It was a grand relief to wade into the West Branch Delaware late this morning. I feared the crowds would grow, since the upper river was effectively the only fishable water in the system, but the afternoon turned pleasant, with the few anglers keeping their distance. A week without fishing, particularly a week in high summer, is a foreign thing to me. Retirement has its benefits, chief among them is the license to linger along bright water as often as I please.
I had driven up to check the river late yesterday, finding it clear above and high and muddy below, quickly dispensing with my thought of a float trip. I hoped the summer sulfur hatch would bring trout to the surface. The cold water in Deposit makes the little yellow mays reliable, at least in a normal year, but this one has been anything but normal.
With the usual boat traffic, standing in the river and waiting for the rise cannot be counted on to secure one’s fishing area. The old line guides always gave wading anglers a wide berth, but the culture of youth doesn’t seem to honor that tradition. I decided to tie on one of those chunky size 14 Letort Crickets, tied days ago, to see if I could interest a lurker while working my way downstream to the place I hoped the trout would intercept the sulfurs. Even actively fishing and wading downstream wasn’t enough to keep one drift boat from cutting close around me and peppering my destination water with casts. I let him know what I thought of his tactic, loudly though politely.
The first rise soothed my ruffled feathers, and I shot a long cast out to the bank and fed some slack into the drift. The water bulged ever so slightly and I reacted, missing the take. No number of casts would bring him back again. The waiting game began when I resigned myself to that inevitability.
It took an hour before the first sulfurs appeared. They were sparse, and coaxed no rises from a known productive run of water. Though I hoped for a better hatch with the overnight addition of cold release water, it was not to be.
Resigned there were too few sulfurs to bring on a rise of trout, I resumed working down river with the cricket, until drift boat number two cut me off and slid into the bank I was headed for. Perturbed once again, my mood did not improve with a second bump, sans take, as the cricket worked the bank. I paused again and knotted the Grizz to the tippet trailing from my Thomas & Thomas, determined to get myself a trout from a quiet, yet fishy looking stretch of bank.
The smooth flex of the bamboo sent the beetle to the edge despite the wind that had risen, but the chop from that wind disguised the take. Sometimes there is an extra sense, the one that tells you to tighten even though seeing nothing, and I always obey the instinct. The soft glow of caramel colored cane as it catches the sun, throbbing in a full arch, will always improve my perspective. If not for the vibration in the rod, I might have thought I was hooked to a log, though he soon moved quickly upstream, still tight to the edge. The 6X tippet amid the rocks and water weeds concerned me, but I played him deftly, and ultimately to the net. A fine brown, an inch short of the trophy benchmark, wriggled valiantly as I reached for the fly.
Out of water, thanks to the offending guide boat, I fished my way back upstream on my way to the path. Three spirited young brown trout kept a smile on my face, as they moved about the riffled and wind ruffled water picking off every stray sulfur they could find. When the activity quelled around three, I called it a day.
I remember days on this water when the hatch was as prolific as any you could find on a Catskill river, when the run held hundreds of trout, until the anglers tried their best to outnumber them. The first sign of the decline came half a dozen years ago, when no matter how heavy the hatch, the rising trout could be counted on one’s fingers. Perhaps it has taken that long to sink in, for the hordes of anglers to look elsewhere. I looked upon this run once last year and imagined a circus, for the clowns were out in force.
Perhaps, if they are not too quick to return the fishing will have a chance to rebound. I may live to see the run alive with sulfurs and rising trout once again. That would be a wonderful turn of events, though word would spread and the crowds would return and begin the cycle of decline once again. There was a time when many of us believed the growth in fly fishing would bring more voices to preserve and protect the rivers. In some cases that has occurred, though in others that growth has led only to crowding and a loss of courtesy and sportsmanship. May tomorrow’s anglers learn to do better.