It was the summer before college — before the real world started, they said. Although, college life never proved to be anything like the rest of the world. I was working for a printing company, spending three hot months in a delivery truck, shuttling press orders to the docks and doorsteps of western Pennsylvania companies.
As I drove repetitive miles across the Keystone state, I was most attentive in the valleys. From my tall perch behind the worn-out steering wheel, I peered over each bridge crossing, wondering and dreaming about trout. I knew of western Pennsylvania’s struggles to harbor wild trout. I knew about its troubled past with acid mine drainage, but I’d seen marked improvement in water quality over my young life. And I had explored enough to expect surprises — trout can be anywhere.
So every skinny ditch, every wide river, every length of flowing water gained my consideration. I was at a point in life where anything was possible. I still believed in the undiscovered.
The company tracked the hours on my deliveries but not the miles, so I made detours on my lunch breaks — quick scouting trips into the valleys below the most promising bridges. While taking water temperatures, I looked for a rise or any sign of trout. I kept a Delorm atlas of the area and highlighted it with a color code: blue for stocked trout, orange for wild trout, and red for no trout.
I’d fooled around with fly fishing off and on but never committed myself to it. In a two-hundred yard wooded section between two bridge crossings, that all changed. I found a group of rising trout one late July morning. And they were consistent.
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On my lunch break, I swung the company truck down the gravel road, parked in front of a hissing gas well and walked to the river. I watched feeding trout from a riverbank while passively eating a sandwich and wishfully digging to the bottom of the brown bag for more. I did the same thing for three days until it occurred to me — these trout were feeding on just one thing. And if I was to catch them I’d need the fly rod, some really thin monofilament and even smaller flies.
Careful to keep my company khakis clean, I leaned far over the bank, behind the rising trout, and watched the water. I saw no bugs, so I poked further through the shade. And where a narrow ray of sun found the river, I watched the surface, leaning so close that my nose skimmed the water. The temperature and humidity were different there — a thin zone where the air mixed with evaporating mist — it was foreign to me, but home to what I searched for.
One after the other, I finally saw them — tiny mayflies with clear wings stretched aside like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, tripling their size and balancing on the surface. Then I noticed the tails, twice as long as the spindly bodies and each perfectly divided in a V.
I reached into my back pocket to find a round Skoal can. The long-cut, wintergreen tobacco was nearly gone, so I made it all gone as the last half-pinch went to my lip. I swished the can in the water, then dried the inside with my shirttail. I plucked four of the itty-bitty flies from the water and dropped them in the can.
After work, I hurried to the fly shop and found the owner.
“What are these, Woody? I asked, plopping the container on his old oak counter. “I found a group of trout eating them, one after the other. They do it every day.”
Woody grinned as he thoughtfully rotated the open Skoal can in his palm, peering over his glasses into the short cylinder.
“Well that’s one way to go about it,” he said.
Woody looked at me with some measure of satisfaction. I was learning, I was young and ambitious, and I’d brought samples of the bugs I needed to match. Woody knew he could send me off with a few flies and a little advice, then probably receive a success story in return.
“Those are Trico Spinners,” he said. “The cream ones are female and the black ones are male.”
“Why do they have to be so tiny?” I asked.
Woody ignored the question and didn’t look up.
“They’re size twenty-fours. And they’re gonna be a bitch to fish with.” He paused, still looking at the bugs in the can. “Do you want a half dozen or a dozen?”
I left the shop with twelve flies in a clear plastic puck and an empty can of Skoal.
“Wait!” I heard Woody call to me just before the crack of the door closed out the cedar scent of the fly shop. So I turned around.
“What?” I shrugged.
Woody dug behind the counter, into his own fishing vest. He fiddled with zippers and Velcro before exhaling a satisfied sigh. He then turned to me, leaned over the counter and offered me a spool of tippet in his open hand. The label was faded and crinkled, as though it had been through a few rain storms.
“Use 7X until you get used to getting good drifts with those little bastards . . . and I don’t know why they have to be so tiny.”
“Thanks, Woody.” I said.
I stashed the spool in my pocket in front of the empty Skoal can. Before I walked out the door again, Woody lent some final advice: “Don’t get hung up on wanting to see your fly, either. Just set the hook on maybes.”
“Alright,” I nodded.
Two fishing trips and three days later, I finally fooled my first rising trout.
After babying the fish to the net on 7X, I set its nose into the cool flow. Then I watched the tail kick, carrying him back through scattered rays of sunlight.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N