Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Seasonable Weather

Yesterday's drizzle turned to snow overnight. The landscape grows whiter by the minute, but the sticky mud on the trail is the color of tar and as slippery as ice. The dark outline of the path snakes its way up the ridge and into the clouds before it disappears out of view. I shoulder my pack and start across the field, taking a minute to look up at the walk ahead and the weather I'm headed towards. Winter typically comes early in this country, and this year is no exception. 


A slight dip in the path and the old weathered sign signal the boundary of the national forest. It's a mile from the trailhead, but with the wind and rough trail the distance seems much longer - and I'm not even a fifth of the way there. The scarred and worn wood post marks familiar territory, though.  The trail leads to a place that I've hiked, or been carried, since before I can remember - leading to a small gravel bar alongside the stream where the basalt valley momentarily widens before it pushes into the Yellowstone backcountry. Memories of family and sun playing through my mind seem more distant as I'm pushing through the mud and snow, but bring a tangible warmth nonetheless. 


With a strong gust the ceiling drops and the snow intensifies. The pines, spruce, willows, aspens, and rock cliffs cause the wind to funnel and swirl, and each flake flutters and dives wildly as they fall from the sky. The snow that hits my face stings, but melts instantly as if it was never there. As the snow continues it accumulates on my shoulders, the top of my head, and on my pack - I'm damp and cold, but swift pace uphill is keeping me warm. The trail emerges from the tunnel of the woods onto a volcanic plateau; for a brief moment there's a view. It's indescribably beautiful - and I stop for a moment to take it in. But as the wind rips across the exposed causing the hair on the back of my neck to stand up and my body to shudder, I decide not to linger for long. 


Each step brings me higher in altitude, deeper into the mountains, and into colder, heavier air - but ever closer to where I'm going. Before long the trail bends to the left and dives down a scree slope where the stream draws close and I'm there. My pants are wet and caked with mud from the trail, but I slide on my waders anyway - lacing my boots and stringing my rod with a sense of urgency. Days are short this time of year in the mountains, and the clouds and snow are an ominous warning that there's even less time until night falls on this day. It's a long hike back to the car, and there's no time to waste. 


Even with the water temperature plummeting, I tie on the tried and true, hoping to persuade a trout to come to the surface despite the blizzard. On the first cast a fish rises off the bottom; with a swift tail kick the trout accelerates - mouth open - and engulfs the fly in a display of naive wildness that can only happen in places like this. It's September in Wyoming, and the best things haven't changed. 


Monday, June 9, 2014

The Pike Curse

For almost five generations now, my mother's side of the family has had a cottage on the middle basin of Lake James, Indiana. My great grandfather was one of the first to build on the lake. Like most retreats in those days it was a quiet, wild, natural place. The shores were lined with hardwoods in all directions, dotted here and there by quaint cottages. Some of those cottages still stand today, and ours is one of them. 

There were no speed boats or tubers or jet ski's or yachts in those days. But if the sun-bleached portraits that hung from the walls in our cottage during my youth were any indication, there were pike.... a lot of them. One photo in particular depicted my great grandfather and a fishing buddy hoisting a pair of three-footers in the side yard. The image is permanently burned into my memory. But each summer, no matter what I tried, where I looked or who I talked to, I couldn't catch a pike for the life of me. In fact, I was in my 20's before I even laid eyes on one. It was dead and floating. 

Pike are supposed to be easy to catch. They're aggressive to their own detriment. Despite (or because of) their commitment to destroying anything that moves, in many freshwater fisheries they're considered more of a nuisance than a sport fish. Three-footers are not uncommon throughout most of their range, and four-footers are a real possibility in certain fisheries. For all this, and despite all my angling travels, I'd yet to encounter one.

I've continued to put in the time and effort to break the curse in recent years. A firm believer in the concept of fishing karma, I've tied the flies, done the exploring, and logged hundreds of cold, wind-torn, fishless March and April hours trying to find these water wolves. I've had not so much as a swirl to show for it.

Over Memorial Day weekend my pregnant bride and I made a trip up to the lake. Victor and I launched the kayak for the ritualistic early morning session. We took some nice greenies on poppers but saw no signs of Esox Lucius






I had time off the following week to ply some big water a little closer to home. My buddy Mark and I had a great day, fishing in and out of a rolling fog that added a little edge to the morning. Despite it being one of the better mixed bag days that I've had (including perch, rock bass, carp on the flats, shots at bowfin, and of course the beloved bronzeback) the pike curse continued; a surprise two-footer came all the way to the net before biting me off.




























The following weekend, however, brought about the long awaited opportunity to really hone in and target some teeth. Our buddy Nate had offered to give us the tour of some big water - Big, clear water with hungry post-spawn pike. As promised, he found them and the fish lived up to their reputation; When presented with a fly they quickly went into seek and destroy mode. The follows were exhilarating, the eats were savage, and I've got to say... it felt really good to break the pike curse. 
















