The Cariboos is a rugged land of wildlife and trees, bald eagles and big fish, grizzly bears and legends. It covers a swath of British Columbia, Canada, where people live for the pure exhilaration of the outdoors. It was here that I watched the biggest rainbow trout I've ever seen break my friend Ed Dunckel's 10-pound test line and vanish deep into the lake. As time went by, the image of the line snapping and that trout disappearing kept replaying itself in my mind. For a fisherman, that's the darkest kind of torture.
There was only one antidote: to return! And after a year's wait, we did. We found ourselves at Hotnarko Lake, set deep in the Cariboos, hoping for a rematch with the big one that got away.
A small boat had been stashed in the trees at the lake, and it didn't take long to get it turned over, our gear stowed, and the small motor running. My dad, Robert Sr., had joined us for the trip. He picked through the tackle box and selected a wooly worm fly.
"That's the one he wants," he said. "Pure black. He's too smart for anything else."
You become a believer when one of these trout strikes. While we were trolling, I was tying a new leader and had my rod propped up against my leg, when suddenly the rod went shooting the length of the boat. The only thing that kept it from flying into the lake was the reel ramming against the boat's stern. It had been yanked by the bite of a trout. That fish turned out to be a 22-inch rainbow trout, the first fish we kept, placing it on the metal stringer. But get this: A half-hour later, we went to take a look at the trout, and it was gone. The metal stringer had been broken off.
Back at the lodge on Nimpo Lake, nobody quite believed this tale. Then Colleen Haavik, co-owner of the lodge, said the exact same thing had been reported several times before. "Guys have lost some beautiful trout with those metal stringers," she said. "They practically want to cry when it happens. That's why we put fish boxes in the boats. The big trout can break those metal stringers right off.''
This is big country and you see it first-hand on the fly-out trip. The plane takes off from Nimpo Lake, at 3,600 feet, and after gaining another 500 feet, you can see lodgepole pine forests stretching for miles, interspersed by untouched lakes, ponds and streams. Mountains with 13,000-foot glacial-cut peaks provide the backdrop.
But we were there for big fish, not the views, and off we went. The float plane settled on Hotnarko Lake, the scene of the crime where Ed Dunckel had lost that huge trout the previous year. Dunckel was in a nearby boat with his son, Alan.
"A lady caught an eight-pounder there last week,'' said Richard Haavlik. "I know that's not as big as the one you guys lost last year, but it gives you an idea of what's biting."
The water was so clear that you could see giant submerged boulders and also where the bottom dropped off in underwater shelves. We would troll or cast along these areas, and in a week we caught more than 75 trout and had a top day of 25 trout, virtually all 15- to 20-inchers, some bigger.
"This is the best fishing I've ever had," my dad said. But last year's big one that got away continued to elude us.
Just then, I raised my binoculars to my eyes to get a look at the other boat on the lake. As the image came into focus, I spotted Ed Dunckelhis rod bent in a complete half circle over the boat. At one point, Alan raised the net, and there was a bowling-ball sized splash on the surface, then the fish went deep again. Five minutes later, Alan lowered the net, but the fish disappeared again.
From their expressions, it looked like they had the big one that got away. Then a moment later, the fish was in the net, then in the boat—they had caught it.
It was late in the day, and just then the float plane buzzed overhead, returning to pick us up. Suddenly, both my dad and I hooked up, a double-header of 20- and 18-inchers.
At the plane, we got a close look at Dunckel's big trout: Twenty-five inches with the brightest red stripe you've ever seen running down its side.
"It's a beauty," Dunckel said. Then a few minutes later, he added with a grin, "Well, this is a big one, but he isn't last year's big one that got away. I'll be back for him. You can count on that."
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