The cool water rushing about my legs is a refreshing reward after slipping along the muggy, weed infested trail. Often out of sight beneath shoulder high grass and weeds, the path is oftentimes a mud-filled trench, worn into the stream bank by perhaps a hundred years worth of fishermen tramping up and down it's banks. A nasty fall is invariably prevented by grabbing at the closest thing available - a handful of nettles. Urtica dioica has been a permanent fixture in my fishing life, going back to the first painful encounter of the noxious weed grabbed as a child in pursuit of a fly fishing father.
I pause at a normal ford point along the stream. The physical act of kneeling down into the water and letting it flow about my legs and waist is sublime. As an excuse to stay put for a spell, I pick a small stone off the bottom and examine its occupants. Several mayfly nymphs scurry for cover amid the upright cones of caddis cases. Next to several frantic scuds, a dragon-like stonefly nymph suddenly moves, breaking his almost perfect camouflage. I put the stone back into its place carefully, lest anyone gets crushed.
Another length of hot, muddy trail. This time it opens into a friend's pasture; a welcome relief from the claustrophobic confines of the trail. A small rise separates me from the stretch of river I want to fish: a wide riffle that turns into a deep pool after taking a 90° turn against a bare limestone cliff.
I take a break: sip some water, sit, listen and watch the sliding river.
In the shimmering, golden light of late afternoon, I watch as the telltale signs of feeding trout unfold below me. From my viewpoint, a swirling mass of caddis appears at first to be a mist traveling over the water, the insects twirling a wild and crazy dance across the surface of the fast moving water. Golden brown flashes just below the surface of the water give away the trout's presence as they gorge on the emergent insects. My fly of choice is a non-descript bead headed olive nymph: fished on a swinging tight line drift, it imitates a wide array of aquatic insect life in its larval/nymphal/emergent forms.
A cast across, a sweeping drift down.
On the third cast my efforts are rewarded with a golden swirl and a suddenly taunt line. My fly line lunges violently, signaling a striking trout, and in an instant goes profanely slack. Quickly retrieving the fly, there is no evidence to suggest why the fish got off: no broken line, no poorly tied knot, no broken hook.
I resume fishing: a cast across, a sweeping drift down.
It is a good evening. In a rhythm learned on the same river bend long ago watching my father, I catch and release the swirling trout. Now and again I change fly patterns; experiments from last winter's tying desk - at last it's time to put them to the test. Out of a dozen or so likely candidates, only one or two will earn their keep over the season and become trout flies; to be tied en-masse on a cold winter's afternoon, with the Adams and the Coachmen, to be handed on to others.
As night falls, my imagination fills the gathering darkness as the sun retreats from the day. Hurried scuttlings in the brush become black, rabid bat-winged creatures intent on attacking my neck. A cow's cough is magnified into something from another planet (Elmwood is not that far away, after all). A distant thunderstorm turns into cattle rustlers, slamming the gates of their truck as they load my neighbor's cattle in the night…
The hot, humid day has turned into a cool summer's night. Despite the booming and banging of the "cattle rustlers", the sky above me is awash with a crystal veil of stars. As the hatch of aquatic insects finish their individual cycles and the river slips into it's nighttime rhythms, so do my tactics change. The tiny nymph is replaced with a huge deer hair dry fly. With a bushy brown stacked deer hair body and wild, peafowl wings, the fly resembles nothing in the natural world, save some sort of demented moth.
Skipping the pretense of a tippet, I tie the fly onto a stout leader and drift it across the pocket water. The fly, it's wing's treated with Felximent, floats like a cork and sputter's seductively as I strip it across likely looking spots. Several small strikes signal that the fish are interested, but not large enough to get this mass of hair and feathers into their mouths. Moving on to the large tail-out below the faster water, I let the fly drift out of sight into the gloom. Two short strips and a tug at the line signal a fish has finally gotten the hook into its mouth. Another, more violent yank on the line and a splash that sounds like a cow jumping into the water signal a large fish.
The memory of the fight that ensued has quickly become a blur, so that now I recall only a tangle of visions: following the fish up and down the pool, a misplaced flashlight, a heart-breaking tangle in the trees above my head, and finally a very large brown trout gently released back into the pool.The shrill "peeent" cry of the nighthawk breaks the summer night's stillness, signaling it's time to go home. Avoiding the tunnel vision created by a flashlight, I walk by the ambient light from the night sky. The cattle rustlers have left, the cows have turned back into cows, and I'm tired.