More Leaves Than Trout by Mark Usyk
Pulled off on the side of a dirt road, I was kneeling on the back seat contorting myself, leaning over it into the back, rummaging. Hope in my chest, panic in my head. I’d left in a hurry, just banking on the pile of fly gear in the back of the Jeep to include what I needed without ever actually checking. I hadn’t hit any brook trout streams since May. May! It was October now! I didn’t know how it was possible, and I tried to reason it out in my mind as I tossed sweatshirts and hats, road maps and empty water bottles, and emptied a plastic milk crate full of random objects. I scanned the fly rod tubes for the right one. The year was a blur. It didn’t matter now. When the sun went down today, that was it. I couldn’t do this again until April. Now or never, do or die. As far as I saw it anyways.
All I needed was a fly box with little streamers, Woolly Buggers in the least. All I needed was a 3wt. All I needed was a couple 6x leaders. As I stood pulling on my waders, I checked it all off in my mind. Three tiny streamers pulled from the headliner and stuck in my hat… Check. Two 6x tapered leaders in the chest pocket of my waders… Check. Fly rod… Check. I’d actually had two 3wt rods in the back. Hadn’t cast one since the beginning of the season, but I still had them. Go figure. But I felt like I was missing something still. It hit me as I began to walk… No net.
I’d cleaned out the Jeep twice during the year, trying to make sense of the pile of stuff I’d mostly been pushing out of the way, not needing. I’d only fished the Oriskany creek for the most part. The Mohawk a couple times. Forth Lake once. An unimpressive, almost depressing fishing season when I really started to think about it. Somehow during one of the reorganizing efforts I’d removed all three nets. I’d just have to be careful getting the brookies to hand today if I managed to find any. My last thought before they turned to the stream at the end of the trail was that at least I still had a life jacket in the Jeep. You know, for the canoe shoved under the porch eighty miles away. Idiot.
Leaves crunch under the felt soles of wading boots. It would be all but silent out here if it weren’t for the leaves underfoot, and the wind ripping through the tree tops sounding like a highway filled with semi-trucks flying by at ninety miles an hour. A blue jay sounds its high pitch call as it crosses the trail in front of me at lightning speed. Its blue is a stark contrast to the ground covered in dull curling reds and yellows and the grays and browns of the naked trees. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked this trail now, but it’s more than the fingers and toes I have I’m sure.
The last time I set foot on it was April 1st, the opening day of trout season. It seems ironic that I find myself on the same trail, but this time on the last day of the season. Why didn’t I fish it at all this year? Ah yes. Life. Adult stuff. Life beating me up. Kids sports. Divorce keeping me down. The same excuses we use as adults to get out of everything. Too busy. There’s that idea in the back of my head that this place doesn’t hold the mystery it once did for me. That maybe I’ve gotten bored with it. I know this stream possibly better than the creek in my own back yard at home. That may be a stretch, because that’s what fishermen do, we stretch the truth. But if I don’t know it better than my home creek, I at least know it just as well. It’s quite possible indeed that the mystery to it just isn’t there anymore. Hence the lack of motivation to drive to it that I once had.
When I was here in April, the snow was ankle deep in some places, waste deep in others, and what normally took me three hours to hike to and fish my way back out took the better part of seven. I remembered looking at John, our breaths in the air. Him trying to look like everything was fine, and me trying to not look like I wasn’t panicking. I was going through survival notes in my head about building him a shelter and a fire while I went for help. There’s something to be said about shortness of breath and someone with past heart issues out in the middle of nowhere. The best places to fish are also the places where there’s still no cell phone signals. But we both laugh about it when the subject comes up now. I guess what else is there to do.
