Close Encounters of the Western Kind

Fortified by our recent finds in Yellowstone country, my wife and I continued on our homeward route through northern Wyoming, drawn by the geography and myths of the land, toward Devils Tower and South Dakota’s Badlands. I was looking forward, as well, to a stop for trout in Wisconsin’s Driftless country, but that would have to wait for a while. The unpeopled spaces and the wild dimensions of Wyoming held us in thrall.

Devils Tower rises dramatically from the valley of the Belle Fourche River in the Bear Lodge Mountains of Wyoming, an igneous butte that stands 867 vertical feet from base to summit. The Tower, long considered to be a sacred place by Native Americans living in the region, is comprised of fluted columns of stone with hundreds of parallel cracks from top to bottom. Climbers are drawn to the Tower from around the world.

In 1906, Devils Tower became the first national monument when President Roosevelt officially recognized its significance in the landscape of America. Long before that, the great formation had played a part in the sacred rites of indigenous people such as the Kiowa and Lakota Sioux. Native American ceremonies continue there today, especially during the month of June.

The Tower, an eroded mass of igneous rock, had uplifted from earth some 60 million years ago as magma rose through layers of sedimentary stone, eventually eroding into what we saw today– a huge green-gray butte ablaze with white feldspar crystals in the early morning sun. As we walked around Devils Tower on the 1.3 mile trail developed by the Park Service, and as we poked in and out of the scree, we felt humbled and in awe of Earth’s tremendous powers.

As a fly-fisher I could look up at the vertical columns of six-sided stone and be reminded somehow of a tapered bamboo fishing rod, hexagonal and exquisite in design. As a birder, I could peer at the upper heights and summit of the rock and see the flights of peregrine falcons (and competitive prairie falcons, too) that nested there and fed on the numerous rock doves of the Tower. As tourists, we might have been reminded of the Indian legends that connect with the origins of the place…

Devils Tower, in the years following the debut of the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977, saw a big increase in tourism at its site. I’ve never bothered to watch the movie, myself, but observing several rock-climbers working slowly toward the summit on a beautiful early morning in July, I could understand how the Tower was appealing for the narrative of a tale in which aliens made contact with the common folk of planet Earth.

Just before entering the South Dakota Badlands for our second visit to the national park, we stopped and spoke with a Native American artist who was working a wind-swept post near the southern sector of this broad American landmark. We enjoyed a friendly discussion of social and political matters, as well as the craftsmanship involved with his trade. My wife bought me a lovely gift– one of the jeweler’s handmade “charms,” an elk tooth that I wear around my neck to keep me close to the Western spirit.

We made a long drive through the Badlands. First of all, I saw a burrowing owl perched on a fence post, and it seemed to say, Come along and fly Our Way. Pronghorns were encountered, lots of them, followed by some bison and, perhaps most interesting of all, groups of roving Rocky Mountain sheep. As for the landscapes that contained us all in a great variety of arid forms and color, they really have to be seen in person to believe the beauty of their “alien” character.

note the sheep in the foreground…


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Outward Bound, and Back

Before leaving Yellowstone, Leighanne and I stopped for a walk through the incredible Norris Geyser Basin featuring the massive and unpredictable Steamboat Geyser. Luckily for us, the geyser had erupted recently, shooting off steam and water to heights several times that of Old Faithful, thus staying active with a vented morning afterglow. It was a great reminder that the whole of America’s first national park is an active volcano of sobering dimensions.

Madison River

Having learned that the salmonfly hatch, the huge western stonefly, was occurring on the Yellowstone, Madison, and other rivers of the region, I was reminded also that I’d never been able to fish these northern rivers quite this early in the season. July 8th might be kind of late for this oversized stonefly in some areas, but on the Madison River in Montana it was coming off by the mountain-load. It was hatching so strongly, in fact, that the three-inch fly didn’t seem to really interest the well-fed browns and rainbows of the river.

