Just Like Winter

The West Branch bends around the southern tip of Point Mountain as it flows into its last riffle before joining the East Branch at Junction Pool, where the Mainstem Delaware begins!

After a week of wind, cold and even snow, I finally returned to the river yesterday afternoon. Blue skies and sunshine greeted me, but not with that welcome warmth I cherish. Patches of snow still lingered along the banks, and there was ice in the backwaters outside the river’s flow.

The gage on the West Branch read forty degrees, four or five degrees warmer than the other rivers at hand, so I decided to prospect the last riffles in the hope that a couple of the Delaware rainbows that swam there in summer might have hung around. It was a vain hope, pure and simple, but it allowed me the excuse to walk the river once again on a day that looked and felt like winter.

Such a sudden transition as this month has wrought is a chore for my psyche to come to terms with. A week of summer like afternoons onstream, sitting on my porch in a dream state, savoring the last warming rays of sunshine and bidding goodbye to the day; then waking to snowflakes and heavy frost! I feel as if I was thrown from Nature’s bosom into an icy void!

So I walked, and cast, and walked some more, crunching the ice underfoot in my defiance.

A memory from winters past…

Winter fishing here is very different from my many years in limestone country. In small waters, trout do not move far as the seasons pass; they make no long migration for the spawn. Even when they chose not to sample the angler’s fly, they are often visible, breeding confidence that one is fishing over trout. In our wide Catskill rivers I am still learning my quarry’s winter habits.

When fishing becomes strictly a subsurface affair it loses more than its beauty and art, for that confidence departs when usually productive waters give no hint of a trout’s presence. Logic dictates that the rainbows, spring spawners, should still be on the feed, and the riffled waters provide oxygen and cover, as well as most of the food. My logic seems flawed, as the only rainbow I have landed in the past month lied in a low water tailout, and took a swung fly.

Brown trout are expected to be displaced, as so many migrate to the tributaries to spawn, but when do they return? It is nearly a month since the last good runoff event, with enough flow to allow some spawners to ascend some tributaries, and it seems some portion of them should have returned to their favored haunts, but I have no evidence.

It is intriguing to have to step back and learn these rivers all over again.

Over the past two winters I have targeted the clearer and warmer days, when afternoon sunlight raised the water temperature a degree or two. Warming water has the potential to activate a few dormant fish to feed. During the first winter, river flows were higher, and more water requires more radiant energy to warm it, so the temperature gains were very moderate. I took a few nice trout that winter, and felt I had improved my spare knowledge of winter angling on the Delaware system. I felt confident with the next winter’s lower flows, and the knowledge gained that first year, and proceeded to go fishless throughout. Was I fishing over dormant trout, or was I fishing in the wrong places? I have no evidence from which to draw a conclusion.

Part of the magic of fly fishing is the grand mystery. Science and time on the water solves bits and pieces, but the mystery remains. An honest angler with a lifetime of experience will be the first to admit they are still learning on the water.

There is to be more sunshine today, I’d best get ready for school.

The Evil Empire

Mark’s Swingin’ Stone, Golden Brown

I managed to get through my first winter in the Catskills swinging soft hackle bead heads with an eight foot bamboo rod. Though it wasn’t what you would call productive fishing, I managed a good fish now and then, just enough to keep me interested and out there enjoying the stark beauty of winter among the mountains. Lets be perfectly clear here: there were many more hours spent in total than there were “nows and thens”; many more.

My second winter proved “less productive” a convenient euphemism to relate that I didn’t have a strike until sometime in March. No fish were actually hooked until that first little foot long riser near the end of March, though I am pleased that he took a size 20 dry fly and was landed; and thanked profusely for his efforts!

I offer this information by way of apology and explanation for my personal failings at the present time, namely that I have been considering actual nymph fishing as a viable activity during the forthcoming winter.

My experiences these past two years have left me with the cold, hard knowledge that our Catskill trout will not expend the energy to rise from the bottom to chase a deeply swinging fly in the thirty-seven degree water temperatures I have encountered on the warmest winter days. The hopes I maintained for the occasional rise to midges or early stoneflies have been completely dashed. I had been confident that I had outgrown the terrible affliction of subsurface fly fishing, but perhaps not.

