Old Woodenhead’s Wish

[In this rapidly changing world of ours, I’m glad that some things are relatively stable and unchanging. For example, it’s December and the winter snow and ice are here again, and Old Woodenhead (my alter-ego of December’s Holi-Daze) has made another visit to this small stream world. Last December he went skating on the thin ice of reality (the special regulations water of the Allegheny River) and caught a few trout and even got featured once again on Rivertop Rambles. This December, he sampled the headwaters of the Allegheny, as well as a new section of Nine Mile Run, a Pine Creek tributary. I decided to run a slightly modified version of last year’s post (below) because it felt right, and because it’s also an excerpt from my recently finished book of creative non-fiction, entitled Wings Over Water, which I’m hoping to publish in 2019.

the return of Old Woodenhead…

Given our weather conditions of late, I feel lucky to have fished at all these past couple of weeks. I do hope you enjoy this narrative re-run that’s accompanied by recent photos from the headwaters region, and if Old Woodenhead doesn’t wish you all a Happy Solstice and Merry Christmas as well as he should, allow me to make it clear: Have a Happy & Merry Everything as a new winter season opens its door.]

Nine Mile Run

*

Old Woodenhead (my alter ego on cold December streams) was on the Allegheny River by noon. The weather had warmed a bit, became more seasonal, with an air temperature peaking at the freezing mark. Old Woodenhead had decided that winter fly-fishing was certainly an exercise in patience and layered clothing. Fingers freeze while attending to snags and tangles. Every action, whether short line casting or reeling in a stubborn fish, is accomplished as if with wooden hands.

on the banks of the old Allegheny…

He was not alone there by the river. An army of eleven orange-clad deer hunters advanced across a forested slope nearby. For safety’s sake, Old Woodenhead had added a fluorescent-orange vest over his usual Orvis tans. He may have grumbled, wondering why he bothered with this masochistic behavior but, when all was cursed and settled, he would have it no other way. To fish in winter was to feel alive.

He was on a river pool with depth and more than a few large trout. The one side of the pool from which he could cast had 10 to 15-feet of thin ice on the surface. He watched the shadowy forms of trout shift on the river bottom out beyond the ice. Casting an Egg fly to the open water, he allowed the lure to sink and slowly drift. Eventually, a trout grabbed the fly and rose toward the edge of the ice. Fish on!

Merry FishMas to All!

Old Woodenhead kept the line tight while scrambling downstream to the tail-end of the pool. He didn’t want the ice to sever his connection. Gaining the proper position, he worked the fish into the net and removed the hook. The brown trout measured 17 inches long. He took two photos and quickly returned the catch, adding holiday wishes to all with fin or fur or feather (and to all who appreciate the beauty of their domicile!).

Each December, Old Woodenhead skates fearlessly on the thin ice of reality, resuming his quest for fun and knowledge in unusual ways. A traditionalist, he fly-fishes, hikes and makes a nuisance of himself to those he loves and cherishes, but much of what he does in winter occurs on the snow and ice. No one will accuse him of being graceful or particularly wise, but he means well and, by god, he even catches a trout now and then.

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A Tenkara Treatise (or Something Like It)

[Many readers of Rivertop Rambles will recognize the name, Bob Stanton. Bob has been a follower and supporter of this blog from its early years on down to the present. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him, first on RR and then in person several times, including a couple of fishing jaunts in northern Pennsylvania. Bob understands the world of small stream angling and the natural realm of rivertop environments. I invited him to write up his experiences with tenkara, a subject of increasing popularity in American fly-fishing and recreational pursuits. He responded with the following “treatise” (with photographs) from his personal engagements, a work which I’m proud to share, and one which I think you will enjoy, whether you fish tenkara or have, as yet, no knowledge of this ancient form of angling other than an interest in our natural world. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts with Bob, or with myself, by commenting. It’s appreciated.]

by Bob Stanton, Guest Writer

It was already hot at 10 o’clock on a mid-June morning when I stepped onto the North Country Trail. I pulled the trail register out of its box and perused the entries of the last few months. There it was– “Going for a short walk on the longest trail. Bob S.”– scribbled from my last visit a few weeks before. I’d appropriated the phrase from the proprietor of this blog from a post of several years ago– it’s become my standard tagline when on the NCT.