Steamboat Geyser, Yellowstone…

In my two days of fishing the wind-swept Madison with its backdrop of the sunlit Gravelly Range, I raised only one fish to the #6 dry fly, but that one was a monster. The fish rose from the evening depths, and it almost took. Fast water has a way of insuring that an angler’s strike be made precisely at the critical juncture if the fish is to connect and come to hand.

the so-called salmonfly…

That said, I did fight a 17-inch Madison rainbow to the net (and caught a few smaller fish on the West Fork)  that took the relatively modest #12 Adams. Go figure. Then, after a mosquito-plagued camp-out near Ennis, Montana, we proceeded through historic Virginia City for a quick stop at Twin Bridges, the place where Winston fly rods are produced and where the Ruby River joins the Beaverhead. My introduction to the high and muddy Beaverhead was memorable, thanks to a heavy, headshaking brown that took a Muddler Minnow and stretched to nearly 18 inches along the rod.

drifters on the Beaverhead…

I was interested in finding clear water, so I thought that the Missouri headwaters might be worth inspecting. The drive to the famous tail-water north of Helena seemed too far and too exhausting, though, at this point in our journey, so we opted for a visit to Bozeman where we spent the night and then prepared for a revisit to the Gallatin River which I hadn’t fished since 2001.

one of the many surface-feeders on the Gallatin…

It was a fine day on the Gallatin. The sun was out; the hatching bugs were everywhere– Pale Morning Duns, Tan Caddis, Salmonflies, and even the Green Drake– and I was ready for the rise. In the lovely canyon reaches up near Big Sky, I caught rainbow after rainbow and even one wild brown. No cutthroats, unfortunately, and no fish larger than about 14 inches, but the trout that came to hand to be released were lots of fun. Additionally, there were bald eagles, American dippers, western tanagers, and even a “hatch” of 20 or more magpies that kept flying over the river, one side to the other, capturing imagination while I waited for a trout to rise.

Beginning our long trek home, we reentered Yellowstone National Park and experienced numerous places that we hadn’t seen before, exquisite locales such as Grand Prismatic Spring, the stark beauty of the eastern burnt lands, the snow-streaked mountains near Sylvan Lake, etc. Yellowstone is so large and varied that it’s guaranteed to show you more on each visit that you make. The big advantage that I saw in visiting this region early in the summer rather than waiting later in the season is the presence of birds and wildflowers in all their glory. The biggest drawback is, of course, the crowds that you encounter; and if you’re an angler, there’s the issue of heavy water.

yellow columbine, Pebble Creek, Yellowstone…

The Absaroka Mountains and the canyons of northern Wyoming were impressive and invited the spirit of exploration. The North Fork Shoshone River begged me to add it to my Angler’s Bucket List. Fringed gentian, larkspur, tufted evening primrose, and sunflowers formed alluring banks of color along the highway. The Big Horn Mountains and the rock formations east of Cody floored us with red-faced Triassic freshness and a pre-Cambrian antiquity (two to three billion years of age). As for the long distance views from the high plateau of the Big Horn Mountains, they should be a mandatory experience for politicians and other power-grubbing Egos in the world who need a bit of a reality check. I’d recommend it, as long as the bigwigs don’t get shipped to the place en masse.

in the Norris Geyser Basin..

Coming soon– Devils Tower, the Badlands, and the Driftless of Wisconsin…

sculpted horses in a field, Montana…

tufted evening primrose, Wyoming…

Sylvan Lake, Yellowstone…

sulphur springs, Yellowstone…



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My Corner of Wyoming

Our return visit to Alpine, Wyoming was a good one. We joked about retiring to this village, if we could afford its balanced charm– its small size, the hub of three rivers, with fly shop, comfortable motel, saloons, and crazy red-white-and blue eatery, not to mention its fantastic mountain scenery. For about a year, I’ve been dreaming to fish the Greys River nearby, and was glad to find that the river road, closed for months because of a landslide during the winter, was reopened and ready for exploration.

Due to mountain run-off, the Greys was flowing high at 1350 cfs, and certainly wasn’t wade-able, but it didn’t take long for me to achieve my goal of catching and releasing the beautiful and gutsy Snake River fine-spotted cutthroats here. The Greys River flows for 50 miles or more through the Bridger National Forest. I caught my first small cutthroats on one of its rapid little feeder streams, and then in the heavier water of the delightful Greys, I hooked and landed an 18-inch fine-spotted that took a conehead Muddler Minnow. I was on my way.

The forests and snow-capped mountains above the Greys took the colors of cutthroat trout by their subtle light-orange fins and raised them into the sublime. Every landscape seemed buoyant. The western tanagers flew above the riverbanks and added their own brand of color to the place. Gentians, gilia, and lupines starred the meadows near the road.

And what can one say about the neighboring Grand Tetons National Park? You’ve seen pictures of those towering peaks, now try to imagine walking in among them, away from the crowds, on a clear and comfortable summer day… The Snake River, the very life-blood of the Tetons, captured our imaginations, too. Bald eagles chased an osprey carrying a trout over the river and eventually succeeded in robbing the smaller bird when the trout was dropped and then snatched up quickly by a feathered interloper. Down below, among the grasses of the riverbank, a family of otters cavorted and did not seem overly concerned by a small party of kayakers passing by.

