Solo on the West

It may not feel like May on the West Branch, but May it is indeed, and there are flies on the water.

It was all of forty-five degrees yesterday morning when we loaded up and headed for Deposit and my first solo float of the season. With the drift boat in the water I was layered up and ready for a long chilly day: Capilene, Armour Fleece, Nano Puff and a fleece lined shell to break the wind. It is may isn’t it?

Yes, it is indeed May, though it still isn’t acting like it. Funny how these mountain weather patterns run sometimes. It was a year and a day since I shot a quick video of the snow squall that covered my boat in a white blanket last year. At least there was no snow in the forecast this time.

Birds were working low to the river as I slipped quietly down the Barking Dog Pool. There were a few caddis lying on the surface, not the insect I expected on a chilly cloudy day, but I tied one to my tippet just in case. The flies seemed stunned by the cold, either that or they were early morning egg layers shiverring through the last of their life cycle. The birds would be the only predators interested in them as I drifted quietly down the miles of the upper river, enjoying the solitude and the lapping of water against the hull.

It was after noon when I floated down a long riffle to find a horde of tiny caddis at the head of the receiving pool. I spotted rises along the bank, just as tight to land as they could get in the higher flow. I saw, or at least thought I saw wings amid the flotilla of caddis, mayfly wings, and I plied those bank feeders with a couple of blue quills and a tiny olive to no avail. Those trout had to be eating the caddis, and that realization let me know I was in a world of trouble. The tiny pale winged flies were as thick as pollen on the water.

The Shad Caddis or Apple Caddis as they are known on the West Branch is a prolific species, and nearly always imitated with a size 18 fly. I do tie a few twenties, and I knew just where they were: in the other Shad Caddis box tucked securely into my fishing vest, at home in my driveway. To tell you the truth I think size 20 may have been too big anyway.

My solution, after convincing myself that none of those trout was going to hit my 18, was to perform a little surgery, trimming the shuck and wings back a bit; not a size 22, but the best I could do. A trout with mud on his cheek from rubbing against the bank finally selected my surgical patient from the thousands of real bugs just long enough for me to feel a little tug. The breeze had blown some downstream slack in my line and I didn’t get the hook home. Small fish, not one of the good ones I expected. Easy solution, pull the anchor and drift down twenty-five feet to the next little bit of soft water.

I brushed up my carved dry fly and went to work on the first of the new group, steadily feeding on all of those tiny shadflies. Dropping down into the pool was all it took to find the larger trout. They don’t grow big by fighting any more of that 2,300 cfs current then they have too. By the way, my surgery was successful.

My fly bobbed along half awash three inches off the bank and became lunch for a very surprised and energized brown! He was off the bank like a shot and pulling downstream with all of that current on his tail. Fighting wild trout from the boat is always an adventure, particularly in high water. It’s hard to get them to the net, and fighting and handling the long handled boat net solo is a chore. The current wants to rip it out of your hand when you dip it. Nineteen inches, a very respectable full bodied West Branch brownie.

It took a lot of casts, and another short drop to put the fly in front of his twin, whereupon I got to repeat the wrestling match with trout, doubled over fly rod and net. Grinning from the tenacity of the fish and my good fortune, I just kept slipping down that bank, adding a couple more nice brownies to my tally, and surrendering a third one early when he managed to shake, rattle and roll enough in that heavy surface current to twist the hook free.

Time to relax and drift again, as I encountered a pair of boats working the soft water at the bottom of the pool. That drift covered several river miles and a couple of hours, as I stopped at a few favorite locations to sit and watch for rises.

It was getting close to three o’clock and the caddis still littered the water. Sliding down another long riffle, I found a telltale ring tight to the bank where the undulations of the shore line created a little haven. I swung the bow out, took hold of the anchor rope, and put my foot on the release pedal, dropping it gently as the currenty rapidly moved me toward my target. Perfect.

Hmmn, this fellow won’t eat my caddis… it is three o’clock…Hendricksons! I groped in my boat bag for my box of drift boat flies and selected a well hackled Pink Enhanced Hendrickson parachute. That brown was a tough one, sliding back and forth along the edge and absolutly refusing to pay any attention to my fly. The great thing about a good bug day is there is usually another nearby. The combination of the micro topography of the river banks, the flow, and the wind sets up little pockets of soft water, even along the banks of a fairly straight pool. The trout will congregate in these prime feeding lies when there is food on the table.

A dip in the bank downstream from my recalcitrant edge feeder featured another riser, this one out in the current trailing from a subtle jog in the shoreline. It took a few long casts reached back into the wind to put my P.E. Hendrickson on line with that moving target, but the take was solid. The heavy head shakes and the long, bulldogging run into my backing left no doubt this was the fish of the day. I was concerned when he took all that backing, as there was a lot of strong current between us, whipped even stronger by the rising downstream wind. A steady firm hand brought him back. You have to know your tackle’s capabilities. How much pressure will that 5X tippet take? The hook? Its easy to get impatient and pull just a little too hard.

He was an absolute bear to get into the net. I was still close to the riffle and the surface current was heavy. I had the rod doubled time and time again, trying to get him to the top beside the boat. Finally, after half a dozen aborted tries, I had him. A smile of relief, a quick measurement along the net handle’s scale, and a snapshot before release. Big head, wide shoulders and a bit more than twenty inches of muscle. Thanks Mr. Brown, glad you dined on my P.E. Hendrickson today.

Solid Muscle, with fins!

Boat traffic was heavier in the lower miles of my float, so I didn’t get to work a few spots I would have liked. I did get to the last one first though. I managed a foot long trout while I was waiting for the sippers this area attracts, then cast my 100-Year Dun Red Quill to the first sipper over in the funny water, where the current backs up. He sucked it down on my third cast and put up more of a battle than his size warranted: a Delaware Rainbow. You have to love them. What’s not to like about a fifteen inch trout that fights like he’s a lot bigger than he is.

As evening blossomed, the other sippers proved immune. Were they taking the caddis, Hendricksons? Not mine. There was still enough breeze that I doubted any spinners were around, though I tried one anyway. No sale. I took a break from casting and dug out my phone to check the time: six thirty. Time to go. Cathy would be at the ramp in half an hour.

I rowed through the flat water as glimpses of lowering sunlight illuminated the clouds: a beautiful evening, even if it was chilly for May.

2 thoughts on “Solo on the West

  1. Beautiful and a full day – very nice… more than anyone can ask for…
    Was your trusty T&T rod your choice for the day?


  2. Mark I’m glad you had a wonderful day! I wish I would have joined you instead of working on my honey do list.


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