As I walked downhill to the small stream that flows into the Allegheny Reservoir, an ovenbird scolded me, upset at my intrusion. Tenkara rod in hand, I cautiously approached the little pool with a downed log spanning its width. I tied on one of my BOB (Black on the Bottom) beetles and cast it upstream of the log. The fly’s plop was quickly followed by a miniature explosion, and moments later a plump wild brookie was in my hand. As I slid him back into the water, the rollicking song of a winter wren tumbled down to me. I’m not sure if he approved of my piscatorial pursuits or not, but his beautiful trill was sweet punctuation to the trout’s momentary capture.

First, I should explain how I came to own a tenkara kit. I’d known of tenkara for several years and it seemed like an interesting, if unnecessary, method of fishing. I’d been searching for the ideal small-stream, minimalist system for a while. I wanted to get back to my roots of bushwhacking small, sometimes tiny, trout streams that require simplicity and the ability to move fast and light. When I found a complete kit on a popular retailer’s website for next to nothing, I bought it, figuring I could sell the thing if I didn’t like it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

For those unfamiliar with tenkara, it’s a form of traditional fly-fishing practiced in the mountains of Japan utilizing a long, reel-less rod (sometimes in the 11-15 foot range) usually of bamboo, along with a fixed length of furled horsehair line. The fly line is attached to a short piece of line called a lillian that’s bonded permanently to the rod tip. The lillian resembles modern fly line backing and has a knot tied at its terminal end. To this, the angler attaches the fly line using a simple girth hitch. The customary flies are called kebari and resemble a standard soft-hackle or spider, with the exception of the hackle being tied in reverse so that the feather tips extend over the hook eye. Apparently, the word tenkara translates to “from Heaven.”

lillian

Tenkara fishing was relatively unknown in the western world until about a decade ago, when several U.S. companies like Tenkara USA and TenkaraBum started manufacturing and marketing rods, lines, and relevant accessories. Unlike traditional bamboo rods, modern tenkara rods are made of graphite. They are light, telescopic instruments that can be reduced to a fraction of their extended length. Mine collapses to about 18 inches. Modern lines are generally available in a few different configurations. My set-up came with a 12-foot level floating line with the standard PVC coating that regular fly-lines feature. Level fluorocarbon lines, often in bright colors serving as indicators, are popular too, and are reputed to be easy to cast. Also available are furled mono lines that mimic the delicacy of the old horsehair line, albeit in material that requires less care.

Tenkara rods are not rated in the standard weight system that most fly-fishers are familiar with. Instead, they incorporate a somewhat esoteric, fractional method that determines the flex of the rod. My rod is rated as a 6:4, meaning that the butt flexes at a 6 while the tip flexes at a 4. Admittedly, I don’t fully understand the system and don’t really care, for now. It’s at least as subjective as the usual fly-rod weighting system. Perhaps if I fish someone else’s tenkara rod with a different rating and like it better than mine, the light bulb will go on– “Jeez, I should have got a 7:3”– which, of course, would be another excuse to spend more money on fly-fishing gear.

brook trout water, Allegheny Nat’l Forest

As tenkara evolved in the Japanese hills, the prevalent method of fishing was to cast the unweighted kebari flies into likely holding water as one worked upstream, a technique similar to the modern small-stream practice. A small long-handled net can be employed to help land the fish, since there’s no way for the angler to take in line except by holding up the rod behind one’s head. Standard tenkara practice seems pretty set in its way. The kebari fly tends to float until saturated, then sinks just under the surface– a deadly method regardless of fishing style.

I tend to eschew traditional kebari, and fish a range of standard flies instead: parachutes, terrestrials, the occasional weighted nymph, and even small streamers. Not that I feel kebari are inferior to the more common flies, but some of the Western patterns seem more versatile, given differing water conditions. I’d begun to experiment with various line configurations as well. I quickly discovered that the 12-foot line that came with the kit, plus two feet of tippet, was overkill for the small streams I intended to fish with the tenkara rod.

Given that my rod is relatively short at eight feet, I first attempted to remedy the problem using a standard 9-foot leader attached to the lilian. This worked a little better, but I soon made a 4-foot section of level 50-pound test mono into a line and attached a short leader to it. The result improved my casting range and accuracy as the level line transmitted more energy to the terminal end. For next season, I’m thinking about making a furled leader out of mono, as I’ve read that it could give both delicacy and ease of casting.

Pennsylvania wild rainbow, caught with tenkara

My initial experiences with tenkara were a little disappointing until I spent a full season of fishing it. In truth, I’ve become enamored of tenkara as a small stream method. In a catch-22, of sorts, tenkara’s disadvantages are the same aspects that make it fun and easy to fish. The lack of a reel, which makes it streamlined, can be problematic when trying to land a fish, especially larger ones over a foot long. It can take a lot of rod manipulation to get yourself into position for the fish. In this case, a long-handled net would be useful. Also, without a reel, the storage of line when moving from spot to spot can be a pain.

