It was an early summer morning. Late June probably, and I was fishing my home water. Once the fog had lifted from the cold spring creek, I’d done alright. I caught enough trout to keep me moving upstream at a steady pace, hitting each pocket and every likely bank lie with a few choice casts, averaging a trout landed (or briefly hooked) at every other spot and mostly enjoying myself. But I had the nagging feeling that more was possible.
After a while, I found myself stuck in a sort of middle-zone — the one where you know things might get better if you switch rigs or change flies, but you also know you might screw up a pretty good thing. It can go either way.
Time was pushing at the edge of our spring fishing season. About half the productive hours of an average day were progressively being cleaved out by the approaching summer. Bit by bit. Day by day. It’s predictable, and interesting to watch the shift. Around here, as summer closes in, there’s about a two week transition from full days of fish catching (spring), to half days of fish catching if you’re lucky (summer). Our summer season is all about getting on the water at dawn and being off the water at noon. Truth is, those last two hours before twelve are rarely productive anyway — you just stay out there to see if you can push a few trout around and bend them to your will. Usually summer mornings are good, and the action shuts off like someone pulled a big breaker switch at 10:00 am. So you’re out of there no later than noon, and if you want to wander back to the river at dusk, you might see some more action on top before it gets dark.
But it was a little early for all that. The river was not quite into the summer routine. It wasn’t 10:00 yet, and it wasn’t July, dammit. So I switched over to a #16 CDC Caddis and poked it through the shadows on a long, thin leader.
No risers in sight, but I decided to prospect with a dry, because it’s a good secondary option on my home water. After a couple of half-hearted slashes from interested but unconvinced trout, I grew restless. I covered more water, trying to make the most of the remaining shadows before the rising sun took over. I changed flies again. I tied on a #14 Parachute Ant, and picked up the pace even more, looking for only the most perfect spots. And now I felt unsettled.
Another half hour or so, and I rounded the bend to find an angler ahead of me. Considering the pace at which I was moving, I decided to give him a wide berth. I waded to the river’s edge, and with leverage from a sycamore sapling, I pulled myself up to the green bank and walked the worn, narrow path. The closer I got to the fisherman, the more I noticed how content he seemed. He surveyed the water while leaning back on a hemlock trunk, rod tucked under his left arm and a sandwich in his right hand.
The fisherman turned as I passed.
“Hey man, come here.”
The old man signaled with the index finger of his sandwich hand, palm up, long finger curling repeatedly, pulling me over. I wasn’t feeling friendly, and I’d given him plenty of space to avoid a conversation, but how could I walk past this guy? So I obliged, changed course, and approached the fisherman.
His vest was tan cotton, dirty and overused, with hand-sewn patches and mends. The man tugged on a half-broken zipper with his free hand and dug out a small green box while he spoke in a slow, raspy voice.
“I bet you weren’t catching as many fish this morning as I was,” he said with a loose grin.
I guess I was a little stunned by the statement, and normally I might become defensive. But something about the friendliness of this guy eased my guard, and I chuckled.
“Well, no. Probably not,” I replied as I took up residence on the next hemlock trunk a few feet over. Feeling immediately like old friends, I leaned back on the tree, found my water bottle, and relaxed.
We watched the river together for a while. Silently, we both spotted the same cloud of midges blowing in the breeze. The tiny flies flashed around, through scattering rays of sunlight — trout had ignored midges all morning long.
After a few moments, the fisherman finished his sandwich, and I put away the water bottle. Then I asked the obvious.
“Well, are you gonna show me what’s in that green box?” I said.
He stared at the closed lid for a moment. With deep scratches, spiderweb cracks at the corners, and with hinges showing some rust, it was a plastic box from another century.
“You ever fish a pale yellow cress bug?” he asked. He extended his arms my way and opened the green box.
They were light yellow sucker spawns, mostly small (maybe size 14’s or 16’s) and tied on scud hooks. Some were finished with orange thread and others with yellow that matched the yarn. Many were well-used, with fraying yarn that was dingy — dull and river stained. I looked up from the box and noted that dirty-yellow was also a fair match with the fisherman’s age-stained teeth. He was smiling again, from ear to ear. And then he winked at me.
“Eggs for breakfast, eggs for lunch, eggs for dinner,” he said. It’s all you need out here.
“All year long?” I asked with crinkled eyebrows.
“Yup. Eggs for breakfast, eggs for lunch, eggs for dinner. Take one.”
The fisherman plucked one of the newer flies from the tattered white foam and handed it to me in his outstretched palm. The lines and cracks in his hands ran deep.
I took the small fly between my fingers and marveled at its simplicity. Hook. Yarn. Thread. Then I tucked it away in my own fly box.
The old man and I spent a few more silent minutes together. We watched the growing cloud of energetic midges again, and he pointed out a few rises on the surface that I never saw. But I believed him. Somehow I knew he could see things that I hadn’t, that he understood things that I didn’t.
I pushed myself forward from the tree trunk. The old man watched me while he remained still and silent, leaning against the tall hemlock. Content, relaxed and satisfied, he stared at me as I nodded a thank you. I almost said “Good luck,” but that seemed silly. As I walked away, I repeated my question.
“All year long, huh? Like, any time of the day?”
The old man kept watching the water, and I thought he might not respond. Then I heard him holler, “I’m tellin’ ya . . .” before his voice trailed off.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N