The Longest Wait

MORNING

I walked out on the porch to get the mail yesterday and felt the sun beaming over Point Mountain. The thermometer read 61 when I looked at it, though experience has revealed that the direct afternoon sun often helps it along by as much as 5 degrees. I couldn’t help but to sit there for a moment and thumb through my mail. God but it felt like spring!

We’re a week into March now, just twenty days from the opening day of baseball with a bit more until the Opening Day of New York trout season. The weather has been warming somewhat, but it still drops below freezing at regular intervals; there’s even snow in today’s forecast. Now comes the longest, most difficult wait of the entire winter.

Mother Nature loves to tease us, one moment tossing her hair and winking over her shoulder, allowing the deep glow of an afternoon sun to warm our desires, the next smirking and vanishing behind a curtain of ice and rain.

Passing the days becomes more difficult the closer I come to an honest day of dry fly fishing.

As of yesterday I have tied 696 flies in the first weeks of this new year. I have blended dubbing, fiddled with tackle, polished rods, read quite a group of angling books, talked fishing with whomever would listen and walked along the rivers searching for a rise that did not come. The Mother teases now every few days, and my lust and torment grows.

I often dream to recapture moments in time. When I writhe in the wretched throes of anticipation as winter slowly wanes, there are splendid moments of springtimes past I long to return to.

There was a day on the West Branch years ago, a breathtaking day when the Hendricksons came by the millions. There were too many flies on the water, so my catch was meager. I was not alone in that fate, as there were dozens of anglers strewn across a couple of miles of river who shared my lack of success, each bearing the same tired, wistful look upon their face.

By five o’clock most of them had walked past me and climbed the trail toward their cars, yet I still wandered the river banks, enjoying a touch of solitude. Along the edges of the river I saw the movement of a few struggling mayflies. I stooped and plucked one from the surface, a size sixteen, brick red bodied Hendrickson. The flies of the blizzard hatch had been consistent, with the tannish bodies in a full size 14 I was used to seeing on the Catskill Rivers, but these ruddy late comers were smaller, and few in number. Males perhaps, or one of the lesser subspecies I had read about. I found an imitation and tied it on, walking the shallow edge along the bank with new purpose.

On the walking trail side of the river, there in the shallow, flat water that had been waded through all afternoon by an army of fishermen, I saw a bulge in the surface and a tiny dimple appear. I pulled line from my reel, checked my backcast for clearance, and delivered the fly gently above the last remnant of the rippled surface.

When the bulge appeared beneath my fly I tensed, setting the hook hard quickly when it vanished into the dimpling rise. The still surface erupted and a tremendous brown trout vaulted out of the water, shaking his head and snapping my tippet before falling back with a terrible splash. In a moment it was as if nothing had happened, the trout, and all evidence of his lurking in the shallow flat was gone. I stood there awhile, mouth agape: that trout was easily 6 or 7 pounds!

Another day on the West Branch, years thence, and I had fared better fishing a heavy Hendrickson hatch. I stayed when most of my brethren departed, hoping as always for that late, sparse little emergence of the red bugs. I waded down toward the tail of one of the large, deep pools, enjoying the early spring evening as I searched. The sun angled lower and bathed the far bank with that antique yellowish glow, and I was mesmerized by the beauty of the scene when I saw the first soft ring.

I tried to wade across, but the channel dug by the run of the current pulled me up short. It was well past six and the rises were the soft, telltale rings of trout sipping spinners. I freshened my tippet and knotted a size fourteen rusty spinner securely, then tried the closest riser with a cast. The fish was out there, sipping in that shady realm between my usual maximum casting range and the distance I needed to reach with a perfect presentation. A few of my casts alighted in line with his feeding station, though not nearly enough of them.

Eventually I resorted to a tippet change, going down to 6X, despite knowing in my heart it was not the answer to the riddle. Of course the trout finally selected my fly from the hundreds available, but it took me an extra microsecond to believe it, squinting to follow that little fly awash in the glare of the setting sun more than 80 feet away. That time was my undoing, for I hurried once convinced and set the hook too hard, knowing I was late. I pricked the brown, he boiled enough to display his significant size, and then he was gone.

There were several more sipping happily away as the last glow of that gorgeous sun slipped behind the mountain, each just a bit further over there than I could reach consistently. It remains a delicious, though bittersweet memory, fishing there until the shadows deepened and the rise subsided. Each spring, as I wade the pools of the West Branch, I remember that evening, and I long to return. Many times the river’s flow is higher, and there is no chance to repeat the past and hope for a more satisfying result. In some years though, conditions appear similar, and I haunt that reach looking for my past. I haven’t found it, at least not tangibly; I only linger there in memory.

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