Saturday, May 29, 2010

Memorial day a good time to hit the river

The merry month of May this year has fully compensated for hateful February and March, for the fly fishing has been awesome. May is now my favorite of the calendar dozen.
May even had five weekends for fly fishing. Now, that’s compensation.
Last Monday was typical, with little mayflies hatching sporadically during the day and trout lazily rising to sip them in here and there. I had some luck. For the weekend’s fishing five creeks in my neighborhood, I caught wild and hatchery rainbows, some energetic and colorful browns and a couple of little brook trout. All hit dry flies of a pale persuasion.
Brook, brown and rainbow … that’s a hat trick.
In the evening, just before dark as the sun slipped behind the Mount Hardy, my home creek exploded with mayflies sparkling in the waning sunlight like flecks of gold.
They were in a hurry, and while I was studying the water from a bridge, the little sulphur flies bounced off my face and arms. I caught a couple, looked real close at their No. 16 hook sized bodies, and attached the appropriate offering to my tippet.
Then I caught a ton of trout.
At the end of a turbulent ribbon of water splashing cheerfully over ancient rocks, a pool smooth as glass beckoned. I never catch fish there but I always try.
As the moon poured a silvery sheen on the water, I flipped a perfect cast that settled softly as a sigh and disappeared almost immediately. On the next cast, I lost sight of the fly, but when the line moved, I lifted the rod and brought in a brown.
I fish alone, mostly. Sometimes, my mind wanders, especially near Memorial Day.
Flashback 42 years and join us in the Raven bar in Virginia Beach. Our faces are lobster red and the beer ice-blue cold.
Johnny was with one of our school’s cheerleaders and I was with the beach girl I later married. Johnny was just out of Marine boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., and I was getting ready to enter that hellhole of sweat, bugs and cussing. He was having a ball regaling me with boot camp horror stories. I began to think it may not be a bad idea to try and join Air Force.
Johnny and I had been teammates on the Maury High School wrestling team. I was the littlest and usually the most nervous, and Johnny was the biggest and calmest. He wrestled guys in the heavyweight division who were bigger since he weighed in at about 185. It’s amazing today to think at that size he was all-district in football and won a scholarship to the University of Tennessee. He had a big heart.
At a high school dance about seven years before, he probably saved my life by helping me lose the pint of gin I had imbibed with way too much alacrity. I don’t recall a heck of a lot more about that dance.
Guess I’ll always remember that night at the Raven in the summer of 1967.
Within a few days, Johnny took off for Officer Candidate School at Quantico, and I got on the bus to South Carolina.
I never saw him again. Johnny died in Vietnam of gunshot wounds in combat.
I got the word first from my Dad: "Your friend Johnny got killed in Vietnam."
It felt like I had been punched. It must have been an awful mistake. I thought the same thing three decades later when I visited the traveling Vietnam Memorial. I could not find his name. Perhaps there was a mistake.
Then a kindly camo-dressed vet showed me. There were little crowds of people around, children playing and laughing, adults weeping as they traced the names of loved ones and comrades on that black marble. I almost lost it right there.
A couple of years ago I had a dream that Johnny showed up on my front porch. It was the middle of the blackest time of night. I heard a knock. I opened the door. And there was Johnny … for a few seconds before the apparition faded into a mist. Mistaken again.
What a waste. While watching a football game or a wrestling match today, I cannot help but speculate what a fine coach Johnny would have made. He’d be a granddaddy by now too, with a bunch of little guys crawling all over him.
So, the merry month of May ends on a melancholy note, as it has for me the past four decades. I can’t forget.
Today I’ll also remember Sarge and Jerry who fought the demons inside for years after Nam. I’ll remember Lewis B. Puller Jr., the son of the most decorated Marine in history who came home crippled and maimed. Demons got to Puller, too, and he finally took his life.
That war killed those boys just as certain as it did Johnny. Just slower.
What a mistake that war was. It would be a bigger mistake to forget, though sometimes, I think we have.
I’ll fish the yellow and red dry fly tonight. I really have no name for it, but I could call it a "Chesty."
You Marines know what I’m saying.
Semper fi.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Hatch - Bug buffet in May

They call it the Mother’s Day Hatch out West also. I read about the hatch in Montana that really lights up those trout on those big rivers during May when the air fills like a golden bug blizzard. It’s one of those magic moments on the water when fooling fish with a fly becomes almost too easy.
We called the yellow stonefly hatch on the Davidson River "The Mother’s Day Hatch" because we discovered the marvel on, you guessed it, Mother’s Day about 20 years ago. It began around 8 and lasted until it was too dark to see the fly. We could almost touch the madly feeding trout that splashed next to us in the rushing water.

And it’s that time again.
The flies are coming off the water on the Davidson, the French Broad and everywhere else there’s cold water and trout. Often, those hatches explode in the waning light when it’s least expected, like after you’ve been on the water all afternoon with nothing to show for it other than wet boots. One must be patient.
I spent a good portion of Sunday afternoon chasing rising trout in the Davidson, missing quick little wild rainbows in Looking Glass Creek and in general just getting a plain old-fashioned skunking everywhere else.