Back in the limestone country, dry fly fishing around my home in Chambersburg was generally stimulated by the appearance of terrestrial insects in late spring and summer. The last decent sulfur hatch I fished on my home water of Falling Spring was in 1994. Trico’s provided some morning fishing in July and August for a few years thereafter, but the mayfly populations continually lessened over the years. Other than in summertime, fly fishing the spring creeks meant nymph and streamer fishing.

Back there twenty-five to thirty years ago, I worked out a system for “stealth nymphing”, developing the right combination of tackle and techniques for catching our shy, pressured wild trout in shallow, gin clear water, particularly during what I referred to as “the bare season” from mid-autumn through early spring. As the aquatic vegetation died back, the streams became even shallower, and much of the cover the trout held in, beneath and around disappeared. Stealthy approaches and presentations were absolutely required for success.

My system included a long, light rod, specifically an eight and a half foot three weight (yes, that is a very long rod for the classic limestoners where Ed Shenk taught us to angle with five to six foot rods!), a low visibility gray fly line, Airflo intermediate Poly Leader, and six to eight feet of fluorocarbon tippet in either 5x or 6X diameters. This tackle was ideal for presenting a small Shenk Cressbug, or Mark’s Limestone Shrimp without any weight on the leader. The long tippet, turned over marvelously by the Poly Leader, allowed the fly to be cast several feet upstream of a skittish holding trout. Only fine tippet laid down on the water above the fish, and the fly enjoyed a few feet of drift and thus time to sink before reaching that trout’s lie.

Eventually I ordered a nine foot three weight Sage rod to provide some additional line control and the stiffness to cast streamers more effectively with the light tackle, but the rest of the system stayed the same, working magic when more traditional methods failed.

I used small brass beads on some of my little nymphs back in those days, expanding my array of bead heads when tiny tungsten beads became available in black and dark brown colors: weight, without the flash! Over the years, as bead head flies exploded in popularity, painted and anodized beads offered a wide range of colors, though I prefer either copper when I want some flash, or black and brown when I don’t.

Freshwater shrimp or scuds are common in tailwater rivers, but I have avoided fishing my Limestone Shrimp in my Catskill waters, as I have avoided dead drifting sunken flies, period. The dark thoughts I confessed to at the beginning of this blog have me contemplating the resurrection of that deadly fly and my stealth nymphing rig.

There is still time before the rivers reach the awful thirties, time to swing those soft hackles on bright bamboo and perhaps find a taking trout, though this morning’s twenty-four degree dawn tends to lead us toward those winter river conditions faster than I would like.

Forgive me for my failings, brothers of the dry fly, but I have been too much of a hermit this year with the threat of the virus, and I fear I cannot pass five months of winter weather without the balm of bright water to soothe my spirit!

Reflections

An April Morning…Springtime?

Time flows more quickly with age, I am certain of it. Can it be seven long months since spring flirted, with a bit of sunshine and handfuls of mayflies between her bouts of wind and snow? It seems only days since I brushed off the remnants of yesterday’s snow and eased into the river with a dry fly secured to my leader. The chill of the water worked its way into my bones as I waited, but anticipation warmed me when those first Quill Gordons appeared in the drift!

Hendricksons followed, big ruddy duns fluttering as they bounced downstream in the roiling currents. It was a good hatch, much better than I expected, though a single trout came up to enjoy it with me. I will remember that fish, as he bent the rod heavily and caused my reel to shriek as he bolted down river, all the river’s thousand CFS of flow behind him. He was energized despite the high, cold water, and battled me for some time. I had him close at last, barely half of my leader between him and my rod tip, when a little jump let the hook fall free!

April’s weather remained skittish, with the rivers getting colder rather then warmer, but the flies still danced upon the surface, as many fine trout danced at the end of my line. I found solitude and rising trout from the drift boat, riding the high flows of springtime and longing for May sunshine and the greening of the mountains. May snowfall preceded that sunshine, as the weather roller coaster of a Catskill spring continued.

Just when the calendar promised the grand blossoming of the season, the wind, weather and crowded rivers returned a lull in activity. I searched for the rising trout I craved in vain most days, until at last soft June arrived with fair sulfurs on warm afternoons. At last the largest browns appeared eager for the dry fly, and I was blessed!

