Another variable and spectacular spring day in the Catskills: sunlight, gathering clouds, mayflies on the wing and finally a lovely bright and clear evening to pause and appreciate friendship and the beauty around us. John and I have too little time to share on the water, so it is always special when we enjoy one of those opportunities. To combine our friendship with the natural beauty of a favorite reach of river, and the joys of Hendricksons and rising trout, is truly sublime.
We spent some time in conversation, then each began to survey the water before us. Our early arrival left us with some time to wander and get a feel for the river, to prospect with swinging wet flies while we anticipated the main event. We rejoined on the bank for lunch, sharing some of John’s jerky and comparing flies as the day moved slowly into afternoon.
The big mays had not made their appearance when a few interested trout began to test early samples of the drift. John squared off above the first pair, while I studied an occasional soft rise fifty yards downstream, a smile growing on my face. I was just beginning my stalk when John’s voice betrayed the joy of a hooked trout, and I watched while he played a nice, jumping brown on his handmade cane rod. I snapped a couple of photos, sharing the victory, before turning back to my own destination.
My stalk followed the edge of the river, gently avoiding the subtle wake that would end my game before it began. There was something interesting about this riseform, the kind of patient sipping rise that betrays a large trout intent upon maintaining his anonymity. Eventually I drew parallel to his mid-river hide and slowed my pace again as I worked deeper, gaining the important distance from the brushy bank to allow my backcast.
I worked on that fellow for quite a while, never seeing him take a visible insect. After a couple of casts with the expected fly du jour, I went smaller, first with a Blue Quill Poster and then a beaver fur bodied CDC comparadun. Good fish have an innate ability to select a feeding lie where drag-free drifts become difficult to say the least. I watched my perfect floats get a bit funny as the fly reached the taking area, until resigning myself to make the change to three and a half feet of 6X tippet. I remembered my quick, “toothy” release from the previous afternoon with each turn of the knot.
The tippet change improved the drifts, but the fly still wasn’t right. Among the plentiful seeds and detritus occupying the drift, there were just a few smaller mayflies. Olives were a possibility, but the time of day and the season still said Blue Quills to me, so I searched my “Grays & Gordons” box for a tiny crippled dun that would sit low in the film. That simple little fly turned the game.
He took it gently and confidently, and my raised rod was met with power and speed, the mottled cane of the Menscer Hollowbuilt bucking as I worked to keep maximum pressure on the fish and protect the frail tippet. He gave me a show, a few long runs that spun the CFO with the bright staccato the marque is famous for, numerous boils and changes of direction, but all leading to one final dip of the net, and one large and very tired wild brown trout nestled safely in the mesh. He nudged twenty-one inches against the scale, but he may as well have been thirty for the warm glow he brought to my heart.
The first big brownie of the season is a celebration for me, after months shuttered behind frosted windows dreaming of bright spring days, and the fits and starts as I paid my pennance, the gladness and the release of those tensions is unequaled, a spirit reborn. Feeling that glow inside I know just why I am here, cradled in bright water.
As I released my new friend, my eyes caught movement on the surface. Wings fluttered nearby as the Hendricksons came forth in numbers, from nothing to a full blown hatch in the fluid moments of battle. I reached for the zipper and brought my Hendrickson box out, choosing one of yesterday morning’s cripples as a pod of trout began working below me. I considered changing the tippet back for the larger fly, but stayed with the 6X as I calmy attached the fly.
The fish were working as the duns passed overhead, taking them with the solid thump fly fishers long to hear. They were moving, each tracing his own little pattern left and right, upstream and down, to intercept the particular flies that caught his eye. A cast to a rise was not necessarily a cast to a trout in this situation, as their motion was unpredictable. I offered the cripple at last to one that seemed steadier in holding a lie after playing this hit and miss game, but he paid no attention.
If they want duns, give them duns. The cripple was exchanged for a CDC sparkle dun, a very reliable pattern always found in my Hendrickson box, but the hit and miss movement continued. Its amazing how you can see every stone on the river bottom in clear flat water, yet cannot see a moving trout until his rise breaks the surface. Perhaps my eyes remain instinctively trained too much upon the surface to penetrate the transparent mystery of the river.
There was one riseform further out that left no doubt about its maker. My cast would surely place line over some of the fish in the jockeying pod, but I did not care. The first cast kicked the loop over just as a little gust caught the leader and blew my fly upstream. Fearing drag might put him down I nearly lifted it then, but a pickup too close is more likely to spook the quarry than a bit of drag. The next cast was true, reached upstream and stopped with a touch so that the long leader kicked perfectly and laid the fly on line ahead of it’s tail of slack leader.
He took it cleanly, confidently, leaving no doubt he wanted it; fooled completely. I tempered the strike in deference to the fine tippet, allowing the soft bamboo of the rod’s tip to absorb his violent reaction. He fought well, though with heightened confidence I put more pressure on this warrior, kept him off balance, and subdued him somewhat sooner than his brethren. Twenty-three inches of irridescent bronze and gold peppered with dark umber and blood red spots, testaments to his lineage in these Catskill rivers, writhed in the haven of the receiving mesh.
Foibles prevented me from securing the photo I wanted badly. Standing there on an uneven river bottom, shaking just a bit with rod crooked beneath my arm, holding the heavily laden net, my right hand fumbled to retrieve the camera for a shot. Somehow I managed to turn the camera at the moment of truth, as I fumbled to press the shutter with my thumb, and the fish I saw on the view screen wasn’t what the pixels captured. I did get a lovely moving shot of the edge of a net and part of a trouts belly, that I will share for artistic statement.
I stalked a few more risers, and took a pair while the hatch continued, as did John upstream. Late, as the rises subsided and but a few stray duns fluttered on the surface, we stopped to notice the clouds had vanished and we were surrounded by clear, bright blue skies above the walls of our mountain hall. The winds had subsided too, and the sun’s reflections on the glassy surface helped radiate the warmth we felt as we surveyed the scene. It had been a perfect day, and we were not quite ready for it to end.
Looking harder, we found a half interested riser here and there, fish languidly taking the stragglers on a full belly. Our dry flies had no more appeal for them at that point, though I did draw one quick reaction rise as soon as the fly touched water. I promptly missed with my own quick reaction.
At last we acknowledged it was time to walk out, to bring a grand day to its close. It is finally spring, a fact we will both remember as this afternoon’s rain turns to snow, and the winds howl.