Ingenious solutions to the problem can be found on the internet, though, and a quick search will provide several options. I just wrap the line and leader around my hand, but I’ll explore some alternate methods for storage. Casting the rod is essentially the same as with any other fly rod, but there is a bit of a learning curve. Because you can’t shoot line, it takes some practice to land the fly on target– a tight loop helps greatly with accuracy, of course, and it can be tricky to master on a static length of line. Other standard casts for the small stream still apply: the bow-and-arrow cast, roll cast, even some elemental switch and spey casts, if you’re so inclined.

I’ve met only one other tenkara fisherman on stream and just a few others who seem to know about it. Some folks deride tenkara as an inferior method, calling it “dabbing,” or worse. The late, great Lefty Kreh himself once said, “Tenkara is a fad, and won’t last long,” though I understand he later came around. On the other hand, fly-fishing notables Craig Matthews and Yvon Chounaird have embraced and promoted the techniques through their respective businesses.

BOB beetle, dorsal view…

To me, tenkara resembles the kind of fishing that Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton describe in The Compleat Angler, and it might just be the ultimate small stream method. It’s light-weight, packable, requires a minimum of equipment and, most importantly, is fun to fish. I’m planning on doing a solo hike this spring along the hundred miles of Allegheny National Forest on the North Country Trail, and my tenkara rod will be making the trip with me (you don’t go into the woods on a trail that crosses several dozen trout streams and fail to bring a fly rod, do you?). I’m looking forward to trying out some different gear  and rigging operations to make it even more pleasurable and easy to fish.

On one of the last fall days with t-shirt warmth, I spotted a trout rising and cruising where the little brook ran into the lake. Sneaking into casting position, I saw the trout spook and shoot into deep water of the lake. “Blew that,” I thought, but what the heck… I placed an upstream cast where a riffle traced its way across a small submerged brush pile. The parachute landed where I wanted it, and Bam! A 9.5-inch Salvelinus fontinalis rewarded my efforts.

My biggest wild brookie of the year was admired and released. Chalk up another one for tenkara!

BOB beetle, ventral view…

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Simply Shenandoah

I spent a few days near Thanksgiving being grateful not only for friends, family and supporters but also for our National Park system, which includes Shenandoah, where I caught a break from premature winter in the Northlands.

Chester, at home

It was a simple move, a needed change of pace. Virginia’s Rapidan River didn’t fish well for me on the first day but, on day two, a quiet hike on the North Fork Moormans brought me into a deeply forested plenitude of trout. It’s not that the fishing was remarkable. It wasn’t, but I found some brook trout, still feeding despite their cold-water, post-spawn funk. For that, an old catch-and-release angler simply had to tip his hat.

lookin’ up, on holiday

Like my homeground and other areas of the East, Virginia has had more than its share of rain this season. I wasn’t sure if I’d be seeing flood damage, or not. Although the streams were higher than I’d seen them in years, the waters were clear and (mostly) in good shape, reminding me that times of overflow were better than times of drought. It all seemed simple enough.

a shade of autumn

Wading wasn’t so easy, though. It was difficult at times. For example, I’m not used to crossing the diminutive Staunton River, typically a gentle brook, with a beaver-cut walking stick for support. With cold, boulder-studded waters of the Staunton rushing at my knees, you can bet that I placed my steps with care.

they were small…

A holiday gathering of family was scheduled for later in the day. With this in mind, I enjoyed Thanksgiving peace and quiet in the mountains. The high-water crossings along the Moormans Trail kept away the folks with only hiking shoes for travel. I saw no one above the third river crossing, where my only company was the brook trout, a Carolina wren or two, a chickadee, a jay. The sun was out; the air was autumn crisp; I liked the day’s simplicity.

simply irresistible…

As I headed out for Black Friday on the Rapidan, my son said I should take it easy on the hike… “We suspect that if you don’t eventually die in bed beside your wife, we’ll find your body rotting in a creek somewhere, clutching a fly rod, with trout nibbling at your eyeballs.”  Yeah, I said. Sounds great. So, with intimations of mortality and feelings of diminishing time, I set off on the trail, more comfortable with the cold gray morning than with combat shopping at the mall. A simpler outing, for sure.

a steep gradient…

The temperature never peaked at the expected high of 40 degrees. Ice formed periodically in the guides of Chester, the fly rod. I hiked well into the mountains and stepped carefully around the white tongues of the Rapidan. Catching a couple of oversized chubs was not a good sign for trout fishing, but hooking up with a few colorful natives was a fine way of getting back in balance with the watershed.

yeah, Egg patterns and a Prince nymph worked the best…

The weather was cold, but warmer than it was in New York State–  a simple fact, a simple face-to-face with nature. Like a good book opened by a woodstove on a winter’s night. A simple game with friends or family. A closing to a complex life.