Too long to allow me to frame his portrait in the shallow water, two feet of brown trout recovers from challenging my arc of bamboo on a blissful day of days.

June was a beautiful whirlwind for me, with great battles won and lost, and moments of quiet reflection as the sunlight brought a glow to bright varnish over flamed bamboo; ’till summer came and brought change once again. Hot days and hot nights lingered, and rain, precious rain seemed the stuff of lost dreams.

A beautiful brown, one of several that came to net on a cloud washed June evening, when the sulfurs brought the big ones to the top!

I have grown to love summer in the Catskills, waiting with great anticipation for retirement and my move here to allow me to savor its beauty day after day. I learned much last year, my first full summer of fishing, yet there was more to learn this year. Each season upon the rivers is different, the weather always seems to defy the norms, and the habits of the trout change with Nature’s ballet, as the flies vary in species, size and intensity. It is a grand theatre to study and enjoy!

Once I learned enough of the new patterns and textures of summer 2020, the rivers offered up their gifts once again. I adapted as the changes came, avoiding the crowds of visitors that the insanity of this pandemic year sent fleeing to the mountains. I have always sought solitude on the rivers, but this year it was more a daily necessity than an occasional desire.

Summer mornings brought reacquaintance with the tiny flies I fished two decades ago on the Pennsylvania limestoners. I enjoyed fishing tricos once again, adored the frustration of fishing flying ants on size 28 hooks with trout boiling all around me.

Once again I stalked summer’s low, clear waters with terrestrials, fine tippets, and light bamboo rods. When my stalks were successful, the rewards were sublime. When success eluded me, knowledge was my reward.

As summer faded to bright autumn I finally had the chance to fish with my best friend. Mike and I have fished together regularly for twenty years, talked frequently, but travel restrictions and common sense kept us apart until late September. It was beautiful along the Delaware, wading cool water on bright, warm afternoons and watching eagles soar as color gathered amid the forests lining the river. Success came in small doses under the most challenging fishing conditions of the year, but it did come.

Mike Saylor with a hard won, muscular Delaware rainbow that picked tiny naturals from a bubble line for what seemed like days before inhaling just the right wisp of silk and fur wound on a size 22 hook!

October has always been a favorite month, and this one was perhaps the most gorgeous I can recall! I was surprised to still find tricos after several frosts, and became amazed at just how picky our wild trout can be when such tiny fare becomes their daily bread. Late in the month, when I thought all hope of dry fly fishing had vanished, I was graced with rare moments, gifts from the rivers of my heart.

Reflections – moments that will remain with me throughout the long months of winter and throughout all the years of my life; the memories of a grand season.

They say we will have a warm winter in the East, so there may just be a bit of light amid the darkness of an angler’s winter. Who can tell. I know that my hope for adventures with the dry fly must wait until April nevertheless.

As I sit at the bench through the coldest, most blustery days to come, mixing fur, feathers and steel with a bit of hope and magic, I will let those reflections of the season wash over me, bringing the soft glow of amber sunlight to my eyes and joy to my heart!

Photo courtesy Chuck Coronato, Catskill Fly Tyers Guild

An Unexpected Companion

A Quiet Country Road At Sunset

I truly felt the change from seventy degrees to forty as I uncased and assembled my over and under, shivering just a bit as I zipped my hunting coat all the way up to the top of it’s high collar. A cloudy morning, with no expectation for even a glimpse of the sunshine I had enjoyed for the past week, and I was anxious for the climb ahead to warm me. I dropped a pair of 7 1/2’s in the tubes and closed the action as I headed up the old skidder road.

The flock of turkeys that crossed the road in front of me half a mile before I reached the pull off had my spirits high, secure in the knowledge that the cold morning had game on the move. The skidder road worked across the slope, climbing gently for the first hundred yards, then turned aggressively upslope. I kept to a grouse hunter’s pace, walking a few steps then stopping, hopeful that any nearby biddie might get nervous and fly.

I worked to the top of the ridge and ogled the terrain on its back side. It was much the same as my route up, mixed older trees and a lot of younger growth, but not the kind that screams birds. Deciding to head back down and try another old road or two, I walked down a bit north of the skidder trail, still thinking there might be a bird in the neighborhood. The wind had not yet risen, so the woods were quiet, my own footfalls dampened by the wet leaves. I scarcely heard him before I saw him, right in front of me thirty yards downhill; a couple hundred pounds of black bear!

