Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sunday Morning

The sting of the cold water seeping into my boot momentarily distracts me from my splitting headache - courtesy of a Saturday Oktoberfest.  There's frost on the ground and my breath hits the cold air and creates a cloud that floats downriver.  I probably should have worn waders, but it's too late now.  It's early, and the sun is just starting to hit the water.  The rays aren't as warm as they were months ago, but still bring welcome relief from the bite of the Sunday October morning.

The river is low, a far cry from the bank-to-bank flow I've fished most of the year. Rocks, logs, stumps and snags typically hidden underneath the surface are now visible - like old scars that are hardly ever seen.  Fast runs and pools are now glass - and every disturbance is magnified tenfold, like the water itself is fragile.  With its hair down the stream looks tired and vulnerable, ready for a winter's rest - but at the same time in its bear-it-all simplicity the river is the prettiest its been all year. 

After the air warms things finally start to happen. With a slight bump in the water temperature hunger overwhelms caution and the fish begin to feed.  Each rise is subtle, yet deliberate, as the fish delicately pluck something invisible off water's surface. Whatever they're eating, I can't see it.  After rummaging through my pack I end up tying on the same beetle pattern I've fished since June - a couple sizes smaller - hoping to luck into one last day of terrestrial fishing even though the season has long passed by. 

Their colors are brilliant - the reds, yellows, and oranges mirror the hues on the hillsides of the river valley. In many ways the trout is a model of inefficiency; somehow, in its dull environment the fish manages to produce the most vivid colors anywhere along or in the river. A biologist will tell you that these colors exist to create a natural camouflage or attract better, fitter, more capable mates - but as an angler I can't help but think they're there for some other higher purpose. 

The sun has dropped behind the trees, and the rises are more sporadic now. Shadow covers the river, but the light still left has a yellow, golden tinge to it - a strong sign of the season. With each passing minute the shadows grow longer, and a glance into the woods shows that daylight is waning.  It'll be dark soon, but it's just perfect right now.


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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Seasonable Weather

Yesterday's drizzle turned to snow overnight. The landscape grows whiter by the minute, but the sticky mud on the trail is the color of tar and as slippery as ice. The dark outline of the path snakes its way up the ridge and into the clouds before it disappears out of view. I shoulder my pack and start across the field, taking a minute to look up at the walk ahead and the weather I'm headed towards. Winter typically comes early in this country, and this year is no exception. 

A slight dip in the path and the old weathered sign signal the boundary of the national forest. It's a mile from the trailhead, but with the wind and rough trail the distance seems much longer - and I'm not even a fifth of the way there. The scarred and worn wood post marks familiar territory, though.  The trail leads to a place that I've hiked, or been carried, since before I can remember - leading to a small gravel bar alongside the stream where the basalt valley momentarily widens before it pushes into the Yellowstone backcountry. Memories of family and sun playing through my mind seem more distant as I'm pushing through the mud and snow, but bring a tangible warmth nonetheless. 

With a strong gust the ceiling drops and the snow intensifies. The pines, spruce, willows, aspens, and rock cliffs cause the wind to funnel and swirl, and each flake flutters and dives wildly as they fall from the sky. The snow that hits my face stings, but melts instantly as if it was never there. As the snow continues it accumulates on my shoulders, the top of my head, and on my pack - I'm damp and cold, but swift pace uphill is keeping me warm. The trail emerges from the tunnel of the woods onto a volcanic plateau; for a brief moment there's a view. It's indescribably beautiful - and I stop for a moment to take it in. But as the wind rips across the exposed causing the hair on the back of my neck to stand up and my body to shudder, I decide not to linger for long. 

Each step brings me higher in altitude, deeper into the mountains, and into colder, heavier air - but ever closer to where I'm going. Before long the trail bends to the left and dives down a scree slope where the stream draws close and I'm there. My pants are wet and caked with mud from the trail, but I slide on my waders anyway - lacing my boots and stringing my rod with a sense of urgency. Days are short this time of year in the mountains, and the clouds and snow are an ominous warning that there's even less time until night falls on this day. It's a long hike back to the car, and there's no time to waste. 

Even with the water temperature plummeting, I tie on the tried and true, hoping to persuade a trout to come to the surface despite the blizzard. On the first cast a fish rises off the bottom; with a swift tail kick the trout accelerates - mouth open - and engulfs the fly in a display of naive wildness that can only happen in places like this. It's September in Wyoming, and the best things haven't changed. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Pike Curse

For almost five generations now, my mother's side of the family has had a cottage on the middle basin of Lake James, Indiana. My great grandfather was one of the first to build on the lake. Like most retreats in those days it was a quiet, wild, natural place. The shores were lined with hardwoods in all directions, dotted here and there by quaint cottages. Some of those cottages still stand today, and ours is one of them. 

There were no speed boats or tubers or jet ski's or yachts in those days. But if the sun-bleached portraits that hung from the walls in our cottage during my youth were any indication, there were pike.... a lot of them. One photo in particular depicted my great grandfather and a fishing buddy hoisting a pair of three-footers in the side yard. The image is permanently burned into my memory. But each summer, no matter what I tried, where I looked or who I talked to, I couldn't catch a pike for the life of me. In fact, I was in my 20's before I even laid eyes on one. It was dead and floating. 

Pike are supposed to be easy to catch. They're aggressive to their own detriment. Despite (or because of) their commitment to destroying anything that moves, in many freshwater fisheries they're considered more of a nuisance than a sport fish. Three-footers are not uncommon throughout most of their range, and four-footers are a real possibility in certain fisheries. For all this, and despite all my angling travels, I'd yet to encounter one.

I've continued to put in the time and effort to break the curse in recent years. A firm believer in the concept of fishing karma, I've tied the flies, done the exploring, and logged hundreds of cold, wind-torn, fishless March and April hours trying to find these water wolves. I've had not so much as a swirl to show for it.

Over Memorial Day weekend my pregnant bride and I made a trip up to the lake. Victor and I launched the kayak for the ritualistic early morning session. We took some nice greenies on poppers but saw no signs of Esox Lucius

I had time off the following week to ply some big water a little closer to home. My buddy Mark and I had a great day, fishing in and out of a rolling fog that added a little edge to the morning. Despite it being one of the better mixed bag days that I've had (including perch, rock bass, carp on the flats, shots at bowfin, and of course the beloved bronzeback) the pike curse continued; a surprise two-footer came all the way to the net before biting me off.

The following weekend, however, brought about the long awaited opportunity to really hone in and target some teeth. Our buddy Nate had offered to give us the tour of some big water - Big, clear water with hungry post-spawn pike. As promised, he found them and the fish lived up to their reputation; When presented with a fly they quickly went into seek and destroy mode. The follows were exhilarating, the eats were savage, and I've got to say... it felt really good to break the pike curse. 

I can only hope that the future of this story will play out something like the fortunes of the Red Sox after they put to rest the curse of the bambino. For now though I'm happy to have that monkey off my back and jonesing for that next Esox eat...