We had a camp-site on the Gros Ventres River near the park. I fished unsuccessfully for cutthroats on this water pouring off the mountains, high with spring run-off. I had better luck on the Snake, itself, below the big dam inside the park. I fooled another nice fine-spotted cutt (with a streamer) and quickly released it. Earlier, my wife and I had enjoyed a beautiful walk to Leigh Lake, directly under the majestic peaks of Moran and Grand Teton.

bull moose along the Gros Ventres…

If that wasn’t enough, the next morning I saw my first timber wolf while traveling up the road to Yellowstone. I’d seen a large animal cross the highway ahead of the car that we were following. The car moved on but we slowed down long enough for me to turn and look into the woods. There, some 30 feet from the road, a beautiful wolf, colored something like the hackle of an Adams dry fly, looked me squarely in the eye, and man, I was ready for the national park!

Leigh Lake, Grand Tetons…

We snatched what might have been the last available camp-site in the park, at Pebble Creek, 10 miles from the Cooke City entrance, and got serious with wildlife observations. Bison, of course, were everywhere. The trout fishing on Soda Butte and Pebble Creek was poor because of run-off, so on our second day in Yellowstone I elected to try the Firehole River (70 degree, or 200-degree water, depending on where you thrust your toes) and found it lots of fun for rainbows rising to a dry fly. The Gibbon River, too, was productive as long as I stayed clear of its steaming sulphur springs.

a Tetons meadow near the cabin of the late naturalist, Sigord Olson…

We were lucky to see a second wolf on this visit– a black-phased female on the Lamar, not pleased by the fact that a line of tourists on the highway prevented her from crossing to her den beyond. When a warden informed us of the problem, we got out of there quickly, and in time to see our second grizzly bear of the season, this one prowling along the Gibbon River.

a female black-phase timber wolf, Lamar River valley…

One of my favorite sights of the day involved a big bull bison that we watched as I stood fishing in the Firehole. The old fellow meandered slowly up the highway by the river, lumbering along at a bison’s summer pace, replete with irritating flies, and forced a long line of automobiles and RVs (intent on reaching Old Faithful before its “scheduled” eruption) to stop. To stop cold in the summer heat. To wait until he was good and damn ready to move off the road. A few impatient vehicles tried to slip by him but he figuratively flipped them off by shaking his massive head while stomping on the road.

last leg of a bison, Lamar River…

Meanwhile, Leighanne sat and chuckled in her roadside chair, and I found another rising trout to cast to near the boulders of the river.

Soon– Montana.

Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat, Greys…

western tanager, Greys River…

Grizzly, our second of the day, Gibbon River…

Grand Teton…

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Western Field Notes #2: High Passage

Driving from Buena Vista, Colorado’s fine beer and pizza terraces, we climbed past Mt. Elbert’s snowy patches and over Independence Pass. We stopped for a tundra walk at 12,000 feet in altitude; the wildflowers and breath-taking scenery establishing an inspirational tone for the journey to follow.

I had plans to fish the famous Frying Pan River in the mountains near Basalt. We took a camp-site at Ruedi Reservoir which, for me, was most notable for a western fox sparrow singing sweetly in the shrubbery nearby. The evening river of this tail-water fishery had a very cool 45-degree (F.) temperature, but the wild browns were rising to a Black Ant that I drifted on the pools and riffles, as well as to natural mayfly spinners settling in from the waning light of the canyon.

Let it now be said, I declined the opportunity to fish the infamous Toilet Bowl– the big plunge pool at the base of Ruedi Dam, the site for trout the size of a proverbial football, rainbows that gorge themselves on Mysis shrimp, and the place of crowds competing for the hook up. No, I opted for lonelier pools and riffles downstream of the Bowl, beneath the dazzling red sandstone cliffs and canyon walls. My choice for fishing didn’t make me a better angler, but I think that I enjoyed the outing more.

Next morning I was back on the water searching for big trout I’d seen during the evening hours. The river flowed at 42 degrees. No fish were rising but I managed to fool several more brown trout– colorful, feisty specimens, 15 to 16-inches long– on an olive Woolly Bugger. The canyon grew oppressively hot by late morning, so we leapt from the Frying Pan and drove toward an Eagle River tributary known as Brush Creek.