I stopped in my tracks and tightened my grip on the double, while he ambled past quartering downhill, seemingly as interested in putting some distance between us as I was. I could not be certain whether he stopped or kept going downhill in silence, so I kept glancing to the north as I worked my way southerly and down to the road.

My plan had been to hunt high, recalling my friend John’s tale of multiple flushes recently way up the mountain near his Catskill cabin. I was fifty miles away from there on State Forest land, but had figured that the grouse might have found a preferred food source closer to the peaks. My chance encounter had me rethinking that plan in earnest.

I ended up in a cover several miles away and several hundred feet lower in elevation, where I’d flushed some birds the previous season, but it wasn’t in the cards this day.

I was wearing the new Garmin Forerunner watch I’d received yesterday for the first time this morning, and I checked out it’s display of my heart rate when I got home. The display features a nice little graph that showed the rate going up as I’d climbed the ridge, then beginning to drop gently as I walked around on the level top and began to descend. The high peak for the morning, 150 beats per minute, jumped right up there after the graph showed that initial decline, right on time for that visit with my unexpected companion. That peak was very isolated on that little graph, just a moment in time.

The Joy of the Outdoors

The glimmer of springtime in the halls of winter…

The last day of our reluctant Indian Summer is at hand, one last afternoon of warmth and beauty to enjoy the outdoors before winter weather comes calling.

I walked the banks of the wide Delaware yesterday afternoon, soaking in the sunshine and marveling at the simple, spare beauty of the November landscape. It was windless, and the river’s expanse reflected the reddish glow of the dying vegetation along its bank as the sun neared the ridgetop to the west: simply beautiful.

The last blush of October’s color along the Delaware. It’s beauty is quieter now, the trees bare, and the red glow of its banks is reflected in late afternoon: farewell until springtime!

I had hoped the river’s rainbows would provide some sport, but it was not to be. A few boats passed, but I was the only wading angler, the lone walker on this hauntingly gorgeous afternoon. A time for reflection, a time to savor the simplest gifts of the angling lifestyle: time on the water, solitude, and the last blush of the gentle season along the rivers of my heart. I will walk again today, for I cannot stay away.

I am resigned; I know there will be no last chance encounter with rising trout, no memorable battle with some heavily muscled finned warrior. This last week has proven it is not to be. Though my heart longed for just one more epic battle, a few hours of delicate dueling with some leviathan sipping tiny flies in the film, I would not trade the quiet time I have had on these rivers. Fishing is after all about much more than fish.

Amid the quiet of the lowering sun, and the song of the bright water I saw one titanic rise and my heart leapt: a fountain in the fast water, with spray lifting two feet above the roiled surface. I peppered the area with casts, but there was no repeat performance. A salute I think, a wave goodbye rather than an invitation to engage; and the fisherman in me misread the sign.

One last day of bright sunshine upon bright water. I believe I will tie a fly to take along…

A Late Indian Summer

November’s Bright Water

I am used to enjoying a span of Indian Summer weather sometime during October, after the first cold winds and frosty nights have convinced that summer has fully passed and autumn rules the land. What began as a short string of November afternoons in the low sixties has become a full on week of sunshine and near record temperatures. It is lovely, but it is late; and I fear too late.

I have fished each day of this interlude, seen mayflies upon the water, but there have been no rises, no real hope of the last kiss of dry fly fishing that I equate with Indian Summer. The rains of late October called our brown trout to the spawning grounds, and it seems very few have returned to my chosen reaches of river. River temperatures were near forty degrees when this unseasonable burst of warmth began, but they have risen grudgingly. Three more days of seventy degree sunshine are in our future, the last chance for shirtsleeve fishing; the last chance for a Catskill brown to come to a surface fly.

I walked the river banks yesterday, waiting and watching, certain that the warming water would bring some action. I enjoyed the time to reflect, to appreciate all that the rivers have given me this year. As the afternoon was drawing toward its close I resigned myself to swinging a little soft hackle wet through the bright water, prospecting to see if there were any trout willing to feed at all.

