Solo

A lone drift boat appears out of the mist, rising at evening.

The Red Gods saw fit to grant a single night’s reprieve from the onslaught of storm systems, and the West Branch cleared enough for fishing yesterday morning. At 2,200 cfs of flow, the cold release water accounting for two thirds of that total, I had high hopes for some mayflies and rising trout. Easing the boat across the pool through the veil of morning mist, I found solitude and reflection.

Sticking with my plan, I had rigged my rod with a big, ugly cricket-like creation I hoped would draw the attention of a bankside brown. I rowed gently to the deeper bank and anchored a cast away from it and then fired that creature beneath an overhanging branch. I immediately questioned my choice of 5X tippet, as this wad of deer hair and hackle proved much more air resistant than my typical Baby Cricket, but I continued, fishing all the stretch of bank within range before pulling the anchor and sliding down.

At the second station I elicited a rise without a take, deciding to follow up with a beetle. That trout had said his good mornings, and proved he wasn’t interested in a more engaging chat.

I switched flies again, choosing the 2020 Cricket as a compromise between big and ugly enough and too much so as to be intimidating. Sure enough, a couple of stops down that bank I garnered another rise sans take, a clear “we ain’t buying any” that sent me back to the more subtle beetle for the next hour. No one was buying that either. Crickets, either my Baby or the Master’s venerable Letort Cricket original were a powerful morning weapon on the Cumberland Valley limestoners, but the West Branch bank feeders seemed too accustomed to a diet of tiny summer mayflies to sample this succulent fare today.

After eleven I noticed the first tiny sulfurs riding the surface, and anchored below the riffle feeding a productive flat. It was half an hour before I spotted a rise. I lifted the anchor with all due care and slid over and down just enough to make a perfect cast, but the sporadic flies proved insufficient to sustain any feeding. My trout ate a handful over a ten minute period, sliding up and down in the flat, and then went back to his repose. I waited until past Noon, expecting a good hatch that never came.

The next stop offered the potential for a hatch, so I lingered watching and thanking the sentinel eagle in his lone skeleton tree for tolerating my presence. His patience proved it’s longevity, as he remained when I finally lifted my anchor and drifted on.

Though our eagles are used to boaters and anglers, our intrusion usually results in flight; why I appreciated this morning’s regal bird tolerating my presence and sharing my vigil. I left him to his watch.

I covered several miles of river during the next couple of hours, passing a single boat, and many spots where I expected flies, though the river remained quiet and serene as the sun warmed the air. A little bump in water temperature often triggers a hatch, so I covered the next mile with careful attention. Rounding a bend I saw them at last, two or three trout rising freely along the bank. I scanned the surface to find a few tiny sulfurs, before tying a new longer tippet and a size 20 parachute to my leader.

I slipped into position without alarming those trout, and went to work with the four weight.

The riffled water upstream seemingly funneled enough sulfurs down along that one reach of bank to keep at least three trout happy for a while, and they fed along in their usual picky style. One cut the surface with his dorsal after sipping a fly in the quieter current tight to a dip in the bank, bringing a knowing smile to my weathered face. My next cast put the fly close, clearing the tree branch between us and allowing enough slack to give the fly a few seconds of float time before the faster current ripped it out of that pocket. It was just enough time for six inches of drift.

The trout took quickly, and the rod bucked as I tightened and the big brown shot out into the current and away. That bank is steep, and the river deepens considerably where the full force of the flow comes through a constriction. That brownie knew just how to fight the rod on his terms. It was a long test for that tiny fly hook, for even after his long runs had subsided, he darted and twisted down into the rock strewn channel each time I tried to bring him to the boat. He had given me several good looks during my efforts, easily over twenty inches, and I wanted him. The hook held, the reason I tie the majority of my small flies on a special model, and I finally managed the scoop with the long handled boat net; a beauty, and happy to return to the ice cold river after our struggle.

The battle had pushed his partner further down the bank, so I repositioned before fishing to him. He had seen my little sulfur several times before his companion showed himself and garnered all of my attention, and he simply refused to give it a look now. I had seen one or two larger flies taken with relish, so I opted for one of the Light Cahill parachutes I had tied for the summer boat box. He couldn’t resist the bigger meal.

With two good trout in the boat my anticipation peaked. It was mid-afternoon and I expected to round a corner to find a hatch and pods of trout working at every bend. Flies remained scarce though as I floated through the rest of that pool, a gorgeous riffle, and on through a favorite run seeing nothing but scenery. Lingering again at the top of a pool, I smiled when I spotted a single rise along the bank downstream. My move was calculated and as stealthy as possible, and I was rewarded with another hard fighting brown.

The haze had thickened during the day, and here within the shadow of the mountain it was cooler. The afternoon continued to soften, and I knew evening would not be far behind. I reveled in the solitude and the simply beauty of the river while I waited.

I spotted the last rise from a distance, tight to the bank and soft, with wide spreading rings. A good fish. I left some distance between us, as this place is familiar and it’s trout particularly wary. The Cahill was still on my tippet, and I had seen a few taking wing from the faster water, where the run becomes the great pool. My casts were perfect, the drifts flawless, but this trout was not impressed. He continued to feed at intervals, sometimes sipping gently, and occasionally tipping his nose above the flat surface and giving me that white wink with his open mouth.

There were a few small flies about, but my size 20 olive was likewise ignored. The sulfur, not interested, not even for a dainty spinner imitation recommended by the softness of his initial rise. I could see a lighter colored fly once or twice, perhaps a natural Cahill, but these mayflies were clearly not on his menu either. I had offered all of the likely imitations without a glance, while he still moved about in his pocket among the rocks and fed happily.

My eyes fell upon the big Halo Isonychia stuck in the boat’s foam fly patch as I cut off the spinner. I knotted it securely and prepared to cast, still certain he was taking smaller flies. I cannot recall what distracted me, perhaps the loose fly line on the floor catching on my shoe or the anchor rope, but I looked down and then back at my fly, late to the take. I managed a rushed hookset, though not one that inspired confidence, and that trout bored away from the bank hard and fast. Deeper water was closest to me, so he closed upon me, while I stripped line as fast as possible. That was when the tangle occurred.

I found it when he charged downstream, taking line until that tangle was an inch from my stripping guide. Disaster an inch away, and a big trout fighting like leviathan! We went back and forth like that, the fish running back toward me so I stripped feverishly, then running hard away while I feathered the line, picking at the tangle whenever he stopped and thrashed the water.

Somehow I managed to stop that fish each time, the tangle a whisper from jamming the guide, and finally picked it free. With the fish on the reel my heart rate eased just a bit. All the while that trout felt like a true behemoth, and I expected I’d need at least a two foot ruler if I eventually brought him to the net. Sometimes their heart makes up for their size. In the boat at last, I wrestled the fly from deep in the mouth of my hard won brown. I didn’t measure him, estimating he might make nineteen inches, and not a thirty-second more.

I felt the tension in my shoulders relax after the release, though the fire in my neck wasn’t going anywhere. From that point on I floated freely, savoring the glow of a hazy summer evening as the mist rose all around. I stopped just once, finding nothing of consequence, and drifted on, calling home to tell Cathy she needn’t wait until eight to come collect me.

The mist rises beneath the glow of a hazy summer sun.

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