The Yeoman Campground in the White River National Forest is about 17 miles from town and situated at about 9000 feet above sea-level. I had camped there 22-years ago with family and enjoyed the mountain serenity, the aspens and blue columbines, and the fly-fishing. Now the campground seemed larger, but the beauty remained intact. Fools Peak, a mountain I had climbed (and written of in my book Sand & Sage, 2010), lorded over the valley from its vantage on eternity.

East Brush Creek has a gravel bed, deep undercut pools and riffles, and is a delight to fly-fish for its numerous wild brook and brown trout. As in my previous experience, the trout rose handily to my dry fly offerings, particularly to a Royal Wulff or a Rusty Spinner. Leighanne and I did some hiking in the deep forestlands of Fools Peak, as well as on the 3-mile loop trail of Brush Creek, but declined to revisit beautiful Lake Charles nestled in the summits at around 12,000 feet.

On our last morning at camp, we dressed hastily in bone-chilling cold. Frost covered the blooms and vegetation along Brush Creek as we began our final hike at this location and waited for the sun to bathe the valley in warmth. We entered the forest and felt more comfortable in the sweet tranquility offered by the creek, the fir trees and the caroling Swainson thrushes.

I sampled the trout stream one more time and came to the same conclusion I arrived at 22 years before: it was one of the most beautiful and productive brook (and brown) trout streams I’ve ever fished. Unfortunately it’s no longer noted for its native cutthroats which, hopefully, still survive in the upper reaches on Fools Peak. Nonetheless, it was good to come back to this wild place on the high ground of sunny Colorado.

We were ready for the nine-hour drive to Alpine, Wyoming. The Snake River country, the Tetons, Yellowstone, and Montana were on my mind.

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Western Field Notes #1: South Platte River

I’m no expert on this Gold Medal river southwest of Denver. In fact, I just made my first visit to the South Platte in beautiful Colorado. My introduction to the famous trout stream below Cheesman Reservoir was made, in part, by a patio view of Pike’s Peak near Colorado Springs.

Pike’s Peak, view from patio

As an easterner, I’m always struck by the redolence of cool mountain air pervading the western landscapes. That wonderful aroma of mountains and desert, accompanied by birdsong (and by traffic noises that I try to minimize), wafted in my direction, as if from distant Pike’s Peak. It’s a privileged recognition, certainly– secure, for now, from the ravages of forest fire and urban turmoil, and I saw the mountain as the hub of something new rolling my way.

The elements of nature seemed to radiate from this peak, and with them came an invitation to fish a new river nearby. So I went to tiny Deckers on the South Platte, with my better half. The exploration of these fresh environs slowly brought a sense of place I hadn’t felt since my last trip to the Rocky Mountains.

I wasn’t surprised to find a crowd of fly-fishers working the river that reportedly was moving at 150 cfs, about half of its typical summer flow. In recent years, forest fires have blackened large areas of the South Platte slopes and canyon country and diminished the greatness of the wild fishery, but I was here for better or worse and ready to fish.

This tailwater flowing out from Cheesman Reservoir contained huge quantities of grass and moss that fouled the fly hook on all too many casts. Nonetheless, the big fish were present. I’d anticipated these well-fed trout that have seen almost every kind of artificial fly imaginable and, yeah, they were finicky as hell. The South Platte isn’t widely known as a dry fly paradise, but I tied on a dry Adams as a strike indicator and then attached a nymph dropper to its hook, my best hope for the river.

What ensued was some of the strangest fishing I’ve experienced. Pods of large trout seemed to follow me like puppy dogs wherever I tried to wade. Many of these fish, about 15 to 20-inches long, hung around my toes or heel, picking up whatever morsels I kicked out accidently from the riverbed. To have a wild 20-inch rainbow poking around my feet, with other fish right behind it, felt surreal. They almost dared me to try and scoop them up with a net and, by the way, they weren’t interested in any imitation flies, either.

Well, I did manage to fool one nice trout with a tiny bead-head imitation. Judging from the lack of action that I saw in other anglers, I felt okay with my results. I made plans to return the next morning for an upstream visit to Cheesman Canyon, a beautiful mountain site where the fishing could only be better.

Actually, the next day’s fishing wasn’t much improved. It was beautiful, though, despite the burst of air temperature into the 90s (thankfully the air was clear and dry) and a heavier release of water from the upstream reservoir. I made the mile-long hike to the river through a forest of pine trees followed by a steep descent into the canyon. Once again, there were plenty of fly-fishers present who had braved the heat and the promise of a rough climb out of the canyon. The water was darker than before, and the drifting vegetation (in need of a serious flushing) plagued nearly every cast we made, no matter what fly was offered.

on the trail to Cheesman Canyon…

For me, the point of all this was to gather details from a new place (other than collecting the drift of grasses in a trout stream). Details– like the observation of a cut-bow trout in the net, of a Swainson’s hawk soaring over the canyon, maybe an American dipper flying short-winged over river rocks, or a first view of scarlet gilia blossoming along a mountain road. A fresh sense of place can be developed, enlarging the human experience, adding a new room to the house of life.