Half way down the rod tip bounced and the lithe bamboo transmitted the throb of life to my hands: a good fish, dancing with the old brown Orvis, and bringing sweet notes from the St. George. Corralling him in the shallows I slipped the fly free, snapped a quick photo with rod and reel; a remembrance, an honorarium for all that the river has shared.

Remembrance

Today I will take advantage of the warm sunshine to park the drift boat in the yard, to cover it and make it ready for snow and ice and the long months of winter. There it will rest until spring and high water. Catskill weather can change rapidly, and today’s record high could well be the prelude to next weekend’s snowfall. It makes sense to continue my year end ritual.

If the brown trout are busy with procreation and recovery, I will let them be, and stalk the haunts of the Delaware rainbows. It is time to bid farewell to the great river. Somewhere, at some bend in the river, at just the right time of day a handful of trout will rise to the last mayflies of the season. It will be a brief encounter I am sure, but one I hope to witness. One last gift to share before winter, before my feet take me to higher ground, and the walnut of a gunstock replaces the walnut of a reel seat and flamed bamboo in my hands.

I have lingered along the rivers too late into autumn, left the grouse to their own for a month. I have traded the joy of walking the ridgelines at the peak of autumn fire for watching the afternoon sun light the trees over the lovely mirror of bright water. Time to accept the change of seasons, a difficult task in seventy degree sunshine.

Sunshine

It doesn’t look like spring, though it certainly feels like it…

After the first real blast of winter weather, complete with snow and howling winds, a miraculous thing has appeared in the first week of November: sunshine! With the sun has come the warmth, and a run of days with highs in the mid-sixties. When all hope seemed lost I grabbed my gear and hurried to the river! The flows are reminiscent of spring time as are the brief, warm afternoons.

I set about swinging flies, certain that the forty degree water would surrender nothing on the surface, yet my faith in that conviction was tested. I was casting and swinging, mending and swinging, all the while dreaming that a nose might break the surface when I saw them; wings in the slick current, and more than a single pair.

There seemed to be a number of mayflies floating down, the rays of the sun lighting their wings – an advertisement, a tease, and I fell for it. I reeled in the fly line, cut the wet fly away and measured four feet of 5X tippet, extending my leader with hands trembling with excitement. A few flies took wing, guaranteeing those were really mayflies I was seeing and not bits of leaves lighted by the sun and animated by the breeze and my imagination. They looked light, and I fumbled for one of the September peach flies still amid the tumble of my summer chest pack.

Every once in a while the quick current would bulge and flip droplets into the air as it slid over a submerged boulder. I wanted it to be a trout, wanted it so badly, coveted the thought of one more dry fly experience. I cast, mended in the air, and watched my fly bob through that little blurp of water with every sense on edge. Nothing; I saw no nose, no flash in the sunlight, so I changed the fly and cast again…

The boulder never rose. Though that little blip of current was irregular, it was current alone that deceived me, twisted the wanting in my heart to make my eyes see something that wasn’t there.

The flies continued; tiny ones, larger ones, flies taking flight from the bright, slick current, though none were interrupted in their journey. Warm sunshine and cold water are not the prime conditions for rising trout in November, no matter how badly I want them to be.

It was early when the sun dipped behind the ridge, bathing the water in shadow, and the breeze betrayed a hint of chill once again. I watched, waited, still clinging to the hope that one fin might break the glassy surface, turning away at last as the shadows crossed the water to envelop me. November…

A Southwestern Flavor

My 100-Year Dun Jave Red Quill, waiting for spring…

My friend John is an extremely talented and innovative fly tier, one who has an explorer’s streak when it comes to materials. He is also one of the finest men I have ever known. John has been sharing unique fly tying materials with me since our meeting two decades ago, most recently one with a distinct southwestern flavor. If you pay any attention to hunting, chances are you have run across the Javelina. They have been a popular bowhunting quarry as long as I can remember, and thus the subject of articles in sporting magazines and today, television and video.

When I was a youngster, javelina’s seemed to be thought of as a species of wild pig, which they are not. Their appearance explains that to some extent, particularly the ruff of brown and whitish hair around their shoulders. I don’t know if western fly tiers have ever appropriated this javelina hair, but some of John’s friends from the southwest certainly figured that he could find a use for it. Being a creative tier, John set about dying the hair, which is barred brown and creamy white, in a variety of colors.