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Between Two Oceans

In two days of fishing, eight days apart, I caught enough salmon to last me, in spirit, for the year. The ancestors of these fresh-run fishes came from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and it was good to meet this latest generation on the high ground of New York.

On the first outing, Chinook and Coho salmon ran the tributary from the lake, replenishing the spawning stock, the first arrivals already dead or dying. The sky overhead was blue; the stream was full; the air crisp with autumn promise. I looked for brown trout, as did nearly every angler on the stream but, for the most part, there were salmon. Lots of them.

I hooked and landed more than a dozen Chinooks, mostly with a jaw connection on a Woolly Bugger and a 12-pound tippet. Several of these, still green and feisty, chased the streamer from a border of their territories. A Coho, said to be unusual and seldom seen at this location, proved to be my best fish of the day. With the pink tones of the spawn along its gills and handsome sides, the Coho (like the Chinook, a Pacific variety) grabbed a dead-drifted streamer in the depths of a pool and gave a powerful, head-banging display of leaps and runs.

pink gills thru the peephole

These Pacific salmon,  the descendants of first transplants to the Great Lakes system in the 1960s, brought a Northwest feeling to my bones, an energy transferred from body to body, an exhaustion at the day’s end that was good. Today that feeling lingers, and helps to soothe the anger and the sadness when I think about the western fires, the destruction and heartbreak fueled by the science and climate-change deniers who run, or think they can run, our government.

Coho’s spawning color

On the second day of fishing, I still sought the brown trout, as well as landlocked salmon, but in a different watershed. It wasn’t easy. The sun was out; the morning air was cold; the creek was river-wide, full, and dark enough for treacherous wading. To fly-fish was to hunt for shadowy forms and to cast for hours without a strike. Eventually, I acknowledged that, if I could get single hook-up, I’d be happy and call it a day.

I started seeing salmon but they had no interest in the flies I usually find successful. I hooked a fish’s tail, unfortunately, and the salmon swam downstream to freedom. Shortly afterward, I noticed several fishes moving into deeper water and pausing. I tied on a streamer created by my friend, Tim Didas. A salmon took it right away. I fought the head-shaker to a landing and took a couple of photos. Removing an old fly and leader from its tail, I realized it was the same fish I had foul-hooked fifteen minutes earlier!

king salmon, day #1

Landlocked salmon are Atlantics that have lost the urge to taste the salt. Nonetheless, while the fish recovered in the stream then shot away, I sensed Atlantic waters deep down in its core, a wave that pulled me from my knees to stand and regain my wits.

landlocked salmon… no, that’s not blood there under the fish….

With three species of salmon in two days of fishing, I felt the freshness of natural cycles, of fishes programmed to survive, of comfort from the grandness and diversity of nature, and of pleasure given by our thoughtful interactions with another form of life. But autumn, almost by definition, has a cheerless element, a despondency, as well, a darker complement to the beauty of the season. I can sense it when our inhumanity raises its ugly head, when our alienation from the world around us gets the better of me.

blow-down near the house, winter 2017-2018; how I felt while wading the big stream…

Then its time to think of those fishes again, working to fulfill their destiny (oh yes, my time for the browns will come). It’s time to think of the good folks in the land, unflinching in their labors to help the stricken and the poor.

what lurks beneath the bridge…

finally got something to work… thanks T.D.!

the creek on Veterans Day…

King’s jaw…

my singular landlocked salmon…

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Earplugs, Turbines and Snobbery

Relative to other Octobers that I recall, this month has been drab and wet, with little change in the color of the foliage, and with few fish caught on my various ventures. Several highlights, however, come to mind and beg description…

Early one Sunday morning, I hit the upper Kettle watershed with friend and long-time blog supporter, Bob Stanton. Kettle Creek, even above the bridge on Rt. 44 in Potter County, PA, was flowing too high for comfortable wading, so we found good reason (as if one was needed) to fly-fish on a couple of wild tributaries of the upper stream. The brook trout that obliged our efforts were mostly small fish rising to the surface, but it seemed as though the spawning had occurred already, and those trout, still willing to feed, were pretty much exhausted by the process.

