Sunday, May 27, 2012

An Exercise in Patience

Fran called last Friday morning.

“I wanna go fish the sulphur hatch on Spring Creek today. Can you go?”

It seemed a little foolish at the time (actually, it still does), but within an hour we were headed east, sunglasses on and windows down, quickly clicking off the miles of the 2½ hour drive.

Spring Creek
If you’re unfamiliar, Spring Creek in central PA is one of the more famous trout streams in the eastern part of the US… especially in the Fisherman’s Paradise “catch and release” area. The trout are notorious for being tough and selective for most of the day, then feeding with reckless abandon during the more prolific hatches… like the sulphur mayfly hatch. It had been about 30 years since I last fished Spring Creek, yet I felt had a pretty good idea of what I was in for.

Of course being the Friday before a holiday weekend, there would be plenty of fishermen… and there were. The parking area was nearly full and not being a fan of crowds… especially on trout water… I had a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach that our time might be better spent elsewhere… sulphurs or not.

There were maybe a dozen wader-clad fishermen milling around the parking lot and the buzz seemed to be that the sulphurs were done. The hatch was good two nights prior, but almost nothing the next night. Again, there was that subconscious tug saying we should be somewhere else.

Still… we weren’t somewhere else, so I pushed that negativity down and decided to make the best of it. Fran was pretty excited about fishing here and I have to admit… I was getting a little anxious myself. I had no idea of the fist-clenching-teeth-grinding-tangled-line-no-fish-sonovabitchin’ day ahead.

We hiked upstream past most of the fishermen. As we passed, I noticed two things: There were a lot of guys standing there with rods tucked under their arms staring at the water, and no trout were visible anywhere we passed by. As we continued upstream, it occurred to me that we’d picked the hottest part of the hottest day of the year so far to strap up chest waders and fishing vests and hike uphill for a mile. For the rest of the day, my waders were as wet on the inside as they were out… an irony lost on me until much later that evening.

Finally, we picked a fishy looking stretch of water, tied on weighted nymphs, and waded in. The water was cool and it felt good to be fishing. As we worked our way upstream, the dense growth along the stream gave us a bit of a break from the sun and heat. Still, there were places where it seemed I was standing next to a blast furnace and the combination of bug spray and sweat burned my eyes.

Fran with a nice Spring Creek brown trout
 As the afternoon wore on into evening, fish were still not showing… but my frustration was. At times, I just had to find a rock to sit on and regroup. Fran had managed to land the only two strikes he had… a pair of browns, proving there were actually fish in the stream. I switched flies regularly hoping to find something that might work for me. Nothing.

A few fish began to rise here and there and the odd sulphur dun floated by. I clipped off my nymphs and tied on a small dry fly. On the first cast a fish surveyed my offering, but refused and faded back to the bottom of the stream. Almost as soon as fish began to rise, the mayflies disappeared… and so did the trout.

The sun had dropped behind the trees and once again, it seemed like I was flailing at a fishless river. I change back to a nymphing rig and worked my way upstream probing the depths for a fish I now knew were there. Finally, my line twitched and I lifted the rod smartly. My fly made a solid connection and my rod bent… to a large flat stone on the bottom of the river. Frustrated, I jerked my rod upstream several times trying to free my flies. Success! The flies pulled free! That small victory was soon washed away by the realization that my leader was now hopelessly tangled around my rod tip. I stood in the thigh deep in the rushing water for several minutes attempting to straighten out the mess. It just wasn’t going to happen.

Eventually, I waded to a large rock and sat down. The light was fading quickly and still, there were no signs of the tremendous sulphur hatch we’d hoped for. Upstream about 50 yards Fran stood motionless in the stream staring into a fly box as though he were reading scripture. I took out my clippers and dispatched the tangled mess at the end of my rod, all the while contemplating conceding defeat and keeping my butt planted firmly on that rock until Fran came back downstream.

I sat there and started to laugh. Feeling like maybe I’d lost my mind and seeing humor in that, I laughed a little harder. Okay. Fine. I pulled a section of tippet material off the spool in my pack and began to repair my leader. Even if I didn’t make another cast, I decided to make this a Zen exercise. I’d take my time, try to remain calm, and at least be ready to fish if I chose to do so. It would be a much bigger test than I anticipated.

It was now dark enough I was having trouble tying my knots, but I managed to achieve my goal... going so far as to even tie on the same two flies I'd just extracted from the tangle. When I was finished, I ran my fingers down the length of my new tippet and found a knot that wasn't supposed to be there. Really? I usually get to make a cast or two before that happens. I shook my head and with a sigh and a wry smile, calmly worked the knot out of my line.

Now ready to fish once again, I carefully made my way back into casting position. But before I could make that next cast, I noticed mayflies in the air above the stream. The sulphur spinners were finally making their way back to the stream to mate, lay eggs, and die. They danced above the riffle below me by the hundreds. I looked at the nymphs tied at the end of my leader and wondered if I should change to a dry fly… again. That question was immediately answered with the splashy rise of a feeding trout. Then another… and another. Like someone had turned on a switch, dozens of trout began to rise within casting distance. I shook my head once again and without having made a cast… changed flies.

By the time I had a #16 sulphur spinner imitation tied to my leader, thousands of mayflies were both in the air and on the water. Newly emerging duns and dying spinners drifted by on the surface… and the trout greedily ate both. With less than 20 minutes of dim light left and so many feeding trout, I could hardly contain myself. Any of the grace typically associated with fishing dry flies went quickly out the window. So much for Zen. So many trout were rising so frantically, it was hard to just pick one and make a cast. More than once, I changed my mind mid-cast and the result was an embarrassingly inept jumble of line on the water in front of me. The trout didn’t seem to care. They went on feeding even as my line clumsily crashed to the water just above their heads. Even with my less than stellar technique, the fish ate my fly… or attempted to. I missed at least the first half-dozen takes. When I finally did connect, it was briefly, as trout and fly came unbuttoned within seconds. I suppose any other day, that might have pissed me off… but today, it seemed like a victory.

Finally, after dozens of strikes and a several brief hookups, I could no longer see well enough to fish and I made my way back to my rock. It wasn’t long before Fran made his way downstream. Even in the dark, I could see the big grin on his face. He’d done well using nymphs and was happy with the last fish he caught… a hard fighting 15” brown.

The hike back to the truck was pretty much in total darkness and I was happy for the well-worn trail. The parking lot was empty by the time we peeled off our waders, broke down our rods, and stowed our gear. Several fireflies blinked at us from the other side of the river and we sat on the tailgate savoring cold beer from the cooler. Not one to wish for too many fishless days, I still felt like something was right with this day spent on the water. I was happy… or maybe I’d been in the sun too long.


Peter Brown said...

Jim, thanks - I enjoyed your post.

Martin Lasack said...

I had an all-to-similar day on the stream a week ago. So much to get right with this sport but I continue to love it. Glad to know I'm not the only one.
Your paintings continue to look great. I didn't get into Birds In Art this year - yet another exercise in patience.
All the best.