John had used the hair for quill bodies, and was impressed with its ease of use, appearance and durability. Being the kind of friend he is, John provided me with a bunch of dyed javelina hair and suggested I go wild.

Among that first batch was a pale greenish color that simply screamed Green Drake to me, and it found its way onto a variety of my drake patterns. Sadly I did not hit a significant hatch this season, though there were a couple of days when a handful of duns appeared. The quill body was a natural for my 100-Year Dun pattern and it was the fly that fooled a pair of very large trout, the only two I witnessed taking one of those sparse Green Drakes. If you fish the hatch, you know that big, wild Catskill trout can be extremely picky when it comes to the flies we use to convince them a real Green Drake is floating overhead.

100-Year Drake Jave Quill

The fact that this fly was accepted by two monster trout, each on the first cast, impressed me, and I plan to tie a lot of jave quill patterns for 2021.

I wrote a passage about Hendricksons the other day, and thinking about the hatch got me working out a few Hendrickson and Red Quill variations featuring John’s dyed javelina “quill” bodies. My anticipation for next spring grew substantially as I tied.

Pink Hendrickson Jave Quill Poster
Jave Red Quill CDC Comparadun

I have more colors suited to Hendricksons, March Browns, Sulfurs and more, and have already tied some Isonychia which I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to try; another great bug that didn’t show me a lot of activity this season. There will be a lot of experimentation over the long Catskill winter. John told me he has had interesting results coloring the dyed javelina hair with a Sharpie, achieving an overwash effect. That can open even more doors at the tying desk. I have an idea for ribbing a hair quill body with very fine thread dubbed with sparse silk, to take advantage of the halo effect devised for my effective Halo Isonychia. The quest for imitation marches on!

November

A November morning on Ohio’s Conneaut Creek.

November and, as an angler, I am on the wrong part of the map. November is steelhead time, time to watch the fronts moving through the Great Lakes in an attempt to catch one’s favorite tributary the morning after its apex. It becomes a science unto its own, this search for chrome, as each tributary has a unique drainage area and its own timetable.

A significant rainfall event will raise the flow markedly and bring steelhead waiting near the river mouths upstream. High, muddy water isn’t fishable, though it brings urgent fish upstream in a rush. It is that period just after the apex, when the flows drop and the streams just begin to clear, that fresh fish turn aggressive: angler’s nirvana. In the flat shale bottomed streams like Pennsylvania’s Elk Creek, that window is two days long. The larger, more varied watershed of the Conneaut lengthens the span: more time is required to go from too high to just right, and the span of great fishing conditions is likewise extended. If this sounds somewhat predictable, keep in mind that each rainfall event is different in volume and duration, and each small watershed has a wealth of variables. Too, the best predictions go out the window when a second or third shot of rainfall follows the first by hours or days.

It can be a grand game just determining when and where to fish. Local steelheaders have an inside track of course, but only if they can find time off from work to get on the water when its perfect. For the traveling angler, it is a roll of the dice; but oh the rewards when you don’t roll craps!

Mike Saylor and I hit things just right once in about ten years of trying. We made the five and a half hour drive to Elk Creek after work, arriving close to midnight. After a few fitful hours of sleep we were on the water at the moment. We each hooked a couple of dozen fresh run chromers, landing about half of those we battled. Man it was an electric day! The next morning much lower and clearer water greeted us at daylight, and our hookups and landings were still thrilling, though reduced by nearly fifty percent. On day three the low clear water we had fished for nine of those ten years was the rule. I think we managed a fish apiece, perhaps two, but my memory is still marked by those first two days and everything else is fuzzy.

Low water can still produce fish, but it is a very different game. Think trying to catch a five to ten pound silver bullet hunkered down under the branches of a sunken tree with 5X tippet. On a good day you might land a couple, but the odds are very strongly against you.

A low water eight pounder from Walnut Creek in 2003

Ah yes, November is tributary time, but not for me, not this year. Mike nearly made it, until the unwanted effects of an ill timed flu shot derailed his plans.