Mr. Bob Stanton, at work…

We talked to a fellow on the main stem who was giving up but quick to tell us of his recent success. This guy, who lives nearby and knows the trout stream pretty well, pulled out his phone and shared a photo of a massive brown trout (22 inches?) that he claimed to have taken on a deadly lure– several of which adorned his otherwise reasonable fly box.

What kind of “fly” works so well on autumn browns? Why, the “Ear Plug,” of course. That foamy orange thing, shaped like a tear-drop, that you insert when mowing the lawn or trying to sleep beside a snoring spouse. I doubt that I’ll ever try one of these awesome attractors but, if you think about it, an Ear Plug does resemble a big overcooked fish egg, doesn’t it?

It’s those things there, on the right, hear?

By mid-week, I was ready to appear in City Court along with other rivertop protesters concerned about the “Wind Farm” proposal to cite about 176 windmill turbines, each one close to 600-feet in height, throughout several townships where I make my home. The placement of turbines may be good in some locations where people truly want them but, for this place, they’re deplorable and tragic. Most people don’t give a shit about wind farms one way or another, or just assume that Government and Big Energy corporations are telling the truth about their relevance wherever people of modest incomes are too poor to fend them off. I was glad to have good company in the courthouse when I read the following statement to assembled citizens and to various officials…

A “fun guy” on the soapbox…

I will speak for people deeply rooted in this area who harbor a concern about the so-called wind farm projects slated for Steuben County. I will try to speak for the wildlife of this region that has no voice to be heard by the outsiders.

I, for one, consider these proposals to establish 600-foot turbines, along with accompanying infrastructure, to be an invasion of industrialism, unwanted and unnecessary. These energy companies enter our homeland claiming to consider the environmental effects of what they do, claiming to consider our input and anxiety, but they are here for one thing only– government green.

Kettle Creek, beyond the “government green.”

They don’t know what the people want, nor do they have an antidote to the serious problem of global warming. They are here on business with a singular concern, and it has nothing to do with who we are as a community, nor with the welfare of our land and waters. The invaders will rob us of the peace and comfort we derive from our beautiful surroundings.

Their establishment will hardly put a dent in our use of carbon-based energy sources. It will be expensive, and more harmful to our health and well-being than a life that’s lived with a careful and considerate use of natural resources.

Please join me in saying, No Deal to the turbines. May the wind blow freely through these hills and hollows, unfettered by the monoliths that serve but the few.

Bob, at my kind of fishing…

Off my soapbox, it was time for me to reassemble a season for tributary salmon and brown trout fishing. It would be my 20th consecutive season for this crazy pursuit and, frankly, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to continue chasing the big fish where, as some participating critics surmise, the Internet and social media are killing off the fun.

So I fished up north on Saturday. Surprise: the creek was low and still a little warm. The browns had yet to arrive, and the salmon, although freshly run, were still few in number. I had one bruiser fairly hooked on two different occasions but he turned the water upside-down and each time threw the hook.

On an Ontario trib– not “my kind” of fishing…

Just before I left, a group of 10 or 11 Pennsylvania anglers arrived to fish in their favorite pool. They were armed with heavy-duty spin rods and nets the size of table chairs. A father and son stood in the middle of one pool blatantly attempting to snag a cruising chinook. Two fly-fishers approached me on the bank while staring at the father-son duo. One guy said, “Look at that. IQ’s of 17, looking for lunch.” I don’t think I responded verbally, preferring not to reinforce an obvious case of socio-economic snobbery, but I’m sure that I smiled inside.

on a long tributary of Kettle Creek…

The quiet at the end…

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Quonnie Pond (R.I.)

