Though it is past Noon as I enter the river, the cold grasps at my legs immediately. There is a pervasive mist in the air from mountaintop to river, even down into that watery realm it seems. I am prepared for the afterlife, that second season some call it, with a big Isonychia soft hackle knotted to a substantial tippet. The river temperature is 47 degrees, and there will be no sun to warm it.
I move into the flow and cast the weighted fly across, mending a short loop so that it swings gently down over the cobbled channel. Step, retrieve, cast and swing: this is what must pass for fishing at this season. I continued my rhythm for an hour, but nothing bumps the fly. My gaze wanders, this off-season style of fishing depending upon feel rather than sight, and I see something that I do not expect.
Studying the flat surface, I find a procession of tiny wings and my heart jumps. There is reason indeed for the soft rises my eyes revealed along the glides, cold be damned!
I rebuilt my leader as I stalked down and across the wide expanse of the river, smiling as those little rings amid the glide repeated themselves. The magic lives!
The flow was the equalizer on this day, leaving me long casts crossing complex currents even from my closest approach. Ah those bedeviling currents! I have battled them before, learned a few things as far as solving their puzzle of presentation. Every day, every flow is different in a living river, and those treacherous currents are constantly shifting, curling and finding new ways to trap a leader and skate a fly away from success.
The trout were moving, and despite the substantial number of flies upon the surface they refused to feed steadily. I invested the time, changed position a step at a time. I solved one riddle and the old rod bowed deep and throbbed with life!
I danced the edge, working the fish to the limits of the tiny hook. He had the advantage in the deep, fast water. I had worked into a casting position carefully, leaving no easy exit back to shallower environs. I would have to control and land him there or not at all. Invigorated by the cold, oxygenated water, he nearly leapt out of the net when I finally swept him from the river, my little dry fly lodged perfectly in the corner of his mouth!
As the afternoon deepened, the game continued. Each substantial change in position required wading back to shallow water, moving down, and then easing back over the treacherous portion of the riverbed to work another riser. The tiny olives marched in a wide phalanx down the current of the glides, yet the feeding remained spare: take one, perhaps two and then demure, each trout ghosting from the mist then vanishing again.
At last, I found myself in perfect position when another rose briefly, first to a mayfly awash, and then to my dainty fraud! The fight mirrored my earlier escapade, the resiliency of the old rod cushioning that little hook as I worked the trout around line cutting boulders. In the net, he was a twin to that first wonderfully energetic brownie!
The activity disappeared in the mist from whence it came, and I found the warmth of the car most welcome after convincing my tired, cold bones to work out of those mesmerizing currents.
In the morning I tentatively checked the porch thermometer, pleased that the expected freeze had not occurred. Thirty-four degrees doesn’t spell fishing, but the pull of the river was too strong given the gifts of the previous afternoon.
Bright sunshine greeted me at river’s edge, though the clouds gathered quickly as I scanned the surface for some evidence that my good fortune might be repeated. Each day at this season might be the last. There was no heavy leader today, no swinging. I simply waited and watched, easing gently into and downstream with the flow.
Eventually I witnessed a telltale ripple in the glides, enough to confirm life, and death for the mayfly’s part and began my stalk. As the sun became more hidden in the darkening sky, the wind rose just enough to thwart my best casts from yesterday’s proven position. A final play put the line too hard on the water, and the rises ceased. There were fewer flies this day, and the clouds did nothing to improve their numbers. Occasionally I would spot a single rise and work into a position to cast, only to find that rise would not be repeated.
Over the course of an hour, I managed to put the fly over one or two of those single rises without result. A larger mayfly drifted past, it’s light body and wings bringing to mind the September peach fly, and I turned to my vest pocket. A sixteen sulfur 100-Year Dun caught my eye and I reached for it instantly, replacing the twenty olive the wind rippled surface refused to let me see. When a good rise showed amid the water tumbling over a boulder, I cast that fly repeatedly, willing it to succeed where the little olive had failed.
The trout took greedily, my rod bucking instantly with his wild energy, and the vintage CFO began to sing. My first glimpse of my foe confirmed this was a good fish, but his heart belied his size. Some trout simply refuse to give up. I was powerless to control him in the deeper flow, surrendering my position and carefully working my way into shallower water. Still, he refused to come anywhere near me.
I understood when I finally made my first pass with the net: a heavy Delaware rainbow. When he was bested at last, I slipped the canted wing fly from the side of his jaw and thanked him. A fine example, pushing nineteen inches as he wriggled in the mesh, I tried to snap a quick photo before release. Looking at the result this morning, I wondered if it was the cold that made my hands shake so badly, or something else. Perhaps sharing his will and wildness through that arch of vintage cane affected me more than usual.
There were no more rises after I released that beautiful bow, so I took a break from the cold the river had steeped into my bones. I checked another pool and then another, but the activity for the day appeared to have concluded. I did find a couple of friends lurking at that last pool, looking rather than casting as I arrived. The sun shone through the clouds and warmed me as we stood there and talked.
In turn, each of these anglers spotted a rise and excused themselves to slip into the chilly current, while I headed home envisioning the hot coffee waiting there.
Our first frost arrived this morning; thirty-one degrees at daybreak here in Crooked Eddy. Shall these two afternoons mark the end of my dry fly season I will remain thankful for Nature’s gifts, for they were golden!