A good river is productive enough to make you happy, yet still challenging enough to frustrate you.
Though this applies to even my favorite steelhead rivers in Southeast, the frustration is different when you travel because it burrows like a warble fly you can’t reach since it’s not your home river and your time is limited. The North Platte (Wyoming) has joined the White (Arkansas) and Madison (Montana) as rivers on which I had legendary days by my standards but also flopped bad enough to bring me to tantrum. It’s like the river saying “Hey, guy, it’s not that easy.”
When you are lured to fishing grounds with stellar reputations, you sometimes get reminded that the all-time fish are sacred. While I can remember every river for the good, it’s the bad that seems to preserve better in my memory. I lost an epic fish on the White. I never caught a cutthroat on the Madison. I got skunked my second day on the North Platte.
I guess fishing has to have failure because if you owned every river every time there wouldn’t be much excitement in guaranteed success. However, I don’t think I would get tired of catching 50-pound king salmon.
Anyway, a place called the Miracle Mile gets its name because of something. Reputation is a funny thing because it goes hand-in-hand with expectations and there is no clear standard, especially if it’s your first time there.
So, should the expectation be the potential for one trout at 28 inches or half a dozen, none smaller than 18 inches? It does not take much to Alaskanize this but dialogue is a bit different at home this time of year because a good day is measured in how fast one can catch a limit and how big the salmon were.
My goal on the North Platte river in south central Wyoming was one fish. I wanted it to be a corker, of course, because this is the Miracle Mile. I’ve caught 16-18 inch brown trout on the Upper Sacramento River, Pit River and the White River. The best I got on the Madison was an incredibly beautiful, but only 15-inch fish. So, I’m well short of the brown trout of a lifetime. Which is probably good, because once I bring a mega-brown to hand, then what? Am I just destined for disappointment? Will I turn into one of those dudes who dismisses things like beauty because it’s just about catching fish in that elite class? Twenty-six or bust?
I can say that I would appreciate the big fish and never lose my passion for browns even after I catch one that’s wall worthy. Of course, I also said that I would be happy with just one nice fish, per day, on the Miracle Mile.
I caught a fish on the second cast. Then the third and put my rod down so my girlfriend could have the first shot through the bottom of the run. Both my fish were rainbows around 17 inches and she caught one herself. Things were cooking fast. Later I caught another, then a sucker fish, then the brown I can come to The Mile for, a brown trout pushing 19 inches.
It was only a little later that I got greedy and figured there were bigger ones out there and I wanted one of them. Next up was the mega-brown.
It was also later that I stopped catching fish and my drought continued until we left the next day.
I left the river with that familiar feeling of incompleteness that comes with fishing. Things are great, you’re happy, the trip was worth it. But man, what if …
• Jeff Lund is a writer and teacher based in Ketchikan. His column “I Went To The Woods,” a reference to Henry David Thoreau, appears twice a month.