Quonochontaug Pond, or “Quonnie Pond,” as it’s known to many locals, is a salt lagoon (or lake) located in southern Rhode Island. The pond, with its 4.5 mile shoreline, became my touchstone for saltwater fly-fishing in the state when I found the place with my daughter’s help (she who lives in Providence), along with plenty of research and miles of highway travel. Although Quonochontaug isn’t likely to win a beauty contest for natural splendor, it’s the wildest of nine such saline waters in southern Rhode Island and it functions as an important bird sanctuary and a nursery for winter flounder, striped bass, bluefish, and tautog.

at Quonnie Pond

I recently fished the pond in the middle of a long “5-day weekend” in early October. This coastal area is a long way from the rivertops and you might be wondering what a nice guy like me is doing in the backwashes of coastal America but, truth be told, I love the salt marsh habitats for their great diversity of life, and for the fact that they are seriously endangered by the rise of ocean levels. They also offer some fascinating birdwatching and fly-fishing opportunities.

west side, Q. Pond

Quonnie Pond is a touchstone for my small state wanderings, an ordering device that I’ve placed at the center of a whirlwind of experience there. It’s like an eye in the hurricane of sights and sounds along the coast. Out beyond the water, Providence glistens and pulsates with the blare of sirens, with the bonfires on the river at night (think gondolas and third-world music), with the taste of international cuisine and crafted beers, with the plight of homeless people holding signs at intersections. Out beyond the water, Newport wafts on the scent of seafood and the sight of sails, with the tours of Gilded Age “cottages” like The Breakers and Chateau sur Mer. Quonnie Pond, the tranquil hub, has an untouched barrier beach, a saltmarsh sanctuary for migratory birds, and large Victorian summer homes along its western shore.

The Breakers, a Vanderbilt summer “cottage”…

I walked out from the busy ocean breachway, from the rapid currents of the channel to the sea, from the speedboats and jetties and fishermen, to the deep clean waters well-flushed by the tides… The sand was firm as I waded slowly, easily, casting a Clouser Minnow on an 8-weight line, looking for sea bass, seeing little other than great flocks of cormorants,

a weeping European beech…

egrets, gulls, and geese. Sanderlings and yellowlegs fed nervously on the shore behind my back. A lone female loon appeared nearby, swimming underwater, surfacing 30 to 50 feet ahead. A stingray drifted toward my feet, its shell like a giant turtle’s, its long whip-like tail weaving behind a body kicking up plumes of sand.

Chateau sur Mer…

I don’t know where the striped bass were. I waded to the red buoys of the channel in the pond, to the deep edge where, ostensibly, the bass fishing had been good all season. Perhaps the big fish had moved on. Lacking the hunting capabilities of an osprey, loon, or skilled bass angler, I took a skunk on Quonnie, as well as on other sites like Charlestown Breachway and Kings Beach. That’s okay with me. Quonochontaug (don’t you love the name?) will sit with my thoughts through the fall and winter. Late next spring, when the stripers swim back on migration, I’ll know where to greet them; I’ll know where to go.

son, Brent, and Catherine, stopped at Providence en route to Maine…

the pleasant beach was a challenge…

I did some casting here, as well…

at the Armory, Providence…

migrating Monarchs by the thousands moved along the coast…

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Autumn Run: Four Strands

1/ The first full day of autumn brought the usual blend of premonition and seasonal promise. I drove to Lyman Run, thankful for the sweatshirt on a morning as chilly as the John Cale tunes, like “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend,” that I was listening to. Yeah, the hot summer days were fading now, replaced slowly by a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” a John Keats tune. A recent storm had ushered in the cold front. Air and water temperatures along Lyman Run would peak at around the 50-degree (F.) mark, equalized like the lengths of daylight and night-time hours on this date. I quickly caught a wild brown trout with a dry fly floating on a feeder stream, but the main stem of Lyman Run was not yet energized or productive.

2/ I love the deep woods for the way the forest brings the ego to its knees, and for the way it reconstructs a balance in the seeker of solitude, the wanderer who needs to see the wild resurface in his or her life. I love the deep woods for the magic that’s imparted there, and for the hint of danger, too. The act of balancing the wild and civil elements within the self may be only short-lived but, as long as tumbling water sings of rocky passages or the wind strums its way across the hemlock boughs, the balance there is real.

3/ My late September visit to the West Branch Genesee responded to the sudden clarity of air and water, but there was little to remind me of a similar visit at the same time, 31 years ago. I wrote a poem then (from The Wild Trout (1989), including these fragments: “September willows/ line the banks and mask/ the corn fields and the woods./ Raccoons leave gnawed cobs/ and pawprints. Muskrats lengthen trails/ beneath the asters/… Three brook trout/ seize the fly./ Fog regains the valley./ Twig by twig/ the silent birds/ move south.” There’s little animal sign today. No brook trout appear. A singular vireo flutters silently. At least one hatchery brown and a rainbow have survived the summer heat and flooding waters. Best of all, I came close to landing a big brown in the wild section, after it rushed a Prince nymph from a hide-out in a great white pine tree’s undercut.

