The flow of the river followed the curve of the valley wall. A huge, flat, vertical sheet of rock provided a bumper, as the streamflow deflected against the limestone karst. Then it dramatically changed directions. While the river we’d been fishing had been flowing west, it now flowed south. And that changed a few things.
Sunny days like these are never my favorite. What my wife asserts as me being a constant contrarian is really just being a die hard fisherman. To me, good weather isn’t sunny. I like grey clouds more than blue skies, and I hope for rain while everyone around me seems to lament every drizzle — until they start complaining about a drought.
So I was glad that Smith and I had grabbed an early start. Just after dawn, the clear skies signaled the tough day ahead, and we both made mention of the budding but leafless trees on the walk in. That complicated the matter, as trout lacking shade wouldn’t have much chance to escape the direct sunlight.
These bright, early spring days can be some of the toughest of the year. With all sun and no shade, the wild brown trout here hold tight to the meager shadows of instream rocks and woody banks. Fish can be fooled with persistence and refinement, but I’m constantly thinking about where I can keep the sun out of the trout’s eyes. And I knew the rock wall was one of those places.
So around noon, I’d gathered Smith from the downstream end of some pocket water, where he was clearly setting up to fish each likely seem with precision. But I knew the river better than my friend, as I’d spent twenty-some years fishing here, and Smith was a transplant to the area. So I waved him over, explained about the rock wall and led us upstream, over dead logs and along a meager deer path for a few hundred yards.
As we approached, Smith saw why I’d pulled him out of the prime water to move upstream. Here, against the shade of the limestone wall, thousands of fast wings flickered in the slanting light. Along a diagonal line, sunlight poured into the canyon. It was shaded for a stretch beyond the flat and wet wall, until sunlight expanding over the upstream half of the small canyon. A cloud of midges could easily be mistaken for fog if the hour wasn’t so far past morning. But a closer look showed thick clusters of midges swarming in a ball. They blended and merged with the neighboring airborne midge clusters. Watching it all could cause a disorienting loss of depth perception if you stared at it too long.
But the Grannom caddis stood out the most. Unlimited tent-winged insects flew and fluttered in and out of the sunlit air. Somehow, they never banged into each other while diving and dapping on the water’s surface, over and over. Most of these caddis were surely holdovers from the previous days. And now, warmed by the sun and having shed the morning dew collected on grey wings, they returned to the water to grab a drink by diving to the surface repeatedly. Many of the females were also dapping to lay eggs, dislodging their payloads by forcefully slamming their bodies onto the surface again and again. Some of these caddis were then swamped by the current or damaged by their acrobatic and reckless tumbling. And the broken ones didn’t last long. Large slurps from underneath signaled the feeding of the biggest trout, keying in on the opportunity for an easy meal.
Smith and I shared a smile at the sheer number of good chances. Trout often ignore top-water caddis, because the emerging insects spend very little time on the surface, and trout don’t like to chase too often. But with a blanket hatch like this, the odds stack up, and trout were taking notice.
The slurps happened about every twenty seconds, spaced out along the span of the shaded rock wall. The water there was flat but alive, rocking and settling in waves as new water from upstream merged with the water returning from the wall. Then it all merged and redirected to follow gravity, south into the next heavy run. Those slurps stood out to us because our eyes had been trained to pick out the biggest rise forms, but the splashes of smaller trout were there too, in numbers tenfold. These were aggressive fish, willing to take a shot at the moving prey of dapping caddis. And they would also be fun targets for our flies.
Smith and I spent the afternoon fishing and re-fishing the same fifty yards of water. In the next three hours, there was rarely a time when at least one of our fly rods wasn’t bent over with the weight of a trout.
We were joined by dozens of birds that more often picked off the occasional Hendrickson mayfly, which neither Smith nor I noticed until the very end, when a particularly stubborn trout turned down both the X-Caddis and the CDC and Elk that we’d had in rotation. Smith stopped casting long enough to study the riser for a few minutes, and he saw the trout eat one of the few Hendricksons on the water. A quick change to a classic Adams fooled that fish too.
The fishing and the friendship that day was unforgettable.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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