The Battle of Bismarck

A foe not soon forgotten.

Slowly twirling across the water’s surface, the yellow leaf hinted at the gilded denizens lurking below. The exhilarating, cool air was aromatic with the odor of molding foliage. On that mid-October day, I was standing by my favorite fishing hole. Close to my left, a small wooden bridge cast shade over the pool’s deepest current. On the far side of the stream, the end of a log projected above the water. The submerged portion extended into the murky depths beneath the bridge, creating an ideal lair for sizeable trout.

Although I wouldn’t have spurned a rainbow, I was primarily casting for spawning brown trout. Hence, I was equipped with a weight-forward, sinking fly line tied to an 8-foot, tapered 3X tippet. At the leader’s end dangled a large, brown marabou streamer that I had fondly dubbed “Darth Baiter.” 

After false casting, I laid the feathered decoy at the head of the log. Next, I gave the streamer a few twitches while the current carried it beneath the log’s sunken end. Breathlessly, I waited until old Darth reached the deepest recesses of the hole. Then, I spun the streamer sharply upstream and began a rapid retrieve. Flicking the rod tip in a series of staccato-like strokes made the willowy, marabou tail waggle feverishly. As a result, Darth Baiter tauntingly mimicked a minnow that, having seen a voracious trout, was desperately swimming away.

Thanks to the bludgeoning strike, setting the hook proved unnecessary. As the rod tip surged violently downward, my eyeballs bulged like those of a dog sprinkling an electric fence, and in the same breath, both feet shot sideways to a wide stance, while my knees bent and extended at right angles to the body. In a microsecond, without aid of a single conscious thought, I obtained the classic Fisherman’s Fighting Posture.

Abruptly, the heavy fish streaked for the branches attached to the log. There was no doubt that if it managed to wrap the leaderaround the limbs, the battle was lost. I leaned back, drawing the line perilously rigid. The fray raged to and fro, with the trout first stripping, followed by myself regaining line. Like heavyweights trading body blows, we slugged it out.

Just as I thought the rod would splinter, the trout lunged for the bottom of the hole. Through the line, I could feel its jaw scraping the stream’s rocky bed as it tried to dislodge the streamer. Despite the strain, I kept the rod tip raised. By now, it was obvious I was locked in hand-to-fin combat with the aquatic parallel of a kung fu master—no mercy asked, none given. Every move was fluid and lightning fast, with zero wasted effort. It was as though I could interpret the calculated scheming of its mind.

After a lengthy period of aquatic parry-and-thrust, the fish suddenly charged downstream. The reel screamed as I applied pressure on the departing line, trying to turn my dogged adversary. With strong thrusts of its tail, the trout strained mightily to break into the next hole. Just inches before reaching that goal, it turned and headed my way. The tide of battle had changed.

As I drew my shadowy foe closer, it broke the water’s surface directly in front of me. Writhing in the ripples, the fish appeared as a living bar of gold. It barely fit in my net, but I managed to toss it onto the bank, where it lay gills a-floppin’, as I collapsed nearby, nostrils a-flarin’. With shaking hands, I stretched out my measuring tape. From the tip of his hooked jaw to the end of his tail, the brown trout measured 25 inches. Arrayed in his gilded spawning finery, he was truly a sight to see. The exquisite blend of gold, scarlet, tan, and brown hues was dazzling.

Visions of returning to town, trophy in hand, danced through my mind. Word travels fast in a small town, and I just knew a brass band awaited me. I imagined sidewalks thronged with cheering citizens, while fair maidens scattered marabou feathers in my path.

Suddenly, an atypically sober idea entered my mind: This critter and I share a common ancestral homeland! After all, my surname is ethnic German and he was clearly a specimen of the German brown trout stocked in our continent’s waters centuries prior. Thus, I dubbed him “Bismarck.”

Ultimately, I just couldn’t take the life of that splendid creature. I placed Bismarck back in the creek, holding him until his strength returned. Then, with a disdainful swish of his tail, Bismarck splashed water in my face before returning to his lair.

There is no picture of that fish. No one but me ever saw him. The band never sounded a note, the crowd never cheered, and no feathers fluttered in the air. However, none of that matters. I will carry the sights and sounds of that epic struggle until my dying day. In the final analysis, his unconquerable spirit deserved a more noble demise than a frying pan and a lifeless picture on a wall. Auf Wiedersehen, Bismarck. Until we meet again.