I can only hope that the future of this story will play out something like the fortunes of the Red Sox after they put to rest the curse of the bambino. For now though I'm happy to have that monkey off my back and jonesing for that next Esox eat...

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Formula - A Trip Report

It was May. I was a soon-to-be high school graduate, and the smell of dew on the hemlocks was intoxicating. Or, was it the beer? Hard to say. It's the smell that I remember, though.

The hatch. The rise. The spinner fall. I'd never experienced any of it - only heard the lore, and the lore was glorious. For weeks the visions danced in my head: mayflies (3 tails, I'd been told) thick as fog, trout exploding from the depths to pluck them. Then a lull, during which one would spend time tending to camp, nymphing the pocket water or collecting thoughts on the bank. And finally as dusk settled the spinners would return, to be be greeted by sipping trout. This event would produce an evening rise that would outlast the fading light. Such was the formula for trout fishing.

When I got the chance to test this theory for the first time, it was one of the rare instances in my life when the play actually lived up to the review. After a campfire breakfast I stood awestruck on the banks of Penn's Creek as the sulphurs came to life, right on schedule, the trout responding in accordance. It was a beautiful thing - so beautiful that my friend had to restrain me from charging into the river to begin casting at said trout. It was just as I'd imagined.

Since that axis-altering episode, only a select few of my countless trout fishing forays have played to script. I've learned that predictability is the exception to the rule; There is the way it's supposed to happen, and the way it actually happens. Rarely do they overlap.

Now and again, though. Now, and again.


As anglers we live and dream for these moments.  Fleeting proof of concept provides a unique pulse of adrenaline. Idealism and reality do overlap, stretching the imagination. The bugs come off on schedule, the trout take notice, fly selection is cut and dry and good drifts get eaten. When it comes to trout fishing, this is the promised land. When you chase this dream over and over again for many years, inevitably the accumulated success stories begin to outweigh the flops. In time, this formula becomes the way we think about trout fishing. It's a necessary coping mechanism to help us look past those fishless outings and look ahead to the next one.  When we pass the torch to the next angler, we can't help but refer to the formula... and the wheel keeps on turning. 

For the second straight season I organized a group of anglers to join me on the Delaware River via The West Branch Angler resort. We booked our week nearly a year in advance and kept our fingers crossed for some proof of concept. Having experienced the highs and lows of this fishery, I cautioned my anglers and tempered their expectations, emphasizing the word "opportunity" repeatedly. 

The rains came just ahead of our scheduled departure, flashing the river to near flood stage. I assured my constituents that it was nothing to worry about and that, as promised, we would have our opportunities. For day one of our trip that meant pitching streamers on sinking lines. I tried to stress that on a river that hosts some of the biggest wild brown trout east of the Mississippi, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.




On the morning of day two with water levels receding, hope was in the air. Unfortunately for us, the bugs were not - at least not in numbers of consequence.


By Wednesday, the conditions had lined up in our favor. Overcast skies hung low over the Catskills, and water levels were approaching ideal. From the porch of our cabin the morning felt crisp, promising. The French pressed coffee was a particularly endorphin-rich blend, heightening the anticipation. Looking out at the pond in front of our cabin, a cloud of dark-bodied, three-tailed flies glistened over the water. As the cloud slowly began to dissipate, we watched the pond come to life. I'd never fished a spinner fall for bluegill before, but though we were mere steps away from the trout stream we'd driven six hours to fish, it was too much to resist. We spent more time than we should have picking off kamikaze panfish one by one before finally heading off to see if a similar scene was about to play out on the river.


For once, it happened like it was supposed to. A few leftover spinners produced a few heads, and a few well placed casts produced a few nice fish in the net. The bugs would really start to pop around 3, they'd told us, and for once they were right. The hatch and subsequent spinner fall brought the river to a boil and produced some of the most exciting dry fly fishing I've experienced in a long time.







At dinner that evening we learned that the rest of my party had shared a similar experience, and everyone was on cloud nine. Alex and I decided that it had been good enough to warrant testing our good fortune to squeeze in a short morning float on Thursday before making the long drive home. We were glad that we did.






It might be a while before I get to go trout fishing again. During the interim though, it won't be the thousands of fishless casts, or hucking heavy streamers on sinking lines, or watching a bobber in the drift that will keep my imagination busy. It will be the reflection of falling light glistening on a mayfly's wings. The sighted trout holding true to his line. The clockwork rhythm of a dimple on the far bank. The unfurling of the leader and the perfect presentation of the fly. The innocence of the rise,  the betrayal of the set, the weight of life on the line... and the foolish sense of satisfaction that will bring me back again, and again.