It was May. I was a soon-to-be high school graduate, and the smell of dew on the hemlocks was intoxicating. Or, was it the beer? Hard to say. It's the smell that I remember, though.
The hatch. The rise. The spinner fall. I'd never experienced any of it - only heard the lore, and the lore was glorious. For weeks the visions danced in my head: mayflies (3 tails, I'd been told) thick as fog, trout exploding from the depths to pluck them. Then a lull, during which one would spend time tending to camp, nymphing the pocket water or collecting thoughts on the bank. And finally as dusk settled the spinners would return, to be be greeted by sipping trout. This event would produce an evening rise that would outlast the fading light. Such was the formula for trout fishing.
When I got the chance to test this theory for the first time, it was one of the rare instances in my life when the play actually lived up to the review. After a campfire breakfast I stood awestruck on the banks of Penn's Creek as the sulphurs came to life, right on schedule, the trout responding in accordance. It was a beautiful thing - so beautiful that my friend had to restrain me from charging into the river to begin casting at said trout. It was just as I'd imagined.
Since that axis-altering episode, only a select few of my countless trout fishing forays have played to script. I've learned that predictability is the exception to the rule; There is the way it's supposed to happen, and the way it actually happens. Rarely do they overlap.
Now and again, though. Now, and again.
As anglers we live and dream for these moments. Fleeting proof of concept provides a unique pulse of adrenaline. Idealism and reality do overlap, stretching the imagination. The bugs come off on schedule, the trout take notice, fly selection is cut and dry and good drifts get eaten. When it comes to trout fishing, this is the promised land. When you chase this dream over and over again for many years, inevitably the accumulated success stories begin to outweigh the flops. In time, this formula becomes the way we think about trout fishing. It's a necessary coping mechanism to help us look past those fishless outings and look ahead to the next one. When we pass the torch to the next angler, we can't help but refer to the formula... and the wheel keeps on turning.
For the second straight season I organized a group of anglers to join me on the Delaware River via The West Branch Angler resort. We booked our week nearly a year in advance and kept our fingers crossed for some proof of concept. Having experienced the highs and lows of this fishery, I cautioned my anglers and tempered their expectations, emphasizing the word "opportunity" repeatedly.
The rains came just ahead of our scheduled departure, flashing the river to near flood stage. I assured my constituents that it was nothing to worry about and that, as promised, we would have our opportunities. For day one of our trip that meant pitching streamers on sinking lines. I tried to stress that on a river that hosts some of the biggest wild brown trout east of the Mississippi, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.
On the morning of day two with water levels receding, hope was in the air. Unfortunately for us, the bugs were not - at least not in numbers of consequence.
By Wednesday, the conditions had lined up in our favor. Overcast skies hung low over the Catskills, and water levels were approaching ideal. From the porch of our cabin the morning felt crisp, promising. The French pressed coffee was a particularly endorphin-rich blend, heightening the anticipation. Looking out at the pond in front of our cabin, a cloud of dark-bodied, three-tailed flies glistened over the water. As the cloud slowly began to dissipate, we watched the pond come to life. I'd never fished a spinner fall for bluegill before, but though we were mere steps away from the trout stream we'd driven six hours to fish, it was too much to resist. We spent more time than we should have picking off kamikaze panfish one by one before finally heading off to see if a similar scene was about to play out on the river.
For once, it happened like it was supposed to. A few leftover spinners produced a few heads, and a few well placed casts produced a few nice fish in the net. The bugs would really start to pop around 3, they'd told us, and for once they were right. The hatch and subsequent spinner fall brought the river to a boil and produced some of the most exciting dry fly fishing I've experienced in a long time.
At dinner that evening we learned that the rest of my party had shared a similar experience, and everyone was on cloud nine. Alex and I decided that it had been good enough to warrant testing our good fortune to squeeze in a short morning float on Thursday before making the long drive home. We were glad that we did.
It might be a while before I get to go trout fishing again. During the interim though, it won't be the thousands of fishless casts, or hucking heavy streamers on sinking lines, or watching a bobber in the drift that will keep my imagination busy. It will be the reflection of falling light glistening on a mayfly's wings. The sighted trout holding true to his line. The clockwork rhythm of a dimple on the far bank. The unfurling of the leader and the perfect presentation of the fly. The innocence of the rise, the betrayal of the set, the weight of life on the line... and the foolish sense of satisfaction that will bring me back again, and again.