If I ever fish the South Platte again, I’ll travel closer to the headwaters above the Cheesman Reservoir where the canyonlands and higher meadows offer excellent opportunities to the visiting angler and river explorer. My next stop, however, will be on the Fryingpan River and within the mountain enclaves near Eagle, Colorado. Then on to Wyoming and Montana.

Stay tuned.

inside the canyon…

above timberline…


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Old Man Knows Good Beer

The work week was winding down; I was standing at the check-out counter with a six of a favorite IPA, thinking of the fly-fishing prospects for the weekend and a slew of odd jobs that required doing before the long trip West beginning June 22. A couple of young guys stood behind me, waiting to pay for their own quantities of a very popular “Lite.” I tried to ignore their commentary on what must have been an attractive female in the store, but when I heard a fella say, “Old Man really knows good beer,” I looked back at them and said, “You guys talking ’bout ME?”

“Yeah,” said one guy, “I like your taste in beer.” Now, I really don’t mind being called old. I’m rather used to it. But I’m glad these whippersnappers weren’t being facetious about my choice in brews. I checked myself to make sure my ears were on straight and that I hadn’t heard, “Old Man doesn’t know shit about good beer.”

hatchery brook

I didn’t have to raise my macho timber. I didn’t have to make a fool of myself by saying, “Listen punk, if you wanna step outside, me and my IPA will kick your Lite Beer ass!” Instead we had a brief and sunny rap about alternatives and new choices that we make while forking up our hard-earned dollars. After that, maybe the world was just a little bit brighter. Who knows.

Kettle ledge

Actually the comment at the beer check-out made me feel more purposeful. Old age is never easy, but confidence is reassuring, especially when considering other more difficult choices that we make, those paths we’ve chosen to walk on into the future.

I’d taken a day from work to fish on Kettle Creek and to experience the Sulphur and Slate Drake hatches (not the strongest I’ve ever seen but satisfactory nonetheless). Then I’d walked into the back country of a tributary where the brook trout were willing to take almost any dry fly pattern as long as my approach was quiet and respectful. I would also fish an upper stretch of Cross Fork Creek and find it pleasantly productive.

I was making progress in my preparation to see and fish great rivers in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. Once again I heard “Old Man really knows good beer.” I took it to mean more than simply a supermarket choice.

If all goes well, I’ll hit the South Platte and Frying Pan in Colorado. My wife and I will tackle a mountain peaking at 13,000 feet, but we’ll probably stop at the lake with cutthroat trout. If not now, when? We’ll move on to Wyoming’s Snake, Greys, and Gros Ventre rivers near the Tetons. We’ll try Slough Creek, once more, where the grizzly bars roam, and do a follow up on classic Montana streams, and maybe a few surprises.

Hardy/Phillipson combo

I don’t plan a strict itinerary. If an opportunity presents itself, I move toward what interests me, based on past experience and what may come of it. Financial and temporal limitations have to be considered, of course. But if I get the green light and my body says go, I’m set.

When my wife called me to dinner and I heaped the plate with fried catfish, seasoned crispy cauliflower and lemon-spiced arugula, I tasted everything with delight. The cold IPA was good accompaniment, but the dinner overall was surpassing.

It inspired me to take an evening hike up Dryden Hill to check on the fields with their bobolinks. I’ve always loved these interesting blackbirds and their bubbly song, but unfortunately they were flying low and in the distance this year. Returning down the hill, collecting some trash along the way, I paused at a clearing and listened to a wood thrush piping, and a young red fox barking harshly from a ravine. A barred owl hooted from somewhere in the valley. Then I heard a different song…

at Long Run

I hadn’t exactly given up on hearing whip-poor-wills in the East but, frankly, their numbers seem to be diminishing, and I hadn’t heard or seen one in 38 years, since my days of living near the Blue Ridge Mountains. I had hopes of encountering them again, especially since Bob Stanton played a recording of one while we were fishing on Slate Run a couple years ago. Earlier, Bob had found a whip-poor-will somewhere near his home in northern Pennsylvania. And now I was hearing one again.

