Seasons by the Stream
The fall is a time for reflection. The leaves of the oaks remind me of the golden color of a brown trout’s belly, those of the maple trees, a brook trout’s spawning colors while the darker browns and tans sprinkled across our property bring to mind bamboo rods, my connection with the rivers and streams where these wild creatures live out their secret lives.
From March through April, I travel more than two hours to spend days casting my line upon well-known rivers winding through the Catskill Mountains, rivers inhabited by fish as suspicious as they are large. Tippets as delicate as the fibers of a spider’s web are required for the brown trout in these waters to consider an angler’s offering. I carry a chest pack jammed with plastic boxes containing nymph, emerger, crippled, and dun patterns meant to imitate the different stages of mayflies and caddis that might be hatching at the time. I’ve spent many afternoons casting over a single fish while mending my cast, replacing my tippet, switching from one fly to another, and changing positions, all as the trout ignores my presence, methodically rising to dine on the cornucopia of insects floating upon the gentle current. If lucky, frustration turns to elation on those occasions when I solve the puzzle.
A few years back, my wife and I traveled to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where a section of the Little Lehigh River flows through a park with bridle paths and walking trails. Although I usually cast a five-weight, eight-foot, graphite rod, I decided to rig my seven-foot, three-inch bamboo rod, the one constructed by George Mauer. George named this model Starlight Creek Special in honor of his friend, the writer, Harry Middleton, who like the Pennsylvania rod maker, died much too young.
After stopping at a plaque set in stone honoring the master of the wet fly, James Leisenring, I worked my way along the shore without spotting a single rise, until, after more than an hour, spying a set of rings spreading outward upon the surface of a slow-moving run. I slid down the bank and entered the river forty of so feet below the rings that by then had dissipated. After checking my twelve-foot leader for wind knots, I selected a black ant to attach to a 7x tippet. A breeze had come up ruffling the surface of the run. It also played havoc with my leader. On my third cast, the leader returned in a mess of tangles and I decided to replace it with another, nine-feet long. Figuring the shortened leader would be easier to control, I took the chance it would not spook the fish.
On the next cast, the fly landed a few feet above where I’d seen the rings, a moment later, I lifted the tip as the maw of a large trout rose through the surface, the ant lodged in the roof of its mouth. I worried the lighter tippet and shorter rod might not be a match for such a fish, but standing at the bottom of the run, the current worked to my advantage as the fish swam upstream. After a number of minutes, I brought the brown trout to my side. It measured twenty-two inches against the lightly-flamed, blond-colored bamboo, the largest brown I’ve caught to date.
I spend a good part of the season at our fishing camp located in the foothills of the Boundary Mountains separating western Maine from Quebec, a region of the country where brook trout have existed before the Abenaki tribes paddled their birchbark canoes down from Canada. The fish here are as large as you’ll find in the lower forty-eight States while the rivers remain as untamed as the moose and black bear roaming their banks. Although not as selective as brown trout, the brook trout and their landlocked cousins, will easily snap a 5x tippet.
My wife and I make the nine-hour trip to the North Woods three or four times from mid to late May when the ice leaves the lakes, through September, after which most of the rivers close to fishing, each time spending a week or more at our cabin. This spring, I released a seventeen-inch brook trout. I’d hooked a ten-inch brookie alongside the far bank. The fish rose when I twitched the hare’s ear wet fly at the end of my tippet. The brute charged up from the depths, attacking the smaller trout not once, but three times. I released the brookie that appeared to be suffering from PTSD and switched to a soft-hackled streamer, a pattern first tied by the late Jack Gartside. On my first cast, the brook trout (it would be an insult to refer to it as a brookie) charged the undulating marabou like a pike might have done.
After an especially hard rain during the last week of August, I humped down a narrow trail to a stream a short distance from our cabin. On my third cast, the tannin-stained current swept my nymph past a boulder and into a bend pool where a fish struck with the type of power that cannot be mistaken. A number of minutes later, the native brook trout’s massive head filled one side of my long-handled net, the fish’s tail hanging out the other.
We close our cabin at the end of September. By then, the chores necessary to maintain the twelve acres surrounding our home in the foothills of the Kittatinny Ridge take up much of our time. Although unable to travel far, the fall is when I slip away for a few hours once or twice a week to a small stream a short drive from our home. It is there I cast my flies into plunge pools and along the edges of the little rill’s undercut banks, where palm-size trout brighten the dark waters.
This time of year, crisp mornings damp with flog replace the heat and humidity. The air is still. The only sound is that of crickets and the tick, tick, tick of leaves falling through hardwood branches.
Mushrooms replace bluets along the path leading to the stream. In the moment now, I leave the past behind. The future must wait its turn. Smaller than an acorn, a chocolate-colored toad appears to stare upward as I tramp past. This time of year, the musky smell of the woodland’s duff is more pronounced. As I approach the brook, a frog hops from the exposed roots of a poplar tree, splashing into the water with a loud plop. Looking down, I watch it slip under a boulder.
A crow calls from the wood along the far side of the stream. Another answers. Despite a recent rain, the stream is low, its current slipping around boulders rising through the surface. Tramping along the bank in hippers, I carry seven feet of cane crafted by Tom Whittle, another expert rod maker residing in Pennsylvania. The morning mist lifts as I wade upstream. Riffles sparkling in the sudden sunlight extend no higher than my calves. I remove a tin from the chest pocket of my flannel shirt and choose a pheasant-tail dry fly to knot to my 5x tippet.
A chipmunk scurries across an arborvitae fallen from one bank halfway across the stream. I watch the little fellow weaving in and out of the spindly branches until it reaches the very tip. The cheeky rodent stares down into the meager current as if debating whether to go for a swim, but then turns tail and weaves back toward the forest.
I cast the fly. The current carries the generic pattern into a pool created by debris collected around the tree’s branches. There is a splash, and I am into my first fish, a brown trout that fits nicely in the moist palm of my hand. Farther along, I cast into a plunge pool where another fish jumps clear of the surface, the fly in the corner of its jaw.
It goes on like this for the next two hours, a welcome respite from autumn chores. Seated on a moss-covered boulder, there is a certain sadness accompanying the gradual end of the fishing season, but then I tell myself, like this little stream, all things come and all things go.