The Trout of Summer

Herding Canada Geese: The drift boat method.

Late August and still no appreciable rain has fallen here in the Catskills. They forecast it, and it passes us by. The summer sulfur hatch has dwindled to the point that there are not enough flies to bring trout to the surface, so we are left with the teeny tinies which may or may not produce rises on any given day.

I have stalked several rivers in stealth mode, trying to find a good fish that will respond to terrestrials. The low water has made that very difficult; not impossible, but very, very difficult. Yes, late last week I took a two-foot brown by stalking that way, but today I managed only a pair of 5″ trout on the same water.

I took a couple of days off from my routine this week, well, more or less days off. I awoke Tuesday to find that the West Branch release had jumped to 900 cfs, and cajoled my dearest into rising early to shuttle me and my drift boat for what I thought would be a really nice solo float trip. Even as I sat at anchor and rigged my rods, I thought the flow looked kind of flat for 900 cfs. I should have figured it out immediately: the release was a very short pulse. By the time my boat was in the river they had dropped it to 649 cfs where it would remain for the rest of the day. It would be a day of dragging and rowing.

The mayflies I hoped would be stimulated by the rush of cold water weren’t, and I didn’t see much of anything rising until I was rowing hard to reach my pickup point on time. They were tiddlers taking unseeables in the slow, flat mid-river pools. I wouldn’t have stopped for them if I could have.

I welcomed the stalking routine on Wednesday, seducing a bright energetic nineteen incher with an old reliable dry fly, and losing a larger fish I never saw take my fly. My line got tight at the end of my drift, and I lifted in time to feel a heavy fish yanking me around a rock and breaking my leader. Ah, what might have been!

Thursday would be my second day off, and I decided to wade the West Branch with my friend Henry. He had another fellow with him this trip, Dave from New Hampshire. We had met once before, so I knew that Dave was a smart guy, as he was ordering a new rod from bamboo rod master Dennis Menscer when we met at the rod shop.

We hit the West Branch in early afternoon to find flat, undisturbed water. Henry and I wandered upriver while Dave wandered down. It had been a nice calm morning, so I had my little 7 1/2-foot Jimmy Downes Garrison 206. I had fished the morning with a DT3 line, but the murmur of a breeze when I met up with the guys encouraged me to change reel spools to a WF4. It is the Catskills and yes, the wind did blow!

None of us had much luck finding a rise for a while, until I finally saw Henry casting a hundred yards away. Within ten minutes I had a soft rise right in front of me. That fish ignored my 22 olive parachute, as did the next fish I saw dimpling the surface. Serendipity knocked, as I felt a tickle on my hand, and looked down to see a tiny flying ant had landed there. With the intermittent breeze strengthening, I wasn’t relishing the idea of matching that little fellow with a size 24 or 28 fly I would never be able to see. I dug out a size 22 CDC winged ant and knotted it to my 6X tippet.

I managed to miss the first trout that grabbed that fly, or so I thought. When I picked it up, I saw the tangle of twisted tippet that had spooked the fish. There was too much wind for four feet of 6X. I know better of course, but we do get into habits. With the tippet cut in half I started searching for another riser.

I hooked two nice fish that popped that tiny fly pretty hard, but neither stayed on for long. Should have offset the hook points I thought. When I reached for my forceps to do just that, I noticed that they and their retractor were no longer dangling from my chest pack.

Luckily, the ant fishing lasted for a few minutes. It wasn’t a heavy fall, couldn’t be with the amount of wind I suppose, but there were enough to give me some fish to play with. Thankfully they weren’t size selective with the relatively small number of naturals and ate my 22 just fine.

The highlight of the afternoon was hooking into one very fired up eighteen inch brownie that came out of the water half a dozen times! This time the little hook got a good hold, and I eventually played him to the net. I caught one more as the ant numbers dwindled, raising that lovely light cane rod in expectation of another nice fish. The eight inch brown was as surprised as I was.

Once the ant fall subsided, the wind finally calmed down. Funny how that worked out. There were risers here and there, but not much in the way of forage visible to me. They ignored the ant now, and that 22 olive, and I stared hard at the surface for an answer. Some wiggling speck called my hand down to the water and I had it: a tiny little nothing of a Blue-winged Olive, size 26. My size 22 fly was twice as long as the natural, and those trout were really keying in on them as more drifted along.

In my Cumberland Valley days, I tied and fished dry flies down to size 28, but a 22 hook is about as small as I deal with these days. That is the smallest fly I have found truly big brown trout interested in in our Catskill rivers, with the exception of tricos. In a good trico year like 2020, I did catch several fish between 18 and 19 inches on the size 24 spinners, but I have seen no trico activity at all this summer after two years of winter and spring floods.

Digging around in the limited number of fly boxes I can carry in the chest pack, I found one stubby size 24 olive. It was ignored by the trout sipping 26’s. It was close to five o’clock, so I bid Henry goodbye and started walking out noting that Dave, still down river, was into a nice trout. When I passed him, he hooked another. “You obviously carry very small flies” I said, “they’re 26 BWO’s”. Dave grinned as he reeled and affirmed he had finally found success with a size 26 emerger.

That’s the trout of summer as the season winds down with hints of the autumn to come: taking a little bit more than nothing!

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