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will…, on and on. I listened and followed as the bird moved slowly down the valley toward my house. Eventually the bird crossed the creek and started up the other hillside with its lush green forest. Losing auditory contact, I was nonetheless elated at my rediscovery. Walking toward the house as night closed in, I was about to enter when I gave one final listen. There it was again, the calling from the distance…

Whip-poor-willthe Old Man-knows-his birds… the streams-are-calling calling… I’ll-be gone-for a while… but I’ll-be back-most surely… repeat-repeat-repeat….
Everyone, have a great summer!

bear track, upper Cross Fork Creek…

bobolink fields forever! (I’d like to say, but the turbines are coming soon…)

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An Adams Will Do

Continuing with my “wings over water” theme of late, I’ve kept an eye out for insect hatches on our trout streams but haven’t seen much yet. Oh, the Sulphur mayflies made an afternoon appearance on Cross Fork Creek. A few March Browns came off the Genesee River (less spectacular than the decent spinner fall at dusk). A couple of Green Drakes and Coffin Flies appeared on Kettle Creek, East Fork Sinnemahoning and Birch Run, but basically the hatches have been underwhelming for me this season, perhaps due to all the high water we’ve experienced lately.

golden ragwort

While the fishing has been rather slow, there were friends and songbirds taking up the slack in interest. I had friendly conversations on Cross Fork Creek while watching the Sulphurs and Swallow-tailed Butterflies.

ragged Coffin Fly on finger

Fishing buddies Tim and Don shared good moments with me on the dusky Genesee River as the spinners sailed down to the water to be intercepted by diving cedar waxwings and song sparrows, by rising trout and other unknown predators. A veery chanted hauntingly and a hermit thrush caroled from a hemlock grove. I enjoyed meeting Eric, from Rochester, who was coming off the river with some interesting perspectives and some skillful use of tandem caddis flies.

on Genesee, with Tim

My hike into the higher realms of Birch Run was fraught with tight arboreal growth and irritating gnats, but the venture proved the old adage that “the higher you go, the better the fishing gets.” All I needed was a short fly rod and a small dry Adams on the line. The brookies were accommodating, and the raspy robin-like song of scarlet tanager lent a soothing aura to the deep greens of early June.

Birch Run

For a change of pace, I returned down valley to the East Fork Sinnemahoning. The overcast sky remained a blessing, and the valley breezes blew away the pestering gnats. The creek seemed full of hungry brook trout (hatchery fish from 10 to 12 inches in length) and rainbows up to 14 inches long that chased a drifting Adams. Most welcome, too, were several wild brook trout adding color to a somber hour on the water.

Alhough the streams were flowing high, the rising water temperatures had apparently spurred the trout to feed on or near the surface. Hatch activity was minimal, so the classic Adams, the generic caddis/mayfly pattern, is all I needed for an artificial fly. Simplicity, when you find it, is a beautiful thing.

the dead tree said, “Stop here”

Tim Didas, Rivertop Rambles friend and angling partner, ties a mean Adams variation in the parachute style that I am pleased to share: Tail– woodchuck guard hairs; Body– gray dubbing; Parachute post– orange poly yarn; Hackle– Cree and grizzly mixed, trimmed fore and aft for a sharper mayfly profile….

Adams variant, Tim D.

cane & char

old homestead, Birch Run

a new generation, Kettle Creek

Moccasin flowers

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Wings Over Water

There were plenty of quiet moments at the book signing event, so I was glad to have some fly-tying stuff on hand. My books were piled up on the corner of a table in the store; my vise stood before me, surrounded by grizzly hackle (olive), calf-tail, dubbing, moose hair, thread, scissors, whip-finisher, everything needed to tie the Western Green Drake for an upcoming trip out West. Everything was here, except…except the hooks. Dammit. I felt like a wingless bird showing up for spring migration.

Slate Run/Pine Creek

Now what? The store managers were busy doing whatever they do when business gets really slow, so I rose from the table and began perusing the Used Book section of the aisles. I found a nice hardcover edition of the Tao Te Ching and decided to buy it and refresh my recollections of the ancient Chinese classic. Chapter One: The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. Of course. Words get in the way. The name that can be named is not the eternal name… The tier who forgets his hooks is not a tier worth his salt. The tier who forgets his hooks is… just a buyer. The gate to mystery has a squeaky hinge.

white pines grow large along the Oz

The highest good is like water. We moderns who enjoy canoeing, hiking, fly-fishing, etcetera are well aware of this. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao. Water filled my head and I was fishing like a demon in a daydream.

