Week of Dry Flies

When the weather watchers start to confer,

Be wary,

…..Be wary of day jobs, partners,

And farm animals needing attention.

The caddis only happen once

And this might be your best

Or last:

Should you be the fatalistic type.

Another ‘best’

To the punch line – probably the best day in terms of numbers, size, surface orientation and length of hatch on a certain inland river yesterday. Period.

On the water at 11:30 to cool, overcast skies and a breeze that failed to muster up much of anything, only hinting at its presence as night came on and departure time was at hand. The blue winged olives emerge all day. One of the days where the hatch seems to wax and wane once or twice, with the “slow downs” being probably the best catching because fewer bugs on the water. Interestingly, there was never really a magic carpet of bugs on the water and few could be seen in the air, but I was focused on heads nosing out of the water rather than counting flying bugs. Seemed like most fish in the river were looking up and much of those stationed up in the broad tailout of calf-deep water that made for easy wading, spotting and working. I’m still trying to figure out how much these surface feeders actually move. It seems they slowly work upstream at a pace commensurate with the density of bugs emerging. Lots of bugs and the fish work upriver meticulously slow – giving the appearance of feeding on station. Fewer bugs and they seem to rise one place and are never seen again unless that’s the same fish 15 feet up and to the right.

Classic dry fly fishing where time gets lost in the mix and before you know it, 11:30 turns to 4:30 and the sun is dipping to the horizon. What happened?

Early November – Trout Fishing???

Afternoon light as the temperature begins to plummet ... out of practice for cooler weather!

Yeah, what was I thinking… Rain forecast for the weekend probably wouldn’t budge the rivers until Saturday night, leaving me all of Friday and Saturday to swing flies in favorite November steelhead runs. But I was consumed with bugs, rising trout and flat water. The rain would probably lead to some decent overcast conditions, if not cold, over on the Fall River… The PRD (precision rowing device) is paired up with some electrical assistance and loaded up Thursday night for an early morning departure. Weather forecast for Fall River: partly sunny with a high near 40 and, most importantly, light winds. I’ve never fished it this late in the season, but saw no reason it shouldn’t just be an all around decent day.

Snow the night before dusted the Fall River valley and a thick fog burned off as I dropped into the valley, leaving, you got it, partly sunny skies. The light breeze seemed manageable and the cold wasn’t the arctic chill I was expecting, though the forecast temps seemed right on the mark.

The baetis were coming off sporadically once on the water around 10:30. I made a few casts to a pod of fish just up from the launch – more to warm up than anything. Then off I went through a dazzlingly busy river chock full of coots splashing, feeding and cooching at every turn. Flocks of geese were caught unawares at some turns in the river, taking flight in a slow, lifting honking parade. Finally, way up near the top of the reach at Spring Creek Bridge, a lone angler sat quiet in a boat, bundled and apparently watching a pod of feeding fish. The baetis were becoming more numerous.

I settled into the wide stretch I was hoping to set up shop on – all alone except for the hundred of coots that just swam to the other side of the river, leaving me to my business. The fish were starting to show pretty good to a steady parade of emerging baetis, the occasional mahagony and a few PMDs, which I hadn’t expected. By noon, the breeze rippled the open water making things a bit more challenging, so I opted to shuttle into the lee of the bankside willows and work fish in the calm water. The PMDs become more numerous, and at some point probably outnumbered the baetis. I had a few fish to hand on both patterns until I spotted a decent fish working tight back in the sticks, right on the seam where a cast would be tough, but manageable. So, as the day went, I spent most of the hatch casting spot-on casts to this fish, finally raising it after maybe thirty casts, missing the hook and finally settling for a nearby partner that went an easy 18″.

Probably one of my best days on Fall River… that afternoon of steady baetis and PMDs. It was nice to find many fish rising on station rather than moving around as they seem apt to do here. Fishing the seams along the bank probably helped. I especially enjoyed working a decent fish for what seemed most of the afternoon – for me, that’s what I really came for even if I didn’t bring it to hand.  I can’t say it was a best day in terms of fish numbers or size, just quality fishing on an, er, empty river in late Fall. Duly noted for future years.

Just Great Days on the River

Late February, like it always seems to do, ushers in the bitter cold of arctic winter with snow all over. I don’t really recall wrestling with any “decision” this go ’round – I had a gathering to attend and the river happened to be on the way, along with snow, more winter, and the barest hint of spring given away by longer days and the buds of streamside willows. Dropping down into the valley, the horizon is sprawled with black clouds, streaking virga, and the intimate play of morning light across everything: somehow, the nastiest of the weather is not here, only suggested in the vistas of snowclad lowlands and restless looking skies.

The only decision is where. And I replay the fantasy of the long, slow bottom half of the Anderson run where the conditions seem set up for surface feeding fish, easy wading and the good promise of solitude. If not this fantasy then the riffle at the bottom is ever dependable. This is the piece of water that might take me five years to catch a fish in the way that I dream about on long, rainy coast-bound nights. I can always catch fish here, but there’s something about the “situation” that you find yourself catching fish in that makes it somehow intensely, cerebrally satisfying.

Let me jump to the punch line: it was on the minute I approached the water. But wait – even this takes some understanding. You see, these fish don’t give themselves away so easily. Oh sure, you’ll see a fish rise here, maybe there. But just stop. Stop, breathe, listen, look. Then it comes alive. The fish sip in emerging baetis or some other small, olive mayfly with gentle, purposeful, ultra-efficient movements. The biggest fish give themselves away with the flick of a very large tail barely slicing through the surface. Some fish work the edge of the moving water where the flow is easy. More fish delicately nose through the calf-deep shallows of the margins picking off bugs that wash into this forgotten realm. A few caddis take flight, the water is colored pewter with the black clouds painting an electric energy across everything. The fish, the bugs all seem to agree. There is a loud, urgent and anxious rhythm established when the bugs are emerging heavily, the fish are feeding and the weather is vibrating.