4/ With the intentness of a heron staring through the pond scum in the rain, I fished a favorite mountain brook for native trout and found what I was hoping for. The wild stream was flowing full but clear, and the brookies were eager to seize a drifting nymph or a floating dry. I fished upstream through the state forest for about two hours, catching and releasing numerous trout. The fish ranged from small young-of-the-year (a good sign) to hefty adults with spawning hues, prepared to dance the gravel beds in water song, the work of continuity and survival of their kind. September closed its shop here, balanced on the slopes between two seasons, but with autumn coloring the spirit in shades of a wood duck’s intricate plumage, a brook trout’s speckled sides.

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Down by the (Genesee) River

Anticipating heavy rainfall over the next couple of days, I decided to fish my home river again. I hadn’t touched base with the upper Genesee in New York for a while, and I needed to get reacquainted with its pools and riffles and to see how the aquatic  life was doing. The sky was overcast; the air felt cool with a promise of rain; and the river looked inviting.

upper Genny, w/ invasive knotweed growth

I quickly raised a brown trout to a dry fly (Blue Quill spinner) but then came an hour where nothing more could be taken at the surface. I fished across the border into PA (multiple licenses) and switched to a Prince nymph which connected with a 15-inch brown trout offering to have its photo taken in exchange for a quick release. Being a kind-hearted so-and-so, especially in these days of grim political news and severe flooding problems in the eastern U.S., I said, no problem; it’s my M.O., whether you’re a stream-bred fish or an alien from the hatchery.

I walked back into New York State, expecting the rain to fall at any moment. Just before reaching the LaBarre Pool (where a third trout would come to hand), I saw an odd sight, like an apparition– a white dog on the roadway by the gravel pit. The animal, looking so much like an Arctic fox that I felt unsettled, ambled around in circles before pausing to glance at me then running off. I didn’t know what to think, but the dog really took my mind off fishing for a minute or two.

land of the White Dog…

I thought of a close elder now in hospice care in Colorado. I’m not the superstitious sort, but I know that reality can get a little spooky on occasion, even in the warm embrace of Nature just before it rains… I checked my watch, as if I needed to know the time.

season of the shrooms…

Down by the river I refocused my attention on the roots of things, like fishing the watershed of home because it’s there.

on Dyke Creek…

Like inspecting the tree roots of a washed-out hemlock where the brown trout took my nymph pattern.

Where a strange white dog and I crossed tracks one quiet evening.

Where the fly line pulled off of the Pflueger reel and flew out to another riffle courtesy of wrist and bamboo rod.

Slate Run in the mist…

Where the face of time gave a grimacing look and then relaxed…

yr basic Green Weenie…

I heard the words of Neil Young’s song flow in a blistered rendition by Roy Buchanan. I didn’t hear them at the river but I heard them close enough to make a vague connection.

T. & T. Classic, Pflueger reel, and mushroom…

No, I didn’t get dragged over the rainbow nor did I shoot my baby (thank you, White Dog) but I’ve been around long enough to understand that the late Roy B. remains one of the finest electric guitarists of all time…. His bluesy notes reverberate like a river’s current in a lair of trout.

 

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The Break-Off

The afternoon was hot and humid. The long holiday weekend was coming to a close; the family gathering had been energizing and fun. It was time, now, to bid farewell to the summer season with an hour or two of fishing in the shaded riffles of the Slate Run gorge.

The water temperature was on the warm side, 68 degrees F. (my upper limit for trout). I attached a 6x tippet and a small Red Ant to the leader and began to cast comfortably with  Chester, my three-year-old bamboo. The upstream wade was an easy one. I quickly caught two brook trout colored like the first trees in an autumn’s turning.

I approached a long glassy pool. A steep cliff rose from the left bank and a pine woods opened on the right. I was feeling hot and tired (and a little sad to see the summer end)– like an old fishing rod, a nameless 1930s wand, perhaps. Luckily, I had a young and spirited instrument in hand, a good split-cane that would pull me through. If I was feeling rough and worn out like an older stick, well, I could still throw an easy line despite my spirit’s fraying silks, a broken tip, and drying varnish.

Not much was happening at the pool, so I started to reflect… It had been a good summer.  We had traveled out West. Back at home, I had an opportunity to start and finish the first draft of a new book that I’d had in mind. And now, school was ready to commence again.

