I woke up fifteen minutes earlier than I would normally for work. Because I wasn’t going to work. Sick day. But it was going to be too nice to be sick. I made a couple trips from the garage to the car, making sure I had what I needed. Waders, a couple fly rods. My water bottle with the filter to drink creek water, the flies I wanted I stuck in my hat thinking if I didn’t have it on my hat then I just wouldn’t fish it. Trying to keep it simple. A fine idea for any day. Then at the last moment I panicked, caved in and grabbed two fly boxes. It was dark enough to say it was still dark out when I made the first walk out to the driveway, but by the second there was just enough color in the sky to say so. At the gas pump, the stench of gasoline mixed with the smell of the slice of breakfast pizza I took a bite of and set on the roof of the Subaru. While I stood there pumping gas, the color and brightness of the sunrise in the sky beat out the fluorescent lights illuminating the gas pumps. The exact moment it happened it hit me, the first pure realization of the day. It couldn’t be ignored, at least not be me. The other people in and out of the gas station on their way to work most likely had no idea it had just happened. Unfortunate.
On the creek the fishing was tough. The water was low for this time of year. I’d heard it a few times already from other people. “The water is low already. It’s early this year.” But honestly, last year was low early too. Most likely in five or six years we won’t be referring to it as being low early. We’ll probably be saying something more like “Do you remember when the water stayed higher for at least another month?” It’s low early now, but I imagine with climate change this is just how it’s going to be from here on. My generation will just be another generation like the rest, remembering how different “it used to be.”
The water was low, and it was clear. I wouldn’t say gin clear, but maybe what ever alcohol is closest to gin without being quite as clear. Some rain stirring up soil run off would’ve helped for sure. For the first good stretch we didn’t see anything. Well, we saw stuff. Birds, trees, trash left by others and washed down stream from places farther upstream…but no trout. It was the kind of starting out that made you question if there were even any fish in it. We’d all fished it before, we knew there were. But it made you question what you knew you knew. It’s how I get through life anyway on most days, so it was nothing out of the ordinary. I know what I know, and the things I think I know, I’m suspicious of.
My home water was this creek, but miles and miles downstream. It’s end. The waters we were on now were Jeff’s home waters. The same creek, the same water, a different town, different fishing. Come summer time I’d be fishing it for smallmouth bass and carp down in the lower end by my house, the trout all having left for the cooler waters of the river it flowed into. Here, miles upstream, you wouldn’t find those fish. Only browns. A mix of wild and stocked. Mostly wild the farther upstream we went. Jeff remarked as we fished about how lucky we were to have the creek as our local water, how it compared to others in the state. To him there were no others like it. And in a lot of ways, he wasn’t wrong. His indicator stopped abruptly and for a split second seemed to travel in a different direction and he set the hook. The bend of the rod for another second had us all excited, but the excitement quickly subsided with everyone realizing it was only a snag. But there’s something to be said about a good snag. It reminds you what it feels like if only for a second to find a fish. And remembering that feeling suddenly can have an effect on your mind. I think it’s called hope. Hope ain’t bad.
At one large pool formed by a huge log jam we made casts full of that hope and noticed a pallet left by higher waters, but looking like it could have been placed intentionally. It rested almost perfectly flat on a large tree trunk as if it were meant as a casting platform. We laugh as there’s a “Posted” sign nailed to it. The stream has public fishing rights. We joke that we can legally walk and fish the creek, but the casting platform is off limits as it’s posted. We name the place “The Pallet Pool” and move on.
In a blow-down choked stretch we see our first trout, or more accurately we spook our first trout. Minds at ease, we finally get our confirmation that yes, there are still fish in the creek. But we were down stream of it, off to the side, and back a good fifteen feet from the water and it still saw us before we saw it. It clears up what’s going on, why we haven’t even seen anything up to this point. They can see us from a mile away in these conditions. We continue on.
All day is spent walking, talking, sneaking, drifting nymphs and stripping streamers, and spooking fish from under cut out banks and root balls. Jordan laughs as Jeff and I finally get a double hook up. I manage to snag a large tree half submerged and then while waiting for jeff to drift a nymph along it before walking out to the snag and retrieving it, he manages to snag the same tree about eight feet away. Laughing is good. Time on the water under a blue sky is good. Of course it might be a little better under cloudy skies, but who are we to complain. None of us are back in the real world tied to a desk or a work bench.
After working over the last good hole in a sharp bend and coming up empty we can see the bridge where Jeff’s car was parked waiting to take Jordan and I back downstream to ours. I pulled my flask from my pack. “I was going to save this for the first fish, but I guess now’s as good a time as any other, considering the day.” We all take a swig, and I follow it up with “Now, if someone catches a fish at the bridge that means we should’ve had this drink at the beginning and so we’ll have to go back and start over again and drink at every hole.” We chuckled.
We walked overland the last few hundred yards to the bridge, last years tall grass and leaves brown and dead cracked and crunched under our wading boots. Not only was the water low already, but everything was dry as well. Buds weren’t showing on the trees yet and green new growth only showed in the form of the early sprouting lilies and such, still only short green shoots you had to look for to spot.
Far enough below the pool at the bridge we waded back across the creek to get to the opposite bank, and as he was stepping down from the bank into the water Jordan suddenly remembered and turned back to me… “Oh yeah! I made myself remember this dream I had last night! So you and Danielle had a house together, you lived together. And I was there. And you had a pet skunk that lived behind your stove.” I started to laugh. “A pet skunk? That lived behind our stove? Where the hell did that come from?! Were you drinking before you went to bed, because you come up with some of the weirdest stuff when you drink before going to sleep!” Jordan started to laugh with me and I started to repeat my question of where the dream had come from when Jeff turned around as he was half way across the creek. “Today is your fault!” It was directed at Jordan. “You had a dream about a skunk the night before we went fishing! Todays skunk is your fault!” We all laughed even harder, and I’m not superstitious in the least, but he did have a valid point if you were one to believe in such things. I didn’t, I knew that stuff wasn’t true…but now I was suspicious of what I thought I knew.
Jordan and I hung back on the bank while Jeff drifted a nymph under the bridge and let it travel downstream a little ways over and over. We were watching him but talking and more or less done with the day. We were just waiting for Jeff to decide one of those drifts would be his last and not really paying attention when suddenly we heard Jeff’s voice…”There’s a fish.” I grabbed his net laying in the grass and Jordan got his camera ready. It was a decent brown as far as size went and a beauty as far as everything else went. We’d walked a couple miles of stream making casts to nothing and spooking the fish that were there, only to catch the one and only brown right at the bridge where we’d left the car. I don’t know if it was the drink from the flask, Jordan admitting to his skunk dream, or Jeff’s persistence to refuse defeat, but I do know we were all smiling. On most days, given the time, I’ll park my car and then hike to get away from the road, knowing that the better fishing is out there where no one else is going to put in the work to get to. The bridges are fished out and the fish there are weary of everything. I knew I knew that. I and now I was suspicious of everything I knew. I needed another drink.
Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly rod and Carp Are Jerks, books full of stories about life, where fishing happens. They’re available on Amazon in both paperback and e-book, and signed copies are available here on jprossflyrods.com. he’s currently working on his third book, Not All Trout Are Geniuses.
Be sure to look around the site for anything from fly rods and reels to t-shirts and books and even bottle openers for that post-fish celebratory drink!