Scales, Teeth, and a Fly Rod by Mark Usyk

You know how it is. You just don’t always have the time to drive to someplace out of the way and secluded from the manmade world. At least I don’t. I’ve got to be to work at 11:30 at night, so lately, now that I can’t chase Brook Trout in the Adirondacks anymore, and now that the creek out back’s gotten slow with the drop in temperatures, I’ve found myself coming home from work in the mornings, putting the boys on the bus, kissing the wife good bye as she goes out the door to work, and then vacuuming and doing the dishes. Yea… right. The boys get on the bus, the wife goes to work, and I jump into my waders. I point the truck at the Delta Lake Dam, one of the spots close enough to home to not need to load up the canoe and still be able to chase the elusive Northern Pike I’ve been trying for all year.

 A lesser man would’ve given up at this point with as many follows, missed strikes, break offs, and set hooks that just “came out.”  But when my wife tells me I’m stubborn, she’s right. In this instance it’s working to my advantage, because I haven’t figured out how to give up on the idea yet. I may have spent 3 million dollars on different set ups and so many various fly patterns that I’ve spent countless hours under a light in the corner of a dark room tying, but eventually, hopefully before the 5 million dollar mark, I’ll put a Pike in my net. Sink tips. Steel leaders of every type out there, none of which I like to use. Heavy Fluorocarbon leaders. Heavy Mono. Packs of hooks and then more packs of hooks. More buck tails, more flash, more marabou, more wire for articulated streamers. More dumbbell eyes. A full sinking line, maybe some holographic eyes, maybe a different color hackle. More flash still and more hooks… maybe a twenty-five dollar T-bone steak for a trailer will do the trick. Or maybe I should just buy some beer, go sit by the water’s edge and see if I can’t figure out if it’s a Pale Ale or a Porter that they want. I’m running out of ideas…but my patience hangs on.

So at the dam I wade under an old decrepit bridge and up the side of a weed bed, casting well in front of me, stripping streamers along the edge searching for that toothy missile I know is waiting in ambush out there somewhere. I’ve had them strike and break off too small of a leader. I’ve had them follow close enough so that I had no more line to strip in and had to keep it moving with the tip of the rod only to have them turn and swim away, had them strike only to rip the streamer away to soon in my excitement, and had them take it, peel line of the reel, and in the excitement and fear of a break off never set the hook only to have them just let go. On this day I get none of the above working the weeds. Once I’m close enough to the Dam’s discharge pool where the water cascades down a cement slope and churns white and frothy as it becomes the river I turn my casts to the white turbulence itself. Pike and Walleye will hold right at the base of the cement pool walls, under and just behind the churning mess and strike out at food being tossed around. I send a red and white 4 inch streamer into the chaos and let it get sucked down underneath. Nothing.

I push my way through the weed bed. It’s like trying to wade through a can of spinach the size of an above ground pool, about waste deep and so dense you have no idea of what your next step will find. In the summer I worry about snapping turtles, it’s a spot that I don’t care if it’s a hundred degrees, I’m not wet wading. It’s waders or I’m just not going out there. The last time I was here it was Carp that freaked me out at first. I’m pushing through the weeds, and I keep hearing this sucking sound. It wasn’t until the third stop and look around that I spotted the Carp face just poking out of the green five feet away, and then, knowing what I was looking for, I realized there must have been half a dozen of them within a 20ft diameter of me, all busy in the task of making the sucking sound, taking something from the top side of the weed bed, what, I don’t know. Bugs, algae, snails, something. I couldn’t catch one on the fly rod in such a horrible mess of cabbage, but I’ll bet if I’d tried I could have grabbed one with my hands. I make my way through and back out to open water, a good 50ft of it between me and the dam, and I fail here also to attract the attention of anything. Feathers and flash may as well be an empty tippet with nothing on it for what it’s worth today. I turn around and push back through the weeds to return to dry land.

Before I leave I decide I should walk the wall around to the discharge pool, a spot where you can look down on the white tumbling and churning mess from about 15ft above. It’s a hard spot to fly fish because you’re so much higher than the water, but from up here I’ve seen good Pike shoot from the discharge’s turbulence to devour a Rapala or two when I used to fish a spinning rod here. My 7wt launches the red and white streamer through the air and it drops about fifty feet out, disappears on the edge of the white and I can barely make it out as it’s carried out and away, a white flutter and flash now and then to show me where it is. After 3 or 4 casts I open my streamer box and choose a brown and olive streamer.

As I finish tying it on something small and dark in the white water catches my eye. Is that leaves being churned up from the bottom? That makes no sense in my head so I stand and watch. There they are again, about 4-6 inches, dark brown and tapered shapes emerging in the turbulence, seeming to fight to stay in place, then they’re gone again. Fish. Some kind of small brown fish is hiding in the roughest water it can find. I have to assume there’s something underneath pushing them up into hostile water, and I’m fairly sure, once again from my spinning rod trips here, that it’s Walleye. No sooner do I paint the picture in my head, I see a dark, much larger fish shape come up to the top of an eddy just downstream, it splashes at the surface and rolls on it’s side to return to the bottom. A Walleye, there’s no doubt in my mind.

It occurs to me, I’m now spot fishing for Walleye the way one would for Trout, watching them rise for food being carried by a current, and I’ve unknowingly just tied on a streamer that matches the hatch. This is too good to be true. After figuring out the cast and the drift to get it to the fish I start catching. Most are in the 13 to 15 inch range as far as I can tell without measuring them. But there’s one, the one I saw splash at the surface that I can’t get to take my fake meal. I watch the fish come off the bottom and swirl at the feathers and flash several times. It’s not moving on, not getting spooked, but it’s not falling for my game either. I make a final cast and let the white smashing current take it to the bottom and sweep it out, and I begin reeling in to go home. Six Walleye is good enough, the last proves smarter than the rest and I’m prepared to leave him be. Then as I reel in, the line goes tight. It’s much heavier that the others. Walleyes aren’t known as super hard fighters, but this one is more like trying to lift a rock off the bottom, it must be bigger. It fights to stay on the bottom but I’m rigged up with a 20lb test leader for Pike, so I don’t worry about a break off and put a good arch in the rod as I pry it from the bottom. Once it starts up, it’s like any other Walleye, like a child that goes limp as the parent scolds it and holds it by the arms trying to force it to walk to it’s room, the Walleye just gives up the fight and forces me to carry it’s weight to the net.

It’s a fine fish, not the biggest Marble Eye I’ve ever caught, but it’s 22 inches...I measure this one, and fat, much bigger than the others. It occurs to me on my walk to the truck that no, I haven’t landed my Pike yet, but a Walleye has teeth, and my streamer looks ragged from all the teeth that gnawed on it in the last 40 minutes. Close enough for today, and it’s another species checked off the list on the fly. I spot fished Walleye, matched the hatch, and caught 7 fish. Some days, it’s better to be lucky than good.