Being retired, we both hoped we would be able to take better advantage of the autumn run, but then there is the pandemic to be concerned with. Erie tributaries are small streams and they draw a huge throng of anglers, some of whom think nothing of fishing right on top of you. I recall a guy with a spinning rod walking up and standing on the opposite bank, exactly above the spot where my short casts were entering the water. My polite suggestion that he move on just drew a stupid grin and some mumbling about “public water” as he drifted his bait through the same run. It wasn’t until I hooked my third steelhead on a fly during his “visit” that this fellow finally shuffled off grumbling. My Covid fearing psyche isn’t up to that this fall. There is simply no way to avoid crowds of people during the steelhead run.

Sunrise on Elk Creek…maybe next year!

I still want to get back to Michigan for some autumn steelheading. My friend Matt Supinski has a river full of wild steelhead at the doorstep of his Gray Drake Lodge, and I want to get back up there to fish with him before old age catches up with me. The photo of my twenty-one pounder, my personal best taken with Matt in 2012, hangs on the wall above my tying desk, and I think about going back every time I look at it. Our plan had been to fish the summer Skamania steelhead in August of 2011, but Mother Nature sent a deluge to the region just days before the trip, washing away any chance for fishing. I still want to do that too!

For now I have to navigate a couple more days of wind and rain and snow flurries before a promised run of sixty degree days finds me back on one of my Catskill rivers. I don’t expect to be casting dry flies to rising trout, but I’ll still enjoy that sunshine as it twinkles upon the surface of bright water!

The Dry Fly Season

A Falling Spring wild brown trout from a winter long past

The first dry fly trout of the year was a foot long brown that took a size 20 blue winged olive on March 27th near Junction Pool on the Delaware River; the last may be the fifteen inch brown that took my size 22 Olive T.P. Dun on October 26th. It is raining now, and snow remains in the forecast for tonight and tomorrow. Beyond that, the nighttime lows will head down into the thirties, then the twenties, those lows and the cold rain and snowfall causing river temperatures to drop drastically.

A seven month span of dry fly fishing is a wonderful thing, a remarkable gift given freely by nature, and cherished by seasoned anglers devoted to the dry fly. I am grateful for another year of pursuing the lovely wild trout of these Catskill Mountains by the means I most enjoy; casting dry flies born on my vise, with bamboo rods both old and new.

Fishing is not over for the year, as some of us simply cannot stay away from bright water for five to six months of the year. Though the wet fly will see the lion’s share of drifts, there will always be a few small dry flies among our gear. Hope springs eternal they say, and for the dry fly fisher that is a well kept truth.

As winter brings it’s freezing winds, it’s snow and ice, I will recall balmy days on the rivers of my heart. Flies will be tied with an eye toward spring, and the first glimpse of the early mayflies: Quill Gordon, Blue Quill and Hendrickson. My dreams will be of bright gravel nurturing the next generation of trout and the hatches that sustain them, and pools filled with fluttering wings and dimples in the film!

I am hoping for an epic hatch of Hendricksons next year, as it has been some time since I witnessed one. Fifteen years ago it seemed an annual occurrence, and I travelled here each spring to take part. Millions of tan bodied flies filled the surface, and the trout feasted. They were never easy to catch with so heavy a larder, but the challenge spawned new fly patterns and long hours upon favorite pools waiting for a chance to play the game on nature’s grandest stage.

A Hendrickson hatch from spring 2005: the duns were this numerous as far as one could see both upstream and down; some upright like little sailboats and classic Catskill dries, others prone in the film or struggling to free themselves from their nymphal shucks. Three hours of this to thrill and humble even the best dry fly man and fly tier !

I am likewise longing for a good Green Drake hatch, the epitome of the hatch matcher’s season. The huge duns are hard to imitate, and the ultimate challenge to both fly tier and angler. I found no honest hatch this season, witnessing merely a handful of duns on the water for a day or two, then nothing. My favorite hatch, and I have missed it two out of the last three years.

A fully emerged Green Drake dun, Ephemera guttulata poses on the cork of a Winston fly rod.
My answer to the magic of the drakes!

It has been a trying year for mankind, and I am particularly thankful to be standing, contemplating my love of angling, and looking forward to another season upon bright water. My family and friends are well, all are safe, at least as safe as any of us can be amid this challenging time.

The rain refreshes the rivers, and there may still be a window should a warm front fly through to replace the cold. Who knows? If it is meant to be, it shall be. If not, then I will wait until spring to feel my heart jump at the year’s first vision of the ring of the rise.