Something Out of Nothing

A ray of light shot from the December darkness that surrounded me for a while. My son Brent and Catherine Rothwell, from Warrenton, Virginia, were married on the banks of the Anacostia River in Washington D.C. on December 23rd. The marriage initiated a lot of celebration amongst two small families, and it certainly helped me glimpse the light of hope as the new year opened its door.

L-R: Alyssa,Catherine, Brent, Leighanne, rivertoprambles

L-R: Alyssa,Catherine, Brent, Leighanne, rivertoprambles


It was great to see my daughter again, as well. We hadn’t seen her in person since our visit to St. Croix last year, and it was comforting to know that we’d rejoin her on the islands one more time in April before she moves back to New York. Sometimes, when you keep your eyes wide open, you can see something wonderful or useful just beyond the confines of the ordinary.

As New Year’s Day rolled around, my friend Tim Didas and I went fly fishing on a New York water, as we’ve done for five consecutive years on January 1st. It’s more of a tradition whereby we catch up on personal news and just have some fun while casting in a typically cold environment that doesn’t offer much hope for landing a trout or a salmon. Out of the five years that we’ve fished together on the 1st, I think we were successful only twice, but in each cold venture, we had fun.

Conhocton River

Conhocton River

This year was a “skunk,” or maybe I should call it a “mink.” More on that momentarily.

Despite the pleasant weather, with a clear sky and an air temperature in the mid-30s Fahrenheit, and despite the presence of a few hatching midges and Blue-winged Olives on the big Conhocton River near Avoca, New York, we couldn’t get anything interested in chasing our nymphs or streamers. We could smell the skunk of angling failure, but on trudging back through the snowy fields and river bank to our vehicle, I found a dead mink.

mink tail

mink tail

The animal had been killed within hours. There were no signs of bodily injury, other than a bite mark on the head. We had seen fresh tracks of a coyote (in addition to fox, grouse, rabbits, and turkey), and I eventually surmised that the mink may have been whacked in a scuffle with coyote.

Tim reminded me that the tail fur of a winter mink is good for tying flies, especially for a silky brown dubbing that is useful in caddis and soft hackle patterns, and for guard hairs that function well as dry fly tails.

angler bambooze (T.&T. 5 wt. left; Orvis 7-wt. right)

angler bambooze (T.&T. 5 wt. left; Orvis 7-wt. right)

I handed him a small knife that I carried, and he carefully removed the mink’s tail. Specifically, he was careful not to puncture the animal’s scent gland near the  base of the tail, which had the potential to rupture and to add some serious insult to the minor injury of a skunking on the river.

I thanked the carcass for the use of its tail, and buried the animal at the base of a nearby tree. We eventually eliminated the tail bone from the fur, and I had myself some mink for the tying of flies.

Conhocton mink caddis

Conhocton mink caddis

Next day, with a forecast of impending rain that would quickly raise the level of the streams, I thought of making a short foray to Chenunda Creek in search of my first trout of the year, but reconsidered as a freezing drizzle changed the landscape. Instead I stayed home and tied some flies. I tied a few Conhocton River caddis, with mink fur playing the role of thorax on an insect body.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

photo by Scott Cornett, from Scott's holiday venture in Allegany State Park, 1/1/17

photo by Scott Cornett, from Scott’s holiday venture in Allegany State Park, 1/1/17



About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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19 Responses to Something Out of Nothing

  1. plaidcamper says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed your tale of the tail, and hope the mink brings success. I bet tying your own flies can become an obsession – I feel strangely drawn to it, and I don’t fish…
    Great photo of the happy family, and what a splendid way to start the year!
    Thanks, Walt.

    • I guess it is a tale of a tail that wags the telling of my year to be, or something like that. I find that tying can become obsessive but usually I quit before I get to that point, usually by going fly fishing. Glad you liked it, PC, and happy January trails

  2. Brent says:

    Plaid stole my pun thunder so I’ll chime in to say that this is a nice piece on finding the silver linings when life deals us a tough one. I think even the Iroquois might be proud of how you made the most of nature’s accident! Good looking group of people in that first picture, by the way.