So it’s dream fishing – knee deep water, big, spooky trout, but not overly selective. Colorful, rotund rainbows that pull line from reels and make you want to talk in whispers like they might hear your cries of delight. One after the other. Later on, in early afternoon, the caddis emergence kicks in following a brief snow squall. A bald eagle watches from the top of a snag across the river – wondering who this curious critter is, on knees, hunched over in inches of water, casting to snouts and tails with intense abandon. Swaths of sun, rainbow, silver and gold color the scene. The baetis alternate with the caddis and at one point I just step back and watch the parade of bugs littering the water, floating silently down. Tails, snouts, splashes all add to the ongoing rhythm, uninterrupted by a flash of lightning and thunderclap.

I can’t say the “bar has been set” or “this is as good as it gets,” rather, this is the culmination of five years of work, patience and observation. I’ll be back soon, to find myself in an entirely new situation and reveling in the simple fact that it is bound to be different. It’s why I fish – if it were the same every time… well, that would be a different story, I suppose.

Thirty minutes of timeless water

I’m sitting next to the classroom window on the third floor. From this vantage point I can see how the wind is faring. I pretend to pay attention to the instructor, occasionally nodding in agreement at some unheard point of emphasis. By two o’clock, the breeze is waning, the flagging branches of the trees below show moments of stillness. Their branches are laden with white blossoms that seem to shine brighter in the lightening breeze. It looks really warm and green outside now.

The instructor cuts us loose a bit early. It’s one of those moments where the co-workers get ignored as they make plans to gather somewhere for an impromptu end-of-day social hour. “I’m going fishing,” I say as I pass them in a focused trot to the truck. These,too, are the moments when the bathroom urges are forced to wait. Along the way, I also realize there are too many stop signs and stoplights between here and the river. The iced coffee after lunch doesn’t help soothe the urgency of the situation.

Arriving at the little dirt pullout, suiting up is an efficient, well-rehearsed routine. In minutes, I’m crossing the old floodplain and at water’s edge. The breeze still comes in gentle waves. Not the incessant gusts of yesterday. I hope these are the last gasps of something going away for a long, long while.

The bugs come off sporadically. Pale morning duns are readily apparent and the occasional caddis buzz across the water and in the streamside willows. Still, though, after a couple minutes of careful observation no fish are seen. Regardless, this is one of those moments of arrival. Everything’s gone right, I’m on the water; now I can exhale and adapt to the pace of the river. Perhaps there are fish to be seen, but only after slowing down and focusing on the sights and sounds. The water moving by creates a rhythm. I listen for the chops in the rhythm that might indicate a fish. The little boil far downstream, after careful watching, is just the upwelling from a submerged boulder. These things take time to notice.

Two long hours are spent watching and waiting. A couple of fish are seen, but they do not reappear. The sun sinks lower behind the trees. The caddis begin to move away from the trees, gradually venturing farther across the river. The duns float by in the calmer edge water, their upright wings visible in the last rays of sun. As I’m watching I realize the wind has vanished. Somewhere along the way it played itself out unannounced. Then I see the gentle rings downstream along the edge in knee deep water. Then again, a head tips up followed a second later by a gentle tail movement guiding the large fish back down. All this happens with a soft kissing sound. The fish slides upward again, sipping in one of the duns. Towards midstream, another fish grabs a passing bug in a more audible manner, leaving a growing boil to float downstream.

It’s on.

The fish move into the knee deep margin water to softly sip in the drifting duns. They are big fish, given away by that interval of time between seeing a head then a tail as they porpoise up then down. The fish here are extremely spooky, coming into this shallow margin water for the easy pickings. My feet shuffling along the cobble bottom will put them down if not careful. Everything now comes down to a hunched-over whisper. These are the most difficult fish on the river and exactly what I’m after. Unfortunately, the otters decide this is their water to frolick in for the evening. Moving on downstream, near the tail of the run, more fish are working in the calf-deep water – their rises barely visible in this more turbulent shallow water.  

The last light of day begins to fade. The first of summer’s crickets ratchet up their evening song. All of this lasts for maybe thirty minutes. But this is the one half hour that days are spent waiting for.  Tomorrow, I think, will be even better.

Wind (a fishing report – kind of)

The oak woodlands are bright green with the beginnings of wildflower carpets across the sunlit hillsides.  Along the river, the purple lupine and golden poppies celebrate the new sun.  This could be the quintessential spring scene except for one thing: the wind.  I saw the warnings – gusts up to 40 mph – on the heels of the storm passing to the east.  Wind that’s in a hurry to race in a big counter-clockwise arc to fuel a storm over the Rockies.   All the little places where I might find a little respite are even more trouble as the wind eddies and swirls unpredictably in the lee of the bankside trees.

On the water, the mayflies and caddis come off in good numbers.  But the winged adults skitter along the water too quickly to offer easy pickin’s for the trout below.  Swallows maneuver across the water, handling the wind with ease, grabbing up the bugs.  Not a single trout can be seen on the surface.  There’s no need, they can simply grab the bugs ascending in the water column and forgo the unpredictable surface fare.  Normally, this would be an afternoon of steady surface-feeding fish.  But not today.  A few productive reaches are visited – all with the same wind-whipped setting.  Instead, I take the time to explore two potential new sites.  Good water to be had.  But it will have to wait until another time.  I’ll be here all week – and hopefully have a chance at a classic spring day drifting dry flies for large, surface feeding trout.