River of Sinners
As in why, exactly, was I fishing 6X?
By Stephen Sautner

Photo by John Fallon

I knew…

I knew the Magalloway in western Maine was considered the second-best river in the United States for big, wild brook trout. I read the stories and watched YouTube videos of anglers landing eighteens, nineteens, twenties. Deep, thick, thrashing fish that looked more like heavy Alaskan char than dainty “brookies.”

I also knew the Magalloway was big water. WWE body-slamming water. I studied topo maps and marveled how a river could lose elevation so quickly without a major waterfall. This was a river for carbide cleats, a wading staff, and maybe a life jacket. The kind of water where you keep your wallet in a Ziploc bag so the authorities can identify the body.

And I knew that my friend Doc lost his personal best brook trout here. He described the fish – an immense dark shape rising off the bottom and sucking down his dry. Then ponderous headshakes and the heartbreak of a pulled hook.

I knew all those things. And still I insisted on fishing with 6X.

I planned to run a tandem of tungsten Frenchies through every fishable pocket and slot. I honed this technique on fast-water streams in the Catskills. Fifteen feet of soft mono, three feet of sighter, four more feet of 6X. It destroys. One afternoon last spring, I hooked so many trout that a buddy fishing dries in the same run asked me to please stop. Before tying on the tippet, I considered the calculus of heavy water, the potential for large, and the need to get down deep. 4X would be comfy in this situation, but it may not sink fast enough. How about 5X? But the thing with 5x is that it’s only one one-hundredths of an inch thicker than 6X. Then I reminded myself that 6x is the same set-up that slaughtered in the Catskills. Decision made.

The next morning, I followed a trail to the Magalloway, my jaunty 10-foot three-weight bouncing in hand, confident as I could be on new water. It was late July, well past peak hatch time, but the river still ran cool from the bottom release of nearby Aziscohos Dam.

I heard the river long before I saw it, a tinny hiss that grew more voluminous with each step. Then I spotted it through gaps in the hardwoods – streaks of whitewater hurrying through the forest. The trail forked above a large pool that looked too deep for the tandem rig, so I decided to continue downriver. Eventually I came to a bend where the rapids slowed and deepened into a craggy run. First casts would be made here.

I waded to a shallow gravel bar, stripped off line, and popped it through the guides. When the leader and nymphs straightened in the current below me, I pitched them to the head of the run. They sank easily in the softer water, and I led them with the rod.

Twitch. Fish on. I lifted and a seven-inch brook trout bounced on the surface. It looked familiar – the kind of wild brookie I see in Catskill tributaries. I slid it across the current into my hand, twisted the Frenchy free, and watched it dart away. Cute little thing.

The leader rig straightened below me as I readied to make another cast. But this time, the Voice-of-Responsibility attempted at an intervention: “Maybe you should switch to 4X,” it said. “Hell, you’re already on the board… the extra diameter would probably be fine… Hook a large fish in this big water you’ll be glad you switched… Retying might take five, six minutes, tops…”

I pondered these excellent points while the river seemed to roar even louder.


I flipped the nymphs back into the run, then felt another twitch, raised the rod, and OH SHIT. An absolute slob of a brook trout wallowed and gnashed like an enraged hippopotamus. The three-weight bounced in my hand. The trout’s thick caudal found purchase and its massive bulk began to power to the far side of the run. Then: “tck” – the sickening feel of parting 6X tippet.

The largest wild brook trout I ever hooked. Was. Gone.

I won’t deny that I may have let out an audible shriek or worse. When I checked the leader, the 6X had severed at the dropper knot. Both flies gone. So not only did I just bust off a huge wild brook trout leaving a fly in its mouth, but it was now swimming around with some tippet connected to the other Frenchy.

I know. Unforgivable. Indefensible. Inexcusable. Disgraceful, even. But I ask you, my fellow anglers, how many of you would have done the exact same thing? Who amongst you cuts off a perfectly good tandem rig and then methodically re-ties all four knots beginning at the tippet ring while the second best wild brookie river in the country swirls around your legs? Anyone? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Let they without sin cast the first fly.

Stephen Sautner

Stephen Sautner has written three books including the acclaimed “Fish On, Fish Off,” and was a longtime contributor to The New York Times “Outdoors” column. He lives in suburban New Jersey and also maintains a fishing camp in the Catskill Mountains.  Learn more at; Twitter: @FishOn_FishOff