Photo credits-Holly Usyk
I waded out about fifty feet from the shore line where our camp site met the water. I crossed a sandy bottom littered with scattered cobble stones, water logged branches and pine needles, and the occasional submerged chunk of drift wood in about waist deep water to get to the large boulder that hid just below the water’s surface. I stood on the flat rock’s top which put the water about half way up to my knees and looked up to the sun dropping toward the horizon on the opposite side of Cranberry Lake, hidden behind the clouds. This would be my last evening here, my last chance at a Smallmouth at dusk.
Early in the morning I’d gotten up as the sun had just begun to lighten up the sky and paddled out about twice as far as where I now stood. I’d stripped out line and let it coil up at my feet as I stood in the canoe and doubted my abilities to bring a fish to hand in such conditions. The water was warm, I had likened it to bath water upon our arrival the day before and had talked to a couple fisherman close by who had caught nothing with worms. Surely if they caught nothing with worms, my 7wt and a foam popper would go unchecked by the Bass trying to escape the summer heat in the depths. But fish are merely my excuse, so with not much more thought a foam frog popper tied a couple days before sailed back and forth over my shoulder before landing with a plop…And then disappearing in the hole in the water opened up under it by the mouth of the fish. A fish on my first cast without so much as even one strip of the line. How could I be so lucky? I laughed as I brought the fish to the boat. Some days it’s better to be lucky than good. I missed one more strike then caught nothing for the next hour and a half before paddling back to camp.
Now I stood perched atop the boulder, my back to the shore, the clouds gaining a slight tint of pink. Line fell in loose coils and floated on the water around my feet, once more the foam popper dangled at the end of the leader as I made a decision to start casting to my 3 o’clock position and working my way counter clockwise with successive casts covering the water as far out as I could. My first cast found nothing but water, as did my second. In fact my first complete rotation from 3 o’clock to 9 showed no evidence that anything lurked beneath the surface. I cared not. The fish are just the excuse. The clouds gained color as I started back to my right again. I noticed Holly standing on the shore behind me and looked back. She smiled and I looked back to the water. As the loops passed overhead I wondered if she had ever really watched me before and couldn’t think of a time. Lost in thought, between the strips and the popper throwing water I saw it disappear in a small splash and lifted the rod. There was resistance and then the green foam head launched from the water like a child flicking a rubber band at a classmate. “Ahhhh! Did you see it?” Holly chuckled no. It happened twice more before my wife asked me if I had checked the point of my hook or if I was a half rate fisherman. My own wife busting my chops about missing hook sets. I liked it. The sun had illuminated the clouds to a strong pink by now and I was finding myself watching the bright ball of burning gases paint the sky deep hues as much as my fly line rolling across the open air.
At some point I realized that the large car sized boulders back along the shore behind me to my right had become somewhat of a set of rustic bleachers for the two couples and three or four teenagers who had the campsite next to us. They had undoubtedly come out to view what was unfolding as one of the most stunning sun sets of the summer and I now realized that I too had become part of the show. I could just hear key words of their conversation, which I had picked up on in the background of them making references to a movie one of them remembered about a family who fly fished in Montana or someplace, and Brad Pitt. Then they moved onto what little they knew about the Adirondacks, who they knew that knew much more about them, and how it was the best $80 they had ever spent for a place to stay on a vacation. They seemed to think that the sunset and this guy out there casting graceful loops in a silhouette against the more and more gorgeous by the moment sunset was something special that demanded they keep their voices down to a gentle conversation…while my kids ran and yelled through the trees around our site. I got a kick out of it but was lost in the spectacular sunset once again seconds later as the sun made a quick appearance between the clouds and the horizon before dropping below the trees and turning the clouds to a billowy canvas of purple and garnet.
I had been casting nonstop and not taking one second of such a beautiful scene for granted for the better part of a half hour when finally the popper landed, I stripped twice, and as it sat motionless on the water it was smashed from below and I set the hook. The rod arched in the last minutes of the remaining light, I looked back to Holly still standing on the shore waiting for this moment and asked her if she was happy now that her husband had found a fish. At that same moment the audience on the boulders erupted like fans at a Baseball game witnessing a good hit to the outfield and I couldn’t help but smile. Fly fishing is for me. I do it for myself, for my sanity. But this time it turned out I had been a part of something bigger, I couldn’t be so selfish this time. I waded in to shore with the Smallmouth and let the kids feel its smooth scales and Holly took a picture while she smiled and the neighbors continued their comments and happiness filled their voices. I released the fish and made my way back out to my perch once more and continued fishing with no more luck until stars filled the sky and I had to feel my way back to the shore rather than look for my next steps.
There are a lot things I will never forget about my times with a fly rod in my hands. The first time I ever tried to cast. My first rod given to me by my father. The first fish. The first Trout. My first custom rod. And that evening on Cranberry Lake in the Adirondacks when I was unknowingly sharing what I got out of it every time I went to the water with my wife and a group of perfect strangers because of one extraordinary sunset and an eleven inch Smallmouth Bass. I cast the fly rod for me. I’m selfish. But that evening everyone there felt what I felt. There’s no way they didn’t. It was a good thing. Something engrained in all our memories now I’m sure.