Black Flies and Lost Boys by Mark Usyk
The small farm lake belonging to distant cousins that my Grandfather and I fished my entire childhood has always been what I referred to as my sacred waters. You know, I have a connection to it that no other waters could ever take the place of. It’s in my blood and sometimes in my dreams, I’ve written about it numerous times, and outside of my family, I’ve only ever taken a couple close friends to it. It’s sacred for the memories it holds, not the largemouth bass or the bluegills. They’re merely the reasons for the trips that create the memories. I’ve found plenty of great waters since, waters that I’ll plainly admit have better views and scenery, and possibly better fishing on the right day, but nothing I’d ever call sacred. I always thought there could only be one of those. Then we fought our way through an ancient forest in search of a stream, and at forty-one years old, I found a second sacred water…
Three canoes paddled across an Adirondack lake on a fairly calm day. The Lost Boys, Tim and Jimi paddled the lead boat. They’d earned their title last year by bush whacking into this very stream, and I’d been a little envious of them since the first time they’d pushed off in a canoe on their original search nearly a year earlier. I’d planted the idea of them leading us back out into no man’s land the night before for a couple reasons. First, it had been eating at me for a year now that I hadn’t seen this “lost stream.” It was a place I thought about too often for one I’d never seen. And second, I was writing a book that included their grueling excursion, and I felt I just couldn’t write about it honestly from only someone else’s account. I had to see it, experience it, myself.
The two other canoes consisted of myself and Keith, another friend who’d volunteered to come along because he’s a kindred spirit, one of those people with a fondness to march off into the remote and unknown, and finally Andrew and Dominic, a couple young film makers who’d driven all the way from Wyoming for the second time to accompany us on our searches for wild and possibly native, undiscovered Adirondack brook trout.
Friday had been overcast with spotty rain, and we’d already fished two different rivers. One by canoes, the other wading pocket water, but on Saturday the skies were a bright blue, the tops of evergreens stabbing upward like jagged spears out of the surrounding forest. We aimed the boats at a beach with a back drop of rolling mountains blanketed in a mix of pines and hardwoods, water swirling at our paddles at the sides of the aluminum canoes.
The only clouds were those of the blackflies hovering around us, unrelenting, never ceasing. Vicious, maddening clouds. Even out here in the middle of the lake. I wore long pants and sleeves, and my buff was doused in enough Deet to probably send an oncologist into cardiac arrest. I had my hat pulled down tight to the top of my sunglasses, but they still constantly bounced around behind the lenses, and you either just got used to them and ignored it or eventually went insane. I was waiting to see someone throw a paddle to the side and leap into the lake, but it never happened.
We beached the canoes and geared up with short 2 and 3wt fly rods, fly boxes, water, and a little hope and excitement, and then Tim and Jimi lead us down the beach to a foot path that could have easily been mistaken for a game trail or missed altogether if you weren’t looking for it. We picked our way single file through a forest of white pines, some of which were close to the biggest I’d ever scene, others seemed obviously second growth. The ground was a blanket of moss covering absolutely everything. Dirt, rock, and the hundreds of fallen and rotting trees and branches. Picking your footing carefully meant deciding where to place your next step, whether it be in a soggy patch of moss covering the soaked soil of a low depression, or the decomposing carcass of a fallen pine tree that criss crossed over another, or sometimes several in a pile like some forgotten battlefield full of the dead. The carnage a mix of the damages left by time and human factors, namely logging and acid rain. And then it only got worse.
The pines continued. The piles of deadfalls grew higher and thicker. And then the new growth, the next generation of the evergreen kingdom crowded in about chest high, growing out of their fallen elders, covering the ground and not only masking ankle twisters and knee poppers, but grabbing fly rods and leaders, doing their best, as much as any child could do anyways to try and stop the progress of six grown men determined to conquer mother nature and find her most prized treasures. And then the elevation began to drop. We waded through the chaos, slowly, sometimes shuffling sideways or backing up and going around. Downhill. Tim said it was just ahead, and that the real work was about to show itself. I grinned behind my Deet soaked buff.
The stream’s last defense was the thick alders that lined it, so thick that I doubt thorn bushes could have done much better at all to keep us out. The Lost Boys had told me no waders, you’ll destroy them in there in two minutes. I left my waders behind but questioned it of course, but now I could see, I could confirm. Pushing though the undergrowth, I felt a stinging on the back of my left calf, and then the same on my right thigh as alder branches that were intertwined better than the fibers in a rope held me back as I tried to push through. They grabbed fly rods, slashed at faces, pulled hats from heads, but in the end the will of the fly fishermen was more than they could hold back, and we stood at the water’s edge.
But this meant little, the struggle continued. The stream indeed was a continuous flow of water as all streams are, but it wouldn’t give up its precious brook trout easily. As the forest had fought to keep us from the stream, the stream would now fight to keep us from the fish. Where the alders flanked the stream, crowding it so that the only means of a cast would be a roll cast or bow and arrow cast at best, the stream itself was nothing more than open water here and there broken up by chaotic and frustrating log jams. For every ten feet of open water there was another ten of log jam above and below it, and where the water was open the trees overhung so much that a cast without a snag was more of a surprise than the fish we began to see. They flashed up at our flies out of the tannin stained dark shadows, sometimes every cast, sometimes every other, but every log jam, every sunken log, and every clump of slimy undulating weeds seemed to hide more brook trout.
And this, the trout rocketing out from their hiding spots in the log jams, from behind rocks on the sandy bottom and from under sunken pine tree tops that had long ago been ripped from the tree tops by winds and cast down into the stream to become more structure to conceal its most prized possessions, the more I saw of this, the more I witnessed and observed, the less I noticed of the struggle of the fishing itself.
The alders and the mushy moss covered ground, the piles of dead falls and the masses of log jams all in such close quarters, The black flies bouncing around behind my sunglass lenses, they became background, white noise if you will, to the fact that this stream was indeed the birthplace, the sheltered nursery, to a watershed full of the same fish. All wild, all natural, native, their DNA never having been influenced by hatchery fish, the same as it was at the last ice age. The importance of this place hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks, and I knew right then I’d never look at the entire watershed the same ever again. Without this little stream, these fish might not have ever survived human kind. And we’d found them.
I may not have a lifetime’s stockpile of memories like I do with the farm lake, but after one trip in to a little brook winding its way through some of the densest and unnavigable land I’ve ever pushed through, and after seeing wild, native, heritage strain trout in numbers I’d hardly believe without seeing them myself, in waters most any anglers I know wouldn’t ever bother with for such little trout, I’ve found my second sacred waters.