I would soon be casting on the “Oz,” my name for Oswayo Creek. With an overcast sky and heavy water from recent rains, I was hoping for a good caddis or mayfly hatch downstream from where I usually look for wild browns. Two spin-fishermen worked their way close to where I stood in a big wide pool. One angler asked, “Are you fishin’ the Derby or just fishing?” I hadn’t known anything about the local Rod ‘n’Gun Club derby going on at that moment, so I simply answered, “Just fishin’. Any luck?”

high pine

The sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no-talking. The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease. I wasn’t feeling particularly wise, especially in this company of local fishermen pursuing tagged trout with the spirit of a horse-better at the Preakness. I certainly wasn’t keeping my mouth shut, either, when the guys asked where I’d started from and what pools had yielded trout. I stretched the truth a bit, for sure, but remained completely honest about the kind of flies I used. Dry flies weren’t connecting. There were no “ten thousand trout” rising and falling to a hatch of caddis, Sulphur or March Browns.

I caught rainbows on a small bead-head emerger, my Conhocton Mink Caddis, and even more trout on a conehead Woolly Bugger. Rainbows, browns and brook trout came out for a quick release. They were hatchery trout, certainly, but pleasant accomplices in my search for a river hatch. Oh, a singular March Brown appeared, and a first Sulphur for the season, but conditions just weren’t favorable for surface fishing.

Oswayo Creek

Earlier in the day, I had the best time watching birds. Spring migration was at its peak, and numerous fliers had settled near the yard for the season or were pausing for insects and tuning up their vocal chords. I, too, attempted to hone my skills with 10-power glasses and a careful late-spring shuffle.

Under heaven, all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness. All can know good as good only because there is evil. Listen to the news from around the globe today, and go for the truth. Thank god for wild birds. Wild trout. Flowers. Wild men and women. Children who can tell what’s real and what is fake.

Barn swallows lilted over the roadway scarfing up midges near the ground. An indigo bunting fed among the apple blossoms, its plumage slightly darker than the sky beyond. A Tennessee warbler sang a loud migration song, its chipping notes breaking into a rapid jumble at the end. A wood thrush piped an endless three-note territorial song from the trees beyond the creek. A Baltimore oriole perched nearby, a beautiful orange and black songbird alternately whistling and fluting for a mate in a never ending quest for continuity and survival.

Looking up beyond the forested hills, I was taken by the sight of a raven (legendary corvid) chasing a red-tailed hawk across the southern sky. Both birds were living fully in the Tao. Beauty seemed to outshine ugliness, for now.


Through the winter a red fox pulled an autumn deer carcass across my field. Here at the den the carcass fed the foxes to the present time.

red fox pup sez an odd bird’s looking my way…



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Between the Streams

There have been a lot of ups and downs here since the last post on Rivertop Rambles. I spent six days fishing in the Blue Ridge out of 10 days in Virginia, boulder hopping, climbing streams like Cedar Run, the North Fork Moormans and the Rapidan River. Brook trout rose to the dry fly, especially to the Little Yellow Stone, and they shot down into the depths again upon release.

I could rise by watching Louisiana water-thrushes flying from streamside to the wooded cliffs above the river. I could kneel down to observe a wildflower by the trail (if I wasn’t stumbling to the ground like a drunkard turned loose in the forest). I snapped photos of the last bloodroot flower loosening its petals for release. I reveled in the sight of spring beauties, wild ginger and white trillium. I let emotions quarrel with thoughts concerning news both personal and political.

I enjoyed a ride up to James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier, a tour of the presidential mansion where the U.S. Constitution was composed. We took a leisurely walk down through the wonderful plantation gardens and inspected the baser homes of slaves once owned by our fourth president.

At Montpelier’s gift shop I picked up a book entitled The Home Place, Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature and after perusing this book by J. Drew Lanham, an Afro-American, Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University, who is also a birder, naturalist and conservationist with literary talent, I knew I’d better buy the book because it already seemed to possess me.

I took a ride up to Washington D.C. to visit my son, his wife, and her parents. Standing with a craft beer on the little patio of an elevated apartment, I could look down on a sidewalk and enjoy the quiet April trees and dogwood blossoms. Brent had purchased concert tickets for himself and me because he knew I liked The Residents, and they were playing/performing in the newly developed district called The Wharf.

We shot down to the river on the subway and settled into the venue with our Two-Hearted Ales for spiritual support. The Residents are a strange “American art collective best known for avant-garde music and multi-media works.” They’ve been around since the 1970s, endorsing willfull obscurity, performing anonymously in masks and outfits such as eyeball helmets and tuxedos. They seemed like musicians that had stepped from the dark side of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” and they were better than either one of us expected.