Today I’m on my own. I’m making good time down the trail. There’s no snow to slow me down. Today is an unseasonably warm October day, it’s in the upper sixties. The wind thrashes the tree tops, leaves fall and cover the forest floor like a brittle and cracking carpet. It occurs to me that as many times as I’ve walked this trail, through snow, through green summers, even in fall like now, I’ve never noticed how the trees stick together, forming their own neighborhoods if you will. But the leaves on the ground make it obvious. Walking the trail is like walking through different rooms in a house. The ground is covered in red maple leaves, a dull, pale almost purple. And then suddenly as if entering another room the ground turns yellow where the maple trees end and a patch of beach begins. It goes back and forth like this for most of the trail, the two colors almost never mix except at the boundaries of their own tiny kingdoms. Never noticed that before. Doesn’t matter, just thoughts to pass the time.
The stream is low when I find it. Very low. But the water is cool. While the wind thrashes the trees like a person trying to shake some sense into someone else, the clouds above are moving by at great speed. As I fish it’s like a child has discovered what the dimmer switch does in the dining room and can’t leave it alone. One second the sun is beaming down through the bare spots in the trees, lighting the stream in places, giving it the look of sweet tea. The next the light fades away slowly but with the certainty of a yes or no answer, and the water switches from sweet tea to black coffee in an instant. After a few more seconds it reverses and so on and so forth, all day long.
There’s times when I have to wait for the wind to die down before I can make the 3wt cast the tiny streamer without it getting thrown back in my face. And it’s one of those days where you catch more leaves than trout, even if the fishing was good. But I do catch brookies now and then. Some decent, one very nice bordering on what I believe to be twelve inches, and a couple that struggle to surpass the four inch mark. The orange bellies and blue dots tell me it’s fall, but the warm temperatures, luckily for me, have delayed their spawning. Last year I cut my final trip here short when I noticed fish were paired up and most likely on reds or getting ready to be. This time I see no evidence that they’ve begun or about too. So I continue to fish.
I notice that I can make five or six casts to a most definitely fishy looking spot while the sun shines down through the leaves and get nothing. Then as the light disappears and clouds cover the sun, the same spot produces a fish. I finally see the undeniable proof that the factor at play the most today is certainly the sun when I strip a streamer through a likely spot during a lull in the sunshine. Suddenly the sun illuminates the water where it was just coffee black and I catch the glimpse of the brook trout turning away from my trick the way a shark turns away from a diver in a cage. Dorsal fin up, pectoral fins out, following and ready to devour. The sun sends it instantly for cover. I make another cast as the shade takes its territory back, and the fish eats.
It’s a gorgeous example of a native Adirondack brook trout. No more than nine or ten inches, it’s got tall shoulders, a nicely humped back. The colors pop, the orange and blue. The white trim of its fins, and the underneath of its jaw arctic white contrasted by black as night sunken lines. The jaw! As I remove the streamer I’m taken aback by the jaw. I’ve never seen such a small stream brookie with a hooked jaw. Sure, the big fish get it, the ones weighing in pounds, but I’ve never seen it in the ones weighed in ounces. It must be an old fish. I know I’ve held enough of them that I should have seen it before. Or have I? I guess not all of the mystery is gone from this place yet.
Back at the Jeep I break down the 3wt and put it back in its tube, talking to myself out loud. Well I guess I can take this out. Won’t need it again until April. As I’m tugging off my boots I can’t help but notice the road is gone, covered in leaves completely. I’m being filled with an emptiness as I stand there. Each year it’s always been a little sad, the ending of the season, knowing you have to wait so long to come back. But every year it’s always, “Well there’s always next year.” I don’t know if everyone gets to the same points in their lives, and if they do if it’s something specific that brings them on or if it’s just an age thing, but this year the leaves and the last day of trout season hit me a little harder. Maybe it’s because I didn’t get out there enough this season. I didn’t take it so lightly. Standing there “Well there’s always next year” turned into “Well what if there’s no next year?” Is that how I’d want my last trout season to be? Unimpressive? Hell no. Next year… I’m going to make it better. So much better.
Mark Usyk is the Author of Reflections of a Fly Rod. Available on Amazon.com, The Barnes and Noble web site, and signed copies available on this sight, JPRossflyrods.com.