  3. Bob Stanton says:

    Careful there, Walt, that mink might be a gateway to harvesting every kill you find, road or otherwise for usable tying materials! Don’t think that I don’t inspect every critter that I drive by for potential additions to the tying bench, though in truth I’ve only ever plucked a porcupine for some quills and guard hair, and shaved (that’s right, shaved) a fat ‘ol fox squirrel for some dubbing. Both dead, of course. I might have to bump up my game this spring, however. My buddy Jeff and I celebrated the dawning of the new year with a hike on the Minister Run trail in the ANF. Nobody out but a few other hardy souls and some ravens – just the way I like it!

    • No worry, Bob– it’s probably not a gateway thing, although I do keep an eye out for stuff. Too easy to pick up synthetics these days and not have smelly body parts laying around in baggies. But yes, an occasional squirrel tail or starling or grouse feather for vise potential. Sounds like you had a nice New Year opener, too. I hope these are signs of what’s to follow!

  4. Doug says:

    Sounds like everything is turning the corner into 2017. Love the photos and the blog, was of course back to its natural senses.

  5. An excellent first outing. I’ve been scolded many times for bringing home miscellaneous fur and feathers and I don’t even tie. It can be hard not to look at something without thinking, “I bet that would make a great fly.”

    • That’s the thing, Douglas; we wonder about the “potential” there, what it is we MIGHT do with it. Luckily, I wasn’t scolded for bringing in a mink tail, though I did get a “what if” sort of question regarding it. No worries, though. Thanks, and good luck out there.

  6. JZ says:

    Aaah, cold air and a blanket of snow on the ground while trouncing around the banks holding a fly rod. If that doesn’t ring in a New Year Walt, nothing does. Add to the fact that your son Brent just got married and is happy in his life’s course, makes everything very satisfying as a parent. I bet you cant wait until April, the Islands and a joyful reunion with your daughter await you in a wonderful setting. Congratulations to you Walt, the up’s and down’s of life do come back full circle if ones life has balance. You must have it in spades my friend and that is good!
    As for the skunking, that is fishing! As for the mink, that’s on you and now what makes your caddis flies. For the record, I would take a mink over a skunk any day…:-)

    • JZ,
      Well, I’ve had my share of the ups and downs in life, for sure, but I feel fortunate in keeping them relatively balanced to this point in the game. Like you, I’ll take the mink over the skunk anytime and try to keep things looking positive. Here’s hoping that the new year finds you well, and ready for a fresh start on the streams when the time looks right. I always enjoy hearing from you.

  7. Here’s to a great beginning to a new year Walt. I don’t pick up “roadkill” any more even I couldn’t pass up some mink!

  8. Walt – Congratulations on the marriage of your son! There is good in life everyday if we have open eyes to see it! I enjoyed reading of your trip to the SNP and your own New Year’s Day tradition. We fish the same day and for the same reasons, just to get together with some like minded friends while the rest of the world is sleeping off the night before. All the best in 2017!

    • Thank you, Mark. Glad you liked the post and that you got out on the holiday and helped the world start off on the right foot again. The tradition has all the right reasons going for it, even if it seems eccentric by the norm. And sometimes we even catch a fish. Happy 2017!

  9. loydtruss says:

    Awesome mink caddis, what size would work best for you? I could see this pattern working when the trout are feeding just below the surface. A good pattern to begin your 2017 trout quest, thanks for sharing

    • Bill, I haven’t tested the mink caddis yet, but I would guess it has a strong potential just below the surface when a hatch occurs on the river or in the smaller streams when drifting for a native. Maybe with a size #12 or #14 caddis hook. I’ll let you know how it goes this year. Thanks!

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