The Spice of Life

Summer in the Catskills, without the heat wave.

A couple of decades or more ago, I first began the game of fishing the summer sulfur hatch on the West Branch. When there were good releases in July, the hatch was heavy and fairly predictable. Any day between eleven and three, the upper river would be covered with thousands of active little sulfur yellow mayflies, and the trout took notice!

Even then, the trout were difficult to fool. There were thousands of naturals, often very active little size 20 mayflies that wriggled and hopped as they hit the interface between warm summer air and winter cold 47-degree water. The wild browns would key on the moving naturals on many occasions. I tied sparse little comparaduns with yellow thread bodies and pale dun CDC wings and had some success with them.

The first place I fished that hatch was the big, deep pool they called Danneker’s, a challenging pool to fish, and a very popular one. I returned there one day last week and reintroduced myself to those resident trout without mouths I remembered from decades ago.

I walked down early, expecting a crowd, and found the pool deserted. Only one other wader showed up later on, and he eschewed the slow, tricky currents of the pool. A number of boats drifted through, but generally didn’t stop and fish for more than a few casts. I more or less had the water to myself, a very unexpected pleasure.

The hatch is not heavy like it was all those years ago, and the trout are even tougher than I remember, but there was enough action to keep my interest. Most of the trout I saw were taking nymphs beneath the surface, their “rises” made by their dorsal fins and often their tails, though I did see a couple of duns get taken during the course of the afternoon. None of them were mine.

I knew I might have had some luck by hanging a small nymph from the bend of the hook on a larger dry fly, but that isn’t really dry fly fishing, now is it. I prefer to attack the problem through fly design. There was one other fisherman who scored while I was there. He announced his presence with a terrific splat, like someone slapped the water with a paddle. I looked downstream and saw a bit of white and some movement deep in the shade along the bank, that became a mature bald eagle upon further scrutiny. He was dragging his catch to a convenient spot on the bank to enjoy his well-earned lunch, and I wished him well.

The other highlight of my afternoon came as the edge of the storm approached. There was light rain at first, and I kept fishing. When it got harder, I started wading toward the bank, stopping as it slacked up and a good fish I had been working started rising again. I made a few casts and then the storm arrived in earnest! No thunder and lightning, but boy did the rain come down! I was well wetted by the time I hiked back to the car. Driving back to Hancock the mountains themselves were obscured by the rain. All I could see was soaked pavement and white.

I tied a few flies the next morning, considering taking another shot at Danneker’s, but a call from my friend Henry altered my course. I decided to accept his invitation and join him at another pool on the river. It was a glorious summer morning when I arrived, and Henry and Kevin were already hip deep in the river casting to morning risers. I ran the four weight double taper and leader through the guides on the Queen of The Waters, and slipped into the quiet scene.

Henry had promised ” all-day olives”, forgetting to mention that there were caddis in the morning. I had a single caddis fly in my chest pack, and it was too big and the wrong color to match the naturals. There are times when presentation turns the tide, and this first trout of the day was one of those who seemed to admire mine. Either that or I was granted a turn of good luck to start this day with a relaxed attitude. Bamboo excels at precise, delicate presentation of the dry fly, and it feels very much alive with an energetic foot-and-a-half wild brown cartwheeling through the air! Henry laughed before turning his attention to a rise just downstream, and I enjoyed every moment of that brownie, all the way to the net.

That fellow was the only one of several risers willing to take the wrong fly. I studied the water and found some small spinners along with a small dark winged caddis. I tried a number twenty Rusty Spinner, then a simple little thread and CDC olive in size 26, and finally an eighteen Rusty. Eventually I spotted one of those caddis drifting by spent and was able to grab it. The body was green, the wings gray, and it looked to be between a size 18 and a 20. Of course, the only caddis I had was the 18 tan X-Caddis I caught that first fish with, the fly my current opponent had ignored.

When you don’t have the fly, do your best to make one! I sorted through the olive box and came up with a size 18 comparadun with a dark gray CDC wing. I cut the hackle fiber tails away with my nippers, then smashed the tall CDC wing down toward the bend of the hook. When I finished, it looked enough like a bedraggled green down wing to try.

The fish I had been working on over the past hour convinced me he was a good one with the bulge that sometimes accompanied his sipping rises, so I asked the Queen to offer him my smashed wing, tailless olive. It required a few casts to synch up with his habit of sliding to the left and right of the center of his chosen line of current, but I am pleased to report that he accepted. The bamboo arched, the vintage St. George wailed, and we were off to the races, culminating with an even larger brown writhing in my net!

As the rises began to diminish toward Noon, I eased my way closer to one bankside sipper that had caught my eye early. I had chosen to save this guy, not wanting to spook the other rising trout between us, and I was happy that he had stayed the course.

I dried and fluffed the CDC wing, smashed it down a bit more, and began to work out line to test it on my bank feeder. The trout had been moving up and down that stretch of bank, content with the slim pickings out of the main line of current. There was a thread of it though, and that was where I cast my fly.

I didn’t count my casts, I was enjoying the company and the beautiful morning, but I took my time until the trout sipped again and I could pinpoint my presentation. The makeshift dying caddis was good enough once more, and the rod came up into a heavy arch as the little Hardy opened her song with a lovely staccato run!

This was obviously a heavier brownie, and he kept the rod bucking and the reel whining as he headed downriver fast. I turned him and recovered some line, only to surrender it to another chorus of the St. George Waltz. There are numerous submerged weed beds in this reach of river, and I feared for the delicate 6X tippet each time he stopped his run. At one point, I thought he was going to charge Henry, turning but a few feet in front of him, and them heading back to his favorite bank.

A great fish, and a great morning with great friends. Henry was kind enough to snap a nice photo a moment before I slipped that twenty-inch brown back into the clear, cold river. We admired the beauty of the day and the setting over a riverside lunch. Some days are tough days, and others bring a smile of remembrance, but they are all good days when they are spent on the water!

The Queen and I salute the best brownie of the morning. (Photo courtesy Henry Jaung)

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