Eighty Days

Photo Courtesy Matt Supinski

There are eighty days to go before the opening of New York’s trout season, eighty days before spring smiles upon us once again.

Despite stormy skies, yesterday certainly felt like spring. Temperatures rose to the low to mid sixties in the southern tier, and the strong breeze was warm and invigorating, with no trace of the iciness typical to January in these mountains. It is 55 degrees on my porch this morning and the moon, nearly full, hangs in a low pocket of blue sky to the northwest while the sun struggles to peek through the clouds over the mountain to the southeast. That breeze still feels lovely.

The West Branch of the Delaware flows at 42 degrees this morning, her waters warmed seven degrees in two days time! I should be fishing; I want to be fishing, despite the warning that this vision of spring will all dissolve in hours.

Our winter has been mild so far, with breaks of forty degree days to offset the weather’s short stays below freezing. The reservoirs are filling nicely after last summer’s drought, bringing hope for a fine season on our tailwaters. But what will that season bring? Nature has given us so much variety over my two and a half decades of fishing these Catskill Rivers.

Last spring I experienced some new hatches, not unexpected in my first year of residency, some wild variations in the timing of favored hatches, and some wonderful if cryptic fishing.

The most celebrated but confounding day came during the last week of May. My Green Drake boxes were filled with some additional patterns which I fully expected to debut that afternoon, but they were to remain in my vest for nearly a month before I found the need to open one. I found rising fish, more than enough to make the day a memorable one, though I could never identify a single insect the trout were feeding upon.

I would cast to a rising trout with my best guess as to the correct fly until I either caught the fish or was convinced he would not take that pattern. I would scan the water and see a couple of mayflies, but always much to far to identify. Whatever hatched, they seemed to come in little brief flurries through out the afternoon, then cease as soon as I had tied on a dry fly I hoped would match. The hatches frustrated me, though the river’s wild browns did not.

When I located the first good fish rising steadily, I had not seen any flies on the surface. I began with a March Brown, changing to a large pale yellow sulfur when that was ignored. I finally tried my Quill Gordon comparadun, a fly that had worked well a month prior, though I felt sure that hatch had concluded for the year.

I confess to a bit of surprise when the brown took it hard, jerking the rod from my weakened hand with a headlong rush! I grabbed the rod with my right hand as it splashed into the river, saving my tackle and my trout, who quickly ran out all 105 feet of my fly line and started into the backing. With the rod back in my left hand I stuck the butt against my vest lest my aching fingers fail me again. That brown battled hard, coming to me, then streaking away twice before I could bring him over the net, a twenty inch beauty who nearly earned himself a fine rod and reel as a souvenir.

I dried and fluffed the comparadun, confident now despite the calendar, and cast to the next riser with a smile. That trout of course flatly refused to show interest in any number of perfect drifts. I fluffed the wing a bit more, gave it a final try, and the 15 inch brownie finally obliged.

There were several very good fish rising along the far bank by this time, though there was still no evidence regarding their menu choices. Whatever flies were floating down that bank remained a mystery, as the currents within reach of my position proved barren.

I resorted to a little rotation of patterns, trying everything experience told me should be or might have previously been emerging on that river around the last week of May. If you are a Catskill angler, then you know that is a lot of flies. We call that period around Memorial Day “Bug Week” for a reason after all.

One of my Hendricksons brought a nice 18 inch brown to the net during the next hour or so, but the puzzle was still far from solved. My “new” hatch for the season was a little size 16 mayfly I had encountered one morning on the mainstem, it’s body a dark, dirty yellow. The dark gray wings and tails convinced me it might be one of the lesser species of “Hendricksons” Al Caucci had discussed in his classic “Hatches II”, so I noted it as the little dirty yellow Hendrickson and had tied a few imitations. I chose the “poster” version of that fly and tied it to my tippet.

For half an hour I had watched one far away location carefully. Two or three times there had been a tremendous bulge there in a little eddy behind a huge boulder, finished with a little spritz at the surface. I checked the knot an extra time or two and pulled the rest of my fly line from the reel. The cast alighted perfectly, as I dropped the rod tip just as the last of the line unrolled and recoiled from the shock of the line against the reel. Soft curls of tippet allowed the little dun to dance slowly in that eddy, bringing the bulge and spritz I awaited.

At the strike the great fish turned the quiet eddy into a froth, boring away downstream toward another boulder with it’s accompanying deadfall tree. I carried a strong 6 weight rod that day, and it enabled me to steer the fish just shy of that sunken tree trunk, and away from the next huge boulder he sought to win his freedom.

It was a hell of a fight, me working that brute closer and closer to my waiting net, only to have him streak away, to writhe near the rocky bottom while I strained to keep his great head and the fragile tippet away from each jagged lip of rock. At last the mesh sagged with his weight and I was able to work the little dry fly free and measure his length. A 24 inch wild Catskill brown trout is a wonderful thing to cradle in the current at your feet.

Surely the dirty yellow Hendrickson must be the fly! No, at least not for the next riser or two I offered one to. Another big, bulging riser refused that fly with impunity, pushing it away with his nose. I countered with a size 16 olive parachute, and another battle was joined. That bronze warrior taped 23 inches.

A remarkable day, though it remained a puzzling one. A 19 inch brown came to hand with my Hendrickson para emerger in its jaw, and a fish easily longer than 20 inches loosed the fly as I attempted top guide him into the net.

I fished for four hours to rising fish, some steady, others sporadic, hooking seven and landing all but one. Four very different dry flies turned the trick, while a dozen or more others failed to draw the interest of the trout. Half a day of continuous activity, and not a single mayfly captured and positively identified.

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