The water tumbled over Looking Glass Falls like a glistening crystal curtain. I paused for a second, thinking perhaps I should give that plunge pool a stab with a heavily-weighted wooly-bugger. But the crowd was too much. I wasn’t exactly looking for company.
The sun was bright and warm. Sudsy clouds fringed a perfect bluebird sky. The wind was a mere whisper tickling the laurel.
Fishing Looking Glass Creek, though, gives me the feeling of vulnerability. The water is so close to the highway I sometimes expect passersby to toss soda cans from car windows at me just for fun. It could happen. I guess I could throw fish at them in retaliation.

I tagged a couple wild rainbows with a cream-colored caddis fly, but both were too quick. Almost 6 o’clock and no fish.
Leaving Looking Glass and the Davidson behind, I hit the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had a few special creeks, places where I can get away with drive-by casting, that hold a few special trout. They are not easy to fool.
Approaching 7 p.m., there still was no hatch. I decided then that I would go to the cabin … after one more stop.

My fire station pool almost always saves the day. There are a lot of stockers in there and a few browns. On Sunday I discovered the really huge brown trout that lurks under overhanging tree limbs and I almost missed it entirely.
Light was fading like old blue jeans. I could barely make out the fly, and then the water exploded like an old tire tossed into the river.
All about my face little bugs danced aerial jigs. They looked as if they were being shot from little Polaris submarines.

And the trout acted like frisky puppies scrambling for food. There’s no line at this bug buffet.
The biggest fish took the fly, ran upstream and then turned back as if it forgot something. I stripped line like mad, then let the fish run while the reel clicked like crickets on meth.
I had caught a dozen so far, and lost one biggie, from my spot below the bridge.
The fish began to tire. I brought it close and held it with my left hand while fumbling for the camera. The brown sagged heavily in my hand, its hooked jaws moving like it was cussing me out.

Or perhaps just laughing that quiet trout laugh.
The fish snapped the line. The hatch was over. I could go home now.
I’m glad they have this much fun out West too.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

You remember the trout you lost

The river stretches before me like a shimmering, silver quilt covering secret gifts piled under a Christmas tree.
I know there are big, even giant, trout waiting for me under all that sparkling, smooth water. They are there hunkered next to a rock or thick laurel root, lazily sipping nymphs and the occasional oblivious mayfly sailing over its nose. You can see them from the bank. You imagine they are laughing at all the foolish-looking people standing waist-deep in the river waving sticks over their heads with a string with a bit of hook and feather attached.
I know they laugh at me.
Strangely, my most memorable fish at the Davidson are the ones never landed. Certainly, we all remember that huge rainbow caught and netted years ago, but for me those fish pale in comparison to the monsters that broke my tippet and my heart the past 20 years splashing around the Davidson River.
Only on the Davidson do I have such a problem.
Noted by Trout Unlimited as one of the nation’s Top 50 trout streams, the Davidson that I fish has three classifications — the Hatchery Supported section at the lower end near the intersection, the Catch and Release section upstream past the ranger station and the Wild section far upstream.
So, you have your fat food fish at the lower end, your trophy trout in the middle and the quick-as-lightning wary wild trout up the mountain toward the headwaters.
Something for everyone, so to speak, awaits the anxious angler on the Davidson. She has all sorts of ways to break a fisherman’s heart.
I hit the water late in the darkened afternoon with a heavy gray sky threatening to spit all kinds of rain and mischief. By the time I had rigged the rod and donned the waders, a soft spring rain began licking my face. My thoughts immediately turned to Blue Winged Olives, those little mayflies that love misty rain on cool days.
A passing fisherman said the rises were ‘sporadic’ but that the trout had been hitting cream-colored caddis flies all day.
I tied on a cream-colored dry fly.
The rain, unlike the bull of a storm of a few weeks ago, had a soothing sweetness and soon passed.
A piece of sky peeked through the clouds, escaping from the darkness like a frightened bluebird.
The threat of rain and spotty showers kept most people away from the river on Monday, and I all but had the water to myself. I cast upstream on the mirror-smooth water. Trout rose downstream, across stream and upstream. They ignored my fly.
There was a little breeze, what the poet called trout-colored winds, whispering through the trees, but if you waited for a pause, you could flip a fly a good ways. I used a long leader, which helped get a more natural drift.
I chased rises for awhile, even though I know that is not the proper way to fish these fish, and I missed the few hits I got. I turned my head to cast upstream again when I felt a tug from behind and almost lost the rod to a struggling brown trout who thought I wasn’t looking. Fooled you, I thought.
I laughed at that trout.
About 15 minutes later another trout hit my fly with a vengeance. A passerby shouted, "I heard THAT," and I knew I was into a pretty hefty fish. I could not tell you which was shaking the most, my rod or my legs.
When the trout rolled with the fly, I caught a glimpse of an enormous belly the size of one of my shaking legs. I had him hooked solid. All I had to do was play him awhile, give him enough time to get tired and then get him up close for the obligatory photo.
I fought that fish forever. It splashed and whirled and ran with the fly.
And then he broke my heart.
The tippet went ping.
And he was gone.
I could almost hear him laughing.