Suddenly I saw the swirl of something just below the surface– out there, near the middle of the pool… Not quite believing my luck, I thought about the summer past, as if to dispel an illusion of a big fish near at hand… Yeah, there had been a lot of rain. As a consequence, my outings had been fewer but, actually, I had done okay. Tim and I had caught big browns one rainy late-night on Oatka Creek. And I had recently enjoyed the upper forks of the Sinnemahoning. I was ready to move on with the autumn promise. But, wait… Wasn’t I feeling like… an old bamboo?

Chester, the young split-cane dude, wasn’t about to let me wallow in self-pity. No sir. He delivered that artificial Red Ant to the middle of the pool, three feet to the right of where I’d seen the surface swirl. A large trout drifted over to inspect the morsel and… take it.

First Fork Sinnemahoning

The fish was strong and heavy, but I gained control and played the give-and-take while putting all the action “on the reel.” As the trout came in close, I could see bright autumn colors and presumed the fish to be a German brown, a recent migrant up from Pine that had sought the cooler temperatures of Slate. On the other hand, the trout could have been a large stream-bred fish since, by most reports, Slate Run was fishing stronger every season.

First Fork brown…

You can see where I’m going here… yep, the fish broke off. The thread-like tippet snapped at the barrel knot and gave the raison d’etre for this writing. I could curse that breakage (actually, I did curse it at the time) but I quickly acknowledged that I shouldn’t get complacent; I needed to take more time with knots; it was only fishing, etc. There was no reason to succumb to a late-summer funk. A new season would be on us soon. The fishing would get better. Chester and I had work to do.

wild brown, PA….

Looking back… a Snake River fine-spotted….

Looking back… the Rambler in the Colorado Rockies….

 

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Drifter

My opportunity to fish the Driftless area of western Wisconsin was more like a homecoming than it was a clear response to all the good angling press the region has received over the last few decades. I spent my high school years in La Crosse, Wisconsin but had to leave the area after graduation, before I could fully appreciate the outdoor benefits that came with living there.

Surprisingly, I can still remember some of my existence in Wisconsin. I hunted small game near Viroqua in 1967, and even trapped muskrats that year in the Mississippi River sloughs. I still have my stamped fishing license from ’67 but I don’t recall ever casting a line for Driftless trout when I was young. Clearly, in 2018, it was time to make amends.

The last wave of glaciation never drifted into the southwestern part of the state, so the soil is rich and loamy, a boon for dairy farming, especially in the past century. I don’t think the brook and brown trout fishing was much to get excited about when I was in high school– if it was good, I was too preoccupied with other things to really care– but the angling took off later when environmental issues came to the fore, when landowners, state officials, and groups like Trout Unlimited started working for stream improvements and the benefits derived from recreational pursuits.

We left our Wildcat Mountain campsite early in the morning and visited Viroqua, Wisconsin and its Driftless Angler Fly Shop where the help that we received for my ensuing day was excellent. The folks at the shop have everything for the visiting fly-fisher, and their guidance for my first look at the Driftless water was… essential. We were soon on our way to Coon Valley and the charming coulees where fly-fishing with barbless hooks not only makes good sense for many of us but also is required as part of the catch-and-release regulations established for particular sections of the streams.

The weather on that July day was horrible– hot and humid, with the morning punctuated by thunderstorms that only seemed to irritate and madden the mosquitoes and blackflies while enhancing the sultry air and darkening sky. I had asked a local dairy farmer if I could fish his pastures, and he was fine with that, but I got turned around and frustrated with fencing obstacles that barred me from trout rising in the pools, so I hastened a retreat from the barnyard and its herd of inquisitive Holsteins.

Leighanne and I went for lunch in Coon Valley, and after that our situation improved. The weather remained hot, but the afternoon looked better for a friendly get-together with the trout. I found an attractive stretch of meadow stream (sometimes reminiscent of a spring creek in the East), with pools and riffles, and a water temperature of 62 degrees. A stiff breeze seemed to banish all the biting insects, and the streamside cows acknowledged me as just another crazy angler. I was wet-wading, and all was sanguine with the world.

I quickly caught and released six wild browns on a small Black Ant. Several of the fish were not only colorful but easily a foot in length. A couple of larger browns were hooked and lost, as well, and I had a feeling that some hefty trout inhabited the stream. Chester the fly rod had a healthy work-out on this Driftless afternoon, and I’m glad I didn’t need him to intimidate an angry bull. It was time for us to head on home, with a brief stop for some local wine and cheese, and even a photo op with sandhill cranes.

I’m glad I drifted into the Driftless after all those years away. Although you might suspect I’m prone to understatement, I will say, it was better than a class reunion.

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