The snow has been falling steadily this afternoon, big flakes lying soft on the trees as I read and dream of warmer times. My book today is a favorite: Ed Shenk’s Fly Rod Trouting; a bible and my introduction to The Master and the history of his bright home water. Like Ed I grew to love terrestrial time on the limestoners, and everywhere!
The small waters with their open meadows required a different kind of stealth. One would creep along the banks, staying back until the chosen casting position was reached, and only then drifting slowly toward the edge. Experience told where the trout would lie in wait: deeper pockets among the weed beds, undercut banks, or edge water overhung with grasses, bushes or the occasional tree.
For me the Letort Cricket was my first choice, except in August when the hoppers came into play, particularly on those hot breezy afternoons. Ever the experimenter I tied a smaller version after a time, the equivalent of a size 18 Letort Cricket, my Baby with a peacock herl body and black Antron yarn for an underwing. That pattern became my favorite dry fly for many seasons. Light tackle was the common armament, one of a few 6 1/2 to 7 foot rods for 2, 3 or 4 weight lines, though I was never afraid to go lighter. When I was still fishing mostly graphite I ordered one of the Sage “ought” weight (line weight 0) rods and took it to Falling Spring on an August afternoon as soon as it arrived. An affectation? There was but one way to find out.
I was sneaking through the Quarry Meadow when I spied a disturbance amid some shallow watercress. My eyes scanned carefully and made out the outline of a very large trout, lying between the leaves and just a yard from a snarl of fallen tree branches. “Oh, I know where you’re going if you’re hooked” I thought as I lifted a backcast high to avoid fouling in the meadow grass. The cricket dropped a foot above him and he tipped right up and took it. Within a second he was into those branches, and my zero was bent in a “u” shaped arc. Unbelievably I managed to extricate him not once, but three times from that tangle without a break in my 6X tippet. Once the net secured him I put the tape along his flank: twenty-one inches, my largest trout on a dainty fly rod casting no line weight at all!
There was another Quarry Meadow spot that years earlier proved more than challenging. The stream narrowed below a shallow gravelly flat, and deepened beneath the shade of an old spreading willow. Not only were there scattered rocks and watercress there, but the prime holding lie was right along the exposed roots of the grand old tree. The only cast that would reach the lie was a long, low pitch from a downstream wading position. It had to sail in there forty feet gently, and no more than two feet above the surface to clear the drooping branches and, when it did, the line would fall over a tangle of sunken branches. There were many tries that put a fly in the willow, or a couple of feet short. On those days the result would be a bulging wake headed deep into the tree roots, or streaking upstream into the weeds, if a trout was there at all. One day, it all came together perfectly.
I had tied a new hopper pattern, the final “keeper” version of a design I called the kick leg hopper, and I was out late that August afternoon to test it out. It was hot and breezy and I managed a couple of smaller rainbows as I worked my way up the meadow. When I reached the dreaded willow pool I stayed back and watched for a while. Things got serious when I saw a ring under there a foot away from the exposed roots. I checked the knot on my hopper and slipped into the water as quietly as possible, moving into casting position without pushing any waves up into the shade. This spot was one cast and done, and my fly alighted perfectly, gently and way up ahead of the lie. It seemed long moments for that fly to float the foot and a half it had to cover drag free, but a heavy bulge caused a quick reaction and a wicked bend in my 7 foot fly rod. That big boy tore up some weed beds, but I kept him out of the pile of sunken branches and finally brought him to the net; a heavy and beautifully colored brown better than twenty inches long.
The limestone summers are behind me now, though I still look forward to terrestrial time each summer. Timing for the best fishing varies considerably from year to year. Lacking the stability of the Cumberland Valley’s spring creeks, the freestone and tailwater rivers of the Catskills are affected by the seasonal variations in temperature and rainfall. Terrestrial time may come in June, July, August or September; or occupy a niche or two somewhere within that period. All depends upon Nature’s whims.
Here the stalking must be done within the river, and fishing fine and far off will be of utmost importance. Much of this fishing is native to placid flows, thus stealth demands an agonizingly slow approach. The impatient angler that rushes into the pool will find no trout where his flies land.
Perfection in presentation is the domain of the light line bamboo rod, and an eight footer casting a 3 or 4 weight line is ideal. Leaders are long, 14 to 16 feet, and the caster must manipulate this fine tackle to place small terrestrial patterns delicately with pinpoint accuracy. There are days I take one of my shorter light rods, but on those days my patience must be longer to make up for it.
Reaches of river must be learned throughout the season, not just for taking lies where trout rise to a hatch, but for the resting lies where comfort and security will draw good trout come summer. The reward for patience and stealth may be the uniqueness of solitude, as one may finally have a pool to himself, and there are other rewards.
Past five now, and I can barely see the fine snowflakes in the dimming light of a winter evening. The amber glow of the single malt in my glass reminds me of the amber light of late afternoon along a summertime river. Winter makes it easy to remember, and dream.
At best it will be sixty days until the dry fly season may be expected to begin, perhaps the hardest sixty days of the entire winter for the dedicated dry fly angler. Harder still, should that span prove insufficient for the snow and howling winds to diminish and give way to budding trees and greening grasses, and the first mayflies of the new spring. Hope waits amid the soft snowfall of a winter evening…