence in them – they have the ability to fool many fish species). The place I intended to fish was well known for big garrick; fish that can be frustratingly line shy. So even though there was a risk of losing a big fish on thin line, I figured the odds of refusals on thicker line a greater problem.
The tide was dropping fast by the time I started casting the fly over the edge of a deep drop-off. I let the intermediate line sink to what I thought was about halfway down and retrieved the fly with short, jerky strips. It was on my third cast that the line was pulled into the opposite direction so that it ‘clacked’ hard against the rod. I simply continued my stripping motion, which set the hook gently. There was a calm and controlled resistance at the other end and I could not figure out how big the fish was or what it was that I had hooked.
I lifted the rod and applied more pressure to the fly line and it responded by yanking the tip down and running me deep into backing. Then, about 60 metres away from me the big silver fish jumped…”A garrick that jumps?” I thought sceptically while dropping the rod to the side, forcing the fish to stay down. Then it rushed straight at me and leapt clear of the water right in front of me. I identified the fish, which sent a cold shiver down my spine. It was an elf (shad, or bluefish in the USA) and not just any elf, the mother of all live elf that I had ever seen. These fish are famous for biting through nylon with their sharp teeth and I was connected to it with the thinnest line I’d dare use for ‘toothless’ saltwater game fishes…I realised that if I landed the fish, it would be pure luck.
It was a lost case in my mind, but I applied less pressure on the fish nonetheless, hoping that the fish would change direction less frequently and so reduce line-abrasion on the teeth. The elf seemed confused by the release of pressure on the thing that was stuck in its mouth and it started swimming in a circle on the surface, shaking its head violently to throw the hook. Its reaction was the last thing I expected and out of desperation I forced it into shallow water and beached the ‘monster’ elf (elf can grow to approx. a metre in length and although the fish I caught was nowhere near that, it was a behemoth compared to the average 20-30 cm fish that frequent our shores in the summer months).
The moment was much bigger than I anticipated, perhaps because of the lack in confidence that I’d actually land the elf. There was an awkward silence as we stared at each other. Its big eye rolled in its socket as it scanned my face; I got the feeling that it was surprised after all its years of evading bigger predators and growing to a size that dominated the food chain, it finally came second and was now lying helplessly in its enemy’s grasp.
I admired the slick body of the fish, covered in beautiful metallic olive armour of fine scales that reflected golden in the sunlight. Its jaws were thick and intimidating; running my index finger over its scissors I realised just how lucky I was. Strands of fluorocarbon were peeling off the main line just above the knot where it made contact with its teeth. The catch was more than I bargained for and without thinking twice about it, I snipped the fly and reeled in the line. I was done there and my day was made.
I left the spot and ‘drifted’ across the sand to my car with a smile on my face. Halfway back I came across another fisherman doing battle with a trophy fish, an enormous bronze whaler (copper shark) that he had hooked behind the shore break. His spool was nearly empty and the fish was already more than 400 m away and heading even further away at a steady pace. Landing the estimated 200 kg fish likely required as much luck as I had landing the elf, if not more, and I knew what emotional torture the poor chap was going through. I wished him all the best and left the deserted place, knowing that he’d probably still be fighting the bronzy by the time I got home.