The big Alaskan rainbow trout yielded against the 7-weight fly rod and slid onto the gravel bar. The fish was special, the type that immediately gets you fumbling for a camera.
Newhalen Lodge guide Drew Pozzi grabbed the black-spotted tail and held the fish gently in the shallow current.
"Great fish," he said. "Especially from this small stream. Look at that---the hook just fell out. Get your camera ready while I measure him."
If the deep, thick rainbow took a deep breath, it would tape an honest 30 inches from tip of snout to fan of tail. Pozzis tape came up just short---29-3/4.
He looked up and grinned. "I could give you a Texas tape and maybe get you 30."
"No, hes great just the way he is." I fished the compact digital camera from my parka pocket, thumbed the "On" button, and passed it over.
Pozzi, always conscious of careful catch-and-release on the wild Alaskan trout, secured the fish gently in the shallow water. The trout floated on its gleaming crimson and green side and the gills pumped smoothly.
"Okay, Im ready," Pozzi said, aiming the camera. "Good sun angle, great backdrop. Grab him around the tail and just under the pectoral fins and dont let him flop on the rocks. Lets hurry so we dont tire him out."
I crouched knee-deep and grabbed with both hands and, sporting a triumphant grip-and-grin pose, lifted the broadside slab. The gorgeous trout gave one quick flounce, slipped from my hands, and vanished into the flow.
For the catch-and-release angler, a good photo is a must. Photo: Joe Doggett
Too fast---all Pozzi captured was a blurry splash and a shocked expression, from grip-and-grin to grip-and-grimace. He shrugged and handed back the camera.
My rookie mistake was pointing the head of the trout at the deeper water and stronger current; had the fish been reversed, aimed at the bank, it would have been easy to reclaim in the shallows.
That incident, which occurred several years ago, was a bitter fumble of a "photo op" on a world-class fish. Just recalling it gets me in a bad mood.
Maybe this is a good time to offer a few tips on taking the celebrated grip-and-grin, the universal image of light-tackle conquest. You might question my credentials, having admitted to ham-handing a monster, but Ive certainly clicked enough shutters over the decades to have a fair grasp on this slippery subject.
First, take the time to capture the shot while the fish is alive and vibrant. With catch-and-release this is mandatory, but the same urgency should apply for catch-and-keep. A fish hoisted hours later from the cooler back at the dock is bent and stiff and slime-streaked, a poor substitute for the gleaming prize fresh from the water.
Also a consideration, the jumbled backdrop of a launch ramp or parking lot is a lousy trade for open water and clean sky.
The savvy grip-and-grinner holds the fish out in front, maximizing the image. But dont get carried away by thrusting the fish at arms length toward the camera; yes, the fish will appear larger but the overall effect can be ridiculous.
Keeping the elbows in while extending the forearms and hands keeps things in realistic perspective. On the subject of hands, minimize the fingers and knuckles as much as possible. Remember, big paws curled around the fish are the closest image to the lens and detract from the fish.
If the fish is held in a horizontal position, angling the head slightly toward the camera can enhance the impact.
For the vertical hold, grip the fish by the lower jaw. This is assuming were not dealing with a barracuda. If the fish is to be killed, you can slide hidden fingers inside the closest gill plate. The other hand can also remain hidden while pushing the lower portion of the vertical fish out a tad. Again, this enhances the image without appearing out of proportion.
It is the photographers duty to compose the shot. Shooting from a slightly lower angle helps avoid distracting background clutter by putting open sky behind face and fish. Composing the shot also means filling the frame. Standing too far away, shrinking both angler and minnow amid wide margins of wasted space is a major mistake.
Stepping close with a wide-angle lens is SOP among salty grip-and-grinners. The wide angle enhances the subject while minimizing the background.
When prompt catch-and-release is an issue, you are forced to deal with the available lighting conditions. Low-angle sun---great, so long as the sun is behind the camera. Shooting into a low sun is among the worst of rookie mistakes, rivaled only by dropping a big---well, never mind.
Of course, many grand fish are caught during midday hours. High bright sun can create harsh shadows. Flat light can result in washed-out backdrops. Do the best you can, and remember that a "fill flash" setting (which forces the cameras flash to shoot even amid bright conditions) can both illuminate and highlight the subject.
Unless the anglers face is crisply illuminated, make certain the lucky rascal removes his hat or cap before hoisting the fish. Almost every anglers wears one, so be mindful of this potential pitfall. Many otherwise fine grip-and-grins are compromised by midday hat shadows creating blacked-out faces.
Sunglasses are a judgment call. A pair of bright eyes focused on the fish or at the lens helps "snap up" the image, but a blank stare or blink can be a deal-killer. Maybe try with and without the glasses. And be wary of a stiff, frozen grin.
A great advantage of todays digital cameras is the ability to promptly spot-check each shot. Click and check, click and check until you get one that looks good. If necessary, give the fish a drink and a rest during this trial-and-error process.
A pocket-sized digital camera is great for the basic grip-and-grin shot. Most important, the trim, compact unit is there when you need it. This quick-draw capability can be huge when wade fishing.
While you are at it, select a water-resistant model. And pick one with a bright and shiny body. A small drab camera absently placed in the shoreline grass or weeds might require 30 minutes of increasingly frustrating effort to reclaim. Trust me.
Some pocket digital cameras with remarkable capabilities are available for under $400. Two excellent water-resistant ones are offered by Lumix (Panasonic) and Olympus. Both are amazingly durable.
Just remember to keep the battery charged---and to have a firm grasp on the business at hand.