The Big Fish Swagger

Reader Contributed | March 1, 2018

By Chris Espenshade

I was driving through Tionesta, Pennsylvania on the upper Allegheny River a few years back. It was shortly after opening day of fishing season, and I spied a successful fisherman walking up Main Street with his fly rod in one hand and a massive trout in the other. “Walking” does not do the man justice. More accurately, he was doing the Big Fish Swagger, that confident strut when a fisherman shows the world that he knows what he is doing.

To the non-sportsman, the best analogy might be the actors, producers or directors coming down the aisle to claim their Oscar. The Big Fish Swagger is an act of validation, and it is vital in keeping a person fishing, just as the occasional perfect golf shot keeps hackers playing the game.

Devoted fishermen typically experience a series of Big Fish Swaggers throughout their lives, but each fisherman has a clear memory of their best Big Fish Swagger.

My favorite victory walk occurred in 1995, near the public boat ramp at Lake Lanier. This lake is intensively fished by lots of people with huge boats and expensive gear. The lake is also fished by a cadre of lowly bank fisherman with a tub of worms or a bucket of minnows.

My then 6-year-old son Joe and I fell soundly into the second class, and we had stopped by The Dam Store—purveyor of bank fishing equipment and advice­­—on the way. After buying minnows and some large floats, we drove to the boat ramp. Parking there, we hiked around to a spot where a deep channel was just barely within casting distance of the bank, and we cast out two lines in hopes of catching a striped bass.

While I was straightening a recurring tangle in Joe’s reel, I noticed my float going under with authority. I grabbed the rod and set the hook, and the drag on my ultra-light reel began to scream (you are not allowed to have a fishing story without a screaming drag).

This was a Real Fish (capital R, capital F). The fish made several runs, at one point stripping my reel to where I had only a few loops of line left. I was fishing with 6-lb. test, of uncertain age and strength. I did not really have the luxury of horsing the fish around.  Instead, I had to move along the bank to keep within reach of the fish during its runs. I gave Joe the opportunity to fight the fish briefly, but he was somewhat overwhelmed by its strength.

After about 20 minutes, I was finally able to ease the big striper into shallow water, lay it on its side and make a grab for its gills (we didn’t have a net).

Success! We had landed a 9 3/4-lb. striped bass. The lake regularly surrendered larger fish, but this was a major triumph for us and a significant fish for anybody. Having released our remaining minnows and gathered our gear, we began the Big Fish Swagger.

This 9 3/4-lb. striper caught from Lake Lanier a number of years ago yielded the Big Fish Swagger for father-and-son Chris and Joe Espenshade.

Your immediate reaction to such an epic battle is a fast, adrenaline-fed stride, but you must fight this temptation. You must learn to relish your Big Fish Swagger. Picture Tiger Woods walking up the 18th fairway on Sunday in Augusta.

In my case, the walk back to my beat-up Mazda truck was made better with the knowledge that we had, for a $3 investment in minnows, captured a bigger fish than most of these guys with $30,000 boats would catch all season. We had succeeded simply, without depth gauges, water thermometers or fish finders. As we loped through the boat ramp and parking lot, we knew that it was clear to everybody there; the lowly bank fishermen had succeeded in a big way.

And, judging by the nonchalant way I carried the big bass, they may have imagined that this was a routine day’s fishing for us. That is the beauty of the Big Fish Swagger. If done properly, on-lookers will never know if this was your only success in a lifetime of fishing or your tenth success that month.  They can only evaluate the evidence at hand, a large fish and a comfortable and confident demeanor.

To his great credit, Joe recognized the importance of a cool demeanor. I am not sure how, at 6, he knew to walk matter-of-factly beside me. His performance simply added to our mystique, added to the impression that this was no big thing for us. His reward came when the Dam Store took a Polaroid photo of us and the fish and posted it on their brag board.

Incidentally, there is an etiquette about watching a Big Fish Swagger. The best, universally recognized acknowledgment of the achievement is a simple nod. It is disrespectful to interrupt the procession with an onslaught of questions: Where’d you catch it? What kind of bait? How deep were you fishing?  Did it fight good? If you must speak, simple observations like “nice fish” or “good job,” are most appropriate.

These days, I understand and embrace the philosophy of catch and release. At the same time, I am saddened that the Big Fish Swagger is quickly becoming a thing of the past.    May your retirement be full of Big Fish Swaggers.

Become a GON subscriber and enjoy full access to ALL of our content.

New monthly payment option available!


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.