I have long been a card-carrying member of the Cult of the Green Drake. Membership requires devotion, hours and days of waiting along riverbanks, hoping to see those first big, lumbering mayflies lifting from the surface. The Cult also requires the acceptance of certain facts: that there will not be a good hatch every year; that if the hatch comes it may not bring trout to the surface until darkness envelopes the river; and that the trout that do feed upon the Drake may spend their energy chasing only the nymphs struggling to the surface, never touching a dun.
I was inducted long ago on the hallowed Beaver Kill, mesmerized forever as the Coffin Flies danced above the riffle. As they neared the water’s surface, they touched their white abdomens to the river, depositing the precious cargo that would seed the next generation, two years hence. The trout became frenzied as such big meals literally danced on their rooftop, slashing and leaping for the huge flies. My induction ceremony was completed when a nineteen-inch brown trout slashed my hesitatingly tied Dette Coffin Fly and rocketed into the evening sky!
Our meetings have been limited over the past few years, as I have not found the hatch in fishable numbers, and this year appeared to be the worst yet. I had seen only a few duns, and not a single one had been taken by a trout in my presence. A respected friend had told me he had stopped even carrying Green Drake imitations a decade ago, further cementing my belief that this once great tradition of fly fishing was dying out.
Our Catskill rivers were once home to a magnificent wealth of large mayflies, and the Green Drake was the king! I recall one night many years ago when I was chasing the hatch on the Beaver Kill. The pool I had selected became overly crowded with anglers, and very few flies appeared. I waited, finally deciding too late that the hatch would not materialize that night on that reach of water. I walked briskly to my truck and drove to another pool on another river as daylight dwindled. When I arrived at the small, round pool I sought, the site was staggering: the surface was covered with Coffin Flies and Brown Drake spinners, with trout rising everywhere!
One cautious step into the pool put down every trout within casting range, and as each step increased the magical safety zone around me, I bowed my head in the dying light, stopped casting, and silently watched the spectacle. As darkness fell and the sounds of the feeding trout quieted, I met another starstruck angler in the parking area. John Randolph was Editor Emeritus of Fly Fisherman magazine, a man who had fished all over the world and written marvelously of rivers I will never see, and as he described his evening his excitement and sense of awe was palpable. Those were the days of plenty, of high magic upon clear, quiet pools, and I fear I shall not see their like again!
Last evening, I suited up and headed to the river, my pair of 100-Year Coffin Flies tucked into a special compartment of my Wheatley fly box. Two anglers were just beginning their walk when I assembled my old Thomas & Thomas Paradigm. They took a path downstream, so I turned up and eased along the edge of a great empty expanse of quiet water. Perhaps seventy yards upriver, my eyes caught movement at my feet: one wriggling Coffin Fly, preceded by two fully spent companions drifted down in inches of water.
I spotted a single soft rise and began the slow, gentle stalk into casting range, knotting one of my precious magic flies to four feet of 4X fluorocarbon. It took several minutes to reach a casting position without sending notice of my presence to that trout, occasionally sipping out there. Just a few Coffin Flies were visible, even with the full glow of the sun on the trout’s lie, but every few minutes another soft rise would appear.
I had made several casts, the long line unrolling well above the water, then checked that the leader would fall in sinuous waves of slack. When the delivery was perfect, the rise met my fly and I raised my rod to an explosion! The great trout darted up current and away, bent upon reaching some hidden snag, but as he turned toward my pressure, victory instantly became defeat. The retrieved fly was perfect, its hook sharp and unbent, but its hold had betrayed me in my moment of perfection. As I dried the hackles, I could not help but feel the doubt borne of this most difficult spring.
After I had settled back to my vigil, another soft rise finally welcomed me back to the game. I checked that hook point again, to be doubly sure, and sent a long loop of fly line and leader into the glimmering, sunlit path of the drift. The rise came gently, and once more my old rod raised into a straining arc which touched off an explosion. He gave me everything he had, and I gasped a bit to myself when I got the first full profile view of him: God that’s a big fish!
A wild Catskill brown trout measuring two feet or more is a very special gift. When such a fish comes to hand with a special dry fly in its jaw, the moment remains in memory forever.
I caught a few more lovely trout that evening, but had five very big, hard charging bullies part company with my fly during our dance. Never was a hook blunted or bent open, each seemingly perfect upon inspection after retrieval of my suddenly, achingly limp fly line. Nature’s and the Cult’s membership dues I expect, though I had some wonderful streaking runs and a wildly throbbing rod to remember when darkness finally brought the interlude to a close.
At one point the beauty and wildness of the scene was accented by a chorus of howls from coyotes away on the mountainside, sending a chill down my spine from the inside to meet the chill of cold water penetrating from my outside.