Adrift

A solo float on the West Branch Delaware. It is familiar water, though it has its moods like any of our rivers.

As I think back, it was March when I uncovered the drift boat, had my trailer inspected, washed it inside and out and put all the new stickers in place. I was ready for the early spring that seemed to be coming! May is not March, nor even April, the times I anticipated taking the season’s first float down the river.

As a matter of fact, May has tended to be the month that I parked the boat, the crowds of waders and the burgeoning flotilla of watercraft becoming so heavy that the fun was stripped from a nice drift and a bit of fishing. I finally put the boat in the water on Tuesday, trying hard to believe the forecast when it told me that those dreaded southeasterly winds would be in the five to ten mile per hour range here in Hancock. Five to ten is reasonable, the fifteen or better that I got for my trouble is not, at least not for a 65 year-old with half a lifetimes worth of experienced arthritis to deal with. Basically I rowed all day to get downstream against that wind, and I felt it.

Still, there’s a certain pleasure to being alone on the river, and it was my pleasant surprise to find there was not a large number of boats out that day.

I didn’t expect the amount of muddy color to the water that I found either. Reports had said the river was clear and, though there was a little rain overnight, the gage remained as steady as a rock, the graph of the river’s flow making a near horizontal line with the barest hint of a decline. You fish the river you get, so it was to be a windy, colored river for me, with hope for good hatches. The good news was the sunshine and blue sky I found around Deposit.

After rowing steadily for several miles, I found a little ring along a pocket in the riverbank. I couldn’t really see any flies on the water, but sure enough, there was a trout sipping something tight against that bank. The first hatches in late morning are often Blue Quills, so I had already knotted a favorite little parachute to my tippet. The Red Gods were ready for me, raising the stakes by raising the velocity of that upstream wind.

I made more casts than should have been necessary before the fly was taken, sunk just above my mark when the windblown slack in my leader started to play games with it. The ring appeared half a second after that fly sunk, so I raised the rod gently and had myself a trout. Well, just for another second I had one. The rod tip bowed but straightened before the corners of my mouth could arch up into a smile.

I expected to find another fish along that bank, but I didn’t; nor the next bank, nor the one after that. In fact, I was about two miles further down the river, working through a choppy run behind another boat that had passed me. The white splashes along the near bank stopped me right away, coming just as that first boat passed the spot.

The wind had a good catch in that reach of river, and it was blowing hard opposite the current of the run, making the surface very choppy. Try as I might, I could not pick out any insects in that bouncing brown and white water, but there were two trout smacking away, and they don’t eat bubbles. I couldn’t see my Blue Quill parachute either, the wind regularly blowing it down somewhere other than the spot I aimed for. I finally tried a couple of Hendricksons, settling on a bright, synthetic winged pattern that I could see on the water about one out of every three casts. I finally admitted defeat, hoping to find some fish rising in the pool below. Maybe they were eating bubbles…

Did I find a nice riser in that pool? Of course not. I rowed another mile and a half before I snugged over against the bank at the tail of a riffle and anchored to watch and wait. I know that spot well, and it is a good bet to find some trout partaking whatever flies are coming off in the riff. I didn’t have very long to wait, and I didn’t even have to lift the anchor.

There were two again, about fifteen feet apart, sipping away at something. They were not interested in the Blue Quill, and there were clearly no Hendricksons showing, so I stared at the somewhat calmer surface here to solve the puzzle. Finally I began to pick up tiny wings. Really studying the drift along that bank, I could make out a steady little parade of tiny olives, about a size 20.

Having a tough time following my flies in the windy conditions, I tried a size 18 to no avail, then dug out the olive box from my boat bag. Most of the size twenties I had in there were sparse little CDC duns, and they were not going to cut it in the windblown water. I hadn’t the patience by this point to redress my fly after every second cast. I found and tried one little parachute that was ignored, then grunted my frustration at those trout and tied on a fat, juicy Hendrickson. Let us say that the trout proved uninterested in a fly representative of the coming feast.

There was another fish though. I slipped the anchor, drifted thirty feet or so, and let it down again, leaving myself a long cast downstream. It was well into the portion of the afternoon to expect a Hendrickson hatch, so I stayed with that fly. Mr. Trout demurred. I got out a Hendrickson box and selected one of my P.E. (pink enhanced) Hendrickson 100-Year Duns. I let the T&T Paradigm load fully, powered the forward cast, then checked it hard as the line and leader unrolled. That allowed the rig to straighten out into the wind and then back up at the check to drop the fly with plenty of slack in the leader. The trout was working back and forth in a little pocket of quieter current, so I repeated that cast several times until the fly dropped in the exact line of drift he was headed to. A good take, a hookset, and there was a fine brown jumping a foot and a half into the air! He started shaking his head and pulling out into the main current as I smiled and enjoyed his vigor, at least until the fly pulled out. Sometimes it’s just not your day.

The next riser I spotted waited until I was fifteen feet above him before betraying his presence. I slipped the anchor as quickly and softly as possible, ending up right across from his location. He never rose again. Not a problem, as I had the consolation prize: the chance to row down a long straight stretch directly into the teeth of the wind. Every time I stopped rowing, the boat would quickly cease all forward progress and start to spin, the wind overpowering the current. The arthritis in my neck was really working by this point, seven miles into the float, adding a fine dose of pain to my frustration.

I had rowed through that pool and intervening riffle and two thirds of the way through the next long pool before I noticed the slightest little ring beneath a skinny little overhanging branch. Unfortunately, I was in the middle of the river, and too close to take a couple of strokes to drive the boat closer before passing the spot. I slipped the anchor immediately and rested directly opposite my target. The Hendrickson hatch was in full swing: I think I counted three.

I’ve worked hard at improving my distance casting during thirty years of fishing the Catskill rivers. Back in Southcentral Pennsylvania, stealth, accuracy and presentation were the keys to taking wild trout on the small limestone streams. These rivers require all of that and distance. I knew this delicate riseform indicated a trout that would be easily spooked if I powered a cast out to maximum range fighting the wind. Patience was required here, whether I had any left or not.

I was glad I had my Thomas & Thomas Paradigm in my hand, for it is a rod with grace that offers performance without wasted power. When the wind calmed momentarily, I cast, laying the fly out there gently a couple of feet upstream of the trout’s riseform. I relaxed my arm, eased my grip on the cork, and let the rod have its head. When the wind picked up, I stopped and waited.

I didn’t count the casts or check the time I spent fishing to that distant bank feeder. He was the only trout in the world to me, and I had time to wait for him. During the last line of gusts, I fluffed the fly a bit, blew the accumulated water from the wing and the hackle so it would sit just right on the surface. The wind finally eased just enough and I cast again, slowly and smoothly laying that fly down some ninety feet away.

I truly enjoyed that brownie, just let go of the frustrations of the day and played him joyously. He was broad flanked and beautifully colored as he laid there in the net, a trout worth waiting for: the only trout in the world.

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