It was a spring morning earlier this year and I was casting a little Panther Martin spinner with ultralight tackle on an Upstate New York trout stream. And I was feeling a little bit guilty because it seemed to me that instead of doing it the easy way I ought to have been fishing with a fly rod. Especially since a huge mayfly hatch had just appeared out of nowhere a few minutes ago, and all I had caught all morning on my spinning tackle was a couple of 8-inch browns.
But my fly rods were at home. And anyway, I love spinning. It's how I learned to fish as a kid and it's how I fished all my life until a few years back when friends out West ruined me by putting a 5-weight 9-foot Loomis in my hand and taking me out on the Madison River. Still, spinning is its own inimitable animal. There is nothing like working a sleek, trusty little plug through the unknowns of a trouty-looking stretch of water. It's like high-speed underwater puppeteering, or maybe guiding a tiny Maserati through a rapid-fire course of submerged obstacles and veering runs. All while trying to make your chosen plug perform the panicked "Aiiiee! Chase me!" dance through the precise pocket where you've guessed a trout is poised watching what the current brings past.
For those who fish like they mean it, spinning exacts plenty of other demands, too: Making the surgical cast that zips the plug just beneath the overhanging branch from which your snagged lure would be irretrievable, and drops it neatly into the deep undercut of the bank just in time to get a decent retrieve across the current. Daring to maneuver your sentimentally favorite plug around the barely-visible jutting underwater logs way down in a pool where you're sure a big honker is hunkered down. Reading the water. Deciding whether to take 5 minutes to wrestle with that nasty line tangle buried in the spool or cast around the pesky thing to make the most of the maybe 20 minutes of good fishing time you've got left. Hell, spinning can be plenty tough.
But since I've started flycasting, and occasionally managing to fool a trout who is beyond the foolishness of adolescence, I have had to face the painful truth: Compared with fly fishing, spinning is almost criminally easy. Come on, admit it. When the fish are hungry and hitting, fishing with a spinning rod is like taking a trout census.
But I love spinning anyway, even though on this particular morning I was feeling a little guilty and a little stupid standing in a cloud of mayflies flinging a metal spinner. I was fishing a Panther Martin, which to me is the plug of plugs. It is far and away my favorite trout spinner and maybe my favorite small-water lure. It does everything I like: casts like a bullet, lands where you want it in spite of the wind, sinks quickly in fast water but responds to every twitch of the rod tip, makes a flashing spectacle of itself, and even makes its own brand of underwater ruckus with that patented curve on the spinner blade. Best of all, it catches all kinds of fish in all kinds of water: trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleyes, pike, silver bass, perch, sheephead, even catfish, for God's sake. I am always amazed that I don't see more people using it. Hit a nice stretch of trout water with a small Panther Martin, and there's a good chance that the fish haven't yet seen too awfully much of it. (Why am I divulging this to you?)
So anyway, in my cloud of guilt and mayflies I made what I decided would be one of my last casts before heading back to the car, and I began my retrieve in deep water along a cut in the opposite bank, and POW!! I'd hooked a freight train. I could not yet see the fish; he was bulling for the bottom, ripping out line while my reel drag whined and my little ultralight rod doubled over. Then he made his first run and streaked past my feet in the water, flying downstream, and I saw the torpedo-shaped body almost the length of my leg with its telltale pink-red streak along the side, and before I could let out a yell he made a full body-arching leap, completely clearing the water. He was one of the most beautiful rainbow trout I had ever seen, two feet long at the very least. That was when I really did scream, a full-throated Hollywood blood-curdler, part shock and part primeval thrill.
The trout re-entered with a massive splash – this was a small stream I was fishing, maybe 10 feet across at this point – and he tore off on another mad run, this time toward a far cut bank downstream where I feared he might bury himself in the tree roots. I somehow managed to turn him without blowing it by trying to horse him. My job now was clear: don't lose this fish. I remember telling myself to slow down, to breathe the three-part breath my yoga instructor teaches us, belly-midsection-chest. Easy. Inhale. Exhale. Go with this fish. You're on very light tackle. Follow him, let out line, then lead him gently, then follow some more. Breathe. Don't lose him. Don't lose him.
The rest was a blur. I don't know if I fought him for five minutes or for fifteen before I landed him. My little wooden-handled trout net, plenty big enough for the trout I typically catch, was suddenly a joke; it was just large enough to gain a purchase on this fish's tail so that I could shove him partly ashore once he was exhausted and I was ready to make my final move. I got him partly out of the water, pounced, got my hands around him just behind the gills, and then tried to stop hyperventilating.
He measured out at 25 inches. I never even consider keeping a fish unless it's going to be dinner. I kept this one, but I had to think about it. I gave thanks to him and the stream – it's the least one can do when about to take another creature's life – and I went back into town, where the picture was taken, and my relatives and I enjoyed exquisitely fresh fish that night.
I have caught bigger fish, but none more beautiful or more thrilling. I expect I'll not have an experience precisely like that ever again.
Anyway, I emailed the photo of the trout and me to my Montana fly-fishing friend Sandy Pittendrigh, who, smart-aleck that he is, posted it on his website with a note saying I'd caught it on a "Panther Martin Mayfly."