“The Golden Hour”

Fly Fishing at NightEven though there is a golden hour every night, each seems like a rare treat, precious, not for wasting. Especially in the summertime I’m prone to feeling an unsettling urgency in the warming light and cooling air. I tell myself to slow down, both to savor it and because slow is smooth and smooth is good for fly casting.

The perfect example is often right in front of me: the trout and the mayflies. The sunset is being pinched between the black trees and the deep blue that’s already harboring a first few stars — only moments remain — but the river residents do not become frantic. They carry on with the patience and rhythm of ten million generations, unaware and unconcerned with the shortness of the evening or of their lives, at least if measured in human hours.

Human hours of course meaning less than nothing from the trout’s viewpoint as it sips invisible spinners from the blackening river — the spinners silhouetted against an eternally-luminous sky.  It sips them to the irresistible rhythm of some ancient drumbeat that I can’t hear but, watching the nose-dimpling of the water’s surface, can almost maybe feel. A little. Can just about begin to comprehend the edges of.

That’s why I finally make the cast. Not to interrupt the rhythm, though I guess it does, but just to feel it pulse for a few moments.

Even though there is an autumn every year, our allotment feels meager. They are too precious to be wasted. Up north they are sometimes long and luxurious, and sometimes over without warning, truncated by an early blizzard. Just like during those summer witching hours I catch myself feeling an uncomfortable urgency in the fall, especially on days when I’m forced to sit in an office while, out there, cooling wind stirs yellowing leaves.

During fall I try to take my lessons from the musky. The musky’s drumbeat accelerates with the shortening daylight. It’s said that a musky that feeds once every five days during the summer will feed five times per day in the fall, stocking up on calories for the coming dark months.  I, too, feel the urge to stock up, though on what exactly is harder to define.  But the musky’s lesson is that of an opportunist. It doesn’t race up and down the river, frantically looking for things to eat. It knows its spots and it knows its times; when these and other mysterious conditions align, and something swims by, be it piscine, mammalian, or bird, the musky capitalizes.

A few weeks ago my wife and I ate a rehydrated dinner on the eastern shore of a small lake in the Superior National Forest. All afternoon scattered rain squalls had been blowing through, visible as wide grey trunks anchoring isolated cumulus formations long before they reached our lake, passing north or south or coming right over and soaking our camp. Now it seemed that finally the last was gone and the late-summer sun had appeared from behind it, low over the pines and birches of the Western shore. The lake went to glass and occasionally a fish rolled on the surface, presumably eating something, the rings radiating infinitely. I began to eat faster.

“We’ve only got about an hour,” I said. “Gotta get back out there for last light.”

“You sure you want to?” she said. “We could just sit here and watch the sun set.”

Of course we could. But this was our last evening on this lake, and the bass were out there feeding. The canoe waited on the bank, rods already strung with Booglebugs. Most evenings I’m at home in the suburbs wishing I was at a place like this, throwing poppers at a rocky shoreline. The pull toward the water was almost physical.

Amy set down the empty pot and leaned against my shoulder. The loons down the lake were hooting softly at each other, the sound carrying remarkably far across the flat water.

“I mean,” she said, “do we really need to catch more fish today?”

Sounded suspiciously like another lesson for me to consider. But we’d caught fish that afternoon. Not very many, really, but we’d each got a few and they’d been eating poppers and were right where we expected them to be over deep rockpiles and huge sunken century-old sawcut logs and they fought hard as smallmouth are supposed to. They were dark tannic bronze and slim, not giants but plenty big on a six weight.

Did I really need to catch another one to avoid the feeling of wasting this particularly golden hour?  Or net another one for Amy? I wasn’t sure. Still am not. Working on it.

But we left the canoe where it was. The sun rotated out of view and the stars slowly repopulated the deepening blue. The loons continued their hooting and after a while were answered by a barred owl from the dark north end of the lake.