The music from “Between the Dreams” (the tour) was tight as hell and virtuosic. Bird masks loomed above the players. The vocalist sported a gruesome cattle helmet, and the striped suits were de rigueur. The light show and video displays of luminaries like Richard Nixon, Mother Theresa, and John Wayne speaking from dreams within a large round head tossed layers of surrealism through the room. The music and the overall performance were emotional and loud, horrific one moment and hilarious the next.

We would tumble from the heights whenever words failed to adequately describe what happened. It was fun. We shot back uptown on the subway and could hope that our own dreams wouldn’t be greatly influenced by The Residents, at least not in the short run.

Soon I was up for coming home and getting back to old routines, to fishing, to signings, to planting of trees along our “project stream,” to contemplations on the pros and cons of passing time. All too quickly I was down again with the familiar: spring would have regressions, fishing on upper Pine would be slower than expected (although the little brook trout on TU’s project stream would rise bravely to a dry). And thanks to new friends and to old, the time spent in bookstores and on the rivers and in the woods (even in my solitude) was good.

The days flow by like waves on the sea. Climbing and tumbling, and climbing again.

T-2, the project stream

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Branching Out (from Genesee)

Some readers of Rivertop Rambles may recall that every year, around the Opening Day of the Pennsylvania trout fishing season, I try to fish the three branches of my home river. Again this year, I drove to the state-line village of Genesee, observed the knots of spin-fishermen congregating on the banks anticipating a good day of fishing and camaraderie. I purchased a few supplies then headed toward the branches of the Genesee and set foot on water upstream of nearly everyone casting a line.

I reinforce a personal tradition while preparing for another season on waters far and wide. Each of the three trout streams of the upper Genesee, converging at the village of that name, average about 20 feet wide and 10 miles long. They beckon in the chill of April like a family member who’s been absent a bit too long. They form the early stages of a major watershed originating at the “Triple Divide.” The other watersheds rising nearby are those of Pine Creek and the Allegheny River. A home river is important. If it’s healthy, there is jubilation. If the river is imperiled, then there’s work to be done.

fly rod with hemlock tree

From an angling perspective, the East Branch (or Main Stem) has long been the lesser of the three streams. It begins in the open farmlands of Ulysses, PA and has issues with sedimentation, agricultural run-off and thermal pollution. Its lower half is stocked with trout; some wild fish can be found throughout its length. During the weekend of opening day, I fished new water on the stream, climbing higher on it than I’ve gone before, and catching four nice brown trout, two on a Woolly Bugger and two with a bead-head nymph.

It was another case of finding something new in one’s backyard. You think you know a stream by virtue of fishing it for years, and then you try a new stretch of water and get a different picture or opinion of it. I found gravel beds I hadn’t seen before. I found an evergreen forest with some eye-opening hemlock and white pine trees. The pools weren’t numerous or productive until I finally found a deep one with a difference– two wild browns that woke me like a wonderful cup of coffee.

I didn’t do as well on the mid-stretch of the Middle Branch Genesee. There were anglers ahead of me stringing up their hatchery fish. I got a pass or two from wild fish living in a hemlock grove, but that was it. And then the West Branch– I knew it would be better…

A mayfly hatch was occurring in a long deep pool. The sky was overcast; the air was chilly, but Blue Quills were hatching, and a heavy trout was rising sporadically for a taste of mayfly on the surface.

Tying on a finer tippet, I switched from a streamer to a Blue Quill imitation (or was it a bedraggled Quill Gordon?). A 15-inch rainbow struck the dry fly and tore up the pool before I trapped it in the net. The thrashing action killed the other rises, but minutes later I got hook-ups once again by drifting a Hare’s Ear Nymph.

a battered hatchery ‘bow that took a dry…

The only downside to the weekend was discovery of what seems like a proliferation of garbage dumps and litter along these streams and roadways. In one case, the dumping was abominable, and criminal. Trashing is symptomatic of the lost and careless, of consumerism run amuck, without regard for anyone but the self. I’d like to think that Earth Day can still make a difference, but it only works if it starts today.

On a brighter note… There it was, another small tradition I could pull off in the name of fun and exploration. Spring is here at last, and I can hope it hangs around a while. I’m ready for Virginia and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Streamwalker’s Journey is doing well, and I thank all of its supporters as well as those who visit here on a regular or a first-time basis.

Branch out to the season’s beauty and enjoy! As always, feel free to offer your thoughts and comments any time.


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