Thursday, September 16, 2010


Roy Scheider famously delivered that line after seeing the shark for the first time in the movie Jaws. I muttered a variation on that line this morning, on the banks of the American. "I need a bigger fly rod," is what I said.

Friends had told me tales about the striped bass that migrate into the river to spawn in the summer. Tall tales, I thought, about adult ducks being slurped underwater, down into the predator's maw.

It's possible, I thought. My field guide to Sacramento's Outdoor World says some stripers can reach 70 pounds. Big Mo is what one of my friends calls that fish, the mythical fish that gets him up before first light and out the door with a 10 weight rod. The guide book also says most stripers weigh less than ten pounds and, until this morning, stripers hadn't captured my imagination.

The steelhead is the fish that gets me out before dawn -- with a six weight spey rod in my hand on fall mornings. On this particular fall morning I was walking downstream, shadowing two does and two fawns on the river's other bank. Lost in that moment, I rounded the bend on a brushy island just as a fisherman connected with a steelhead.

The silver fish leaped into the air and tore across the deep pool. I joined the fisherman in shouts of marvel and wonder at the half-pounder's athleticism and positioned myself up and above him to get a good look down into the pool.

That's when I saw Mo. That's when I knew I needed a bigger fly rod.

Mo's gray shape came up from the depths of the pool and attacked the steelhead. It was like watching a shark. The fisherman's pole bent in half and he asked me if I saw what he just saw.

The fisherman didn't surrender the steelhead. He hung on as the steelhead twisted free of the striper and ran downstream, trying to escape the pool. But the steelhead was unable to escape the hook and the line and when the fisherman turned him back toward the edge of the pool that dark shape reappeared and struck again. The steelhead disappeared behind the striper's jaws.

The fishing pole folded over and the fisherman slid down the bank and ankle deep into the river. He held on, determined not to lose "his" steelhead to the striper. Eventually, he was able to move both fish closer to the bank.

When that striper moved into shallower water, when he was within two or three feet of the surface, he saw us and simply released the steelhead. He vanished under the cloak of deep water.

Tomorrow morning, in the dark, on the tailgate of my pickup, I'll rig the biggest rod I have, an eight weight, and tie the biggest clouser minnow in my streamer box to the strongest-test Maxima I have; and I'll mutter to myself, "I need a bigger fly rod."