My Creek by Mark Usyk
It’s just barely after 6 am and I find myself standing on the bridge, looking out over a corn field and trying to spot the winding creek through the trees. There isn’t enough light yet to make the water shimmer through the leaves but I still know it’s there under a sky of pink clouds stretched out like a fluffy blanket about to cover the land scape. I get momentarily distracted by the sky and a flock Starlings moving across it like an undulating and ever changing cloud of pepper. In my mind I begin to think about how flocks of birds and schools of fish conduct themselves in the same manner. And that thought finally snaps me back to reality. Fish. I’m up this early for fish. My feet carry me down the shoulder of the road, fly rod in hand.
At the mouth of the creek I slide down a muddy embankment to avoid weeds taller than myself and wet wade into the water. A bed of silt on the inside of the first bend tries to pull my wading shoes off my feet as I slowly make my way around the cut out bank to what should be my first stop upstream to make a few casts. As the full bend comes into view my eyes scan the clear water for the deep trough that should be lining the far side, the outside of the bend. All I see is gravel and sand. Flat. The trough simply isn’t there. This used to be my first stop, almost a sure thing. Now it’s a flat in a curve of the creek, nothing more. My creek has changed.
My creek. Well, it’s not mine per say, but it’s the creek that runs through town, behind my house. The one I’ve fished since I was in grade school, and over the past few years the one I’ve learned the last mile or so of like the back of my hand. Of course just like the back of my hand, with years comes change. More wrinkles, more scars. It always amazes me with each spring on my first outing, when the ice is all but gone, nothing more on the water, only thick chunks laid up in the shade on the banks arguing against the admittance of a change in the seasons, how much the creek has changed in just four months give or take. But this isn’t spring, this is the end of summer. I haven’t waded this stretch since late spring and I expected to find the same stream. I can’t believe the first hole is gone.
Besides a couple shots at the slow pool in town by the bridge, like I said, I haven’t fished this stretch all summer. The water levels have been super low, the water temperatures too high. This year’s drought gave us extremely low flows for the most part, but the few times it did rain in the second half of the summer, when it rained, it poured. Water levels rose fast, and when they dropped back down, sometimes only in a matter of a couple hours, they dropped just as fast. You could see it happening with your own eyes. But when it wasn’t rising and falling it was just super low and warm. The stretch I call mine doesn’t hold much at all in the way of trout, so it wasn’t a “trout lives matter” issue to me as much as the water was so warm that the smallmouths didn’t want to come up from the cool bottoms of the pools and play. So I went elsewhere.
The temps are finally coming down, so I figure it’s about time the smallmouths start eating big breakfasts again. Pancakes, eggs, sausage and bacon. Leaches and frogs. This morning’s excursion will be an eye opener to what a dry season like this can do to a blue line on a map under a microscope.
Moving upstream my next stop should be a tree that’s been hung up in the middle of the creek for the better part of four years now. It had been washed down stream during some storm or spring thaw when the water had washed away the bank below it, probably quite the exciting spectacle had someone been there to witness it. An entire tree, roots to highest branch. Most likely the tree had crashed down from a tall bank into the high flow, and from its position I could tell from there the current had carried it downstream with the roots dragging at the rear like hands grasping for a hold while the limbs of the top of the tree stretched out like arms trying to touch some unseen thing just out of reach. The roots had won as they anchored themselves in the tail out of a pool and over the years since gravel and sediment had buried the bottom half of the root ball and the trunk. My typical stop here would have gone something like this. I’d come up the right bank, until the roots were on my left and from there cast upstream and let a streamer drift towards the roots in a short waist deep run. About 4 feet in front of the roots I’d strip like hell and 9 out of ten times a Smallmouth or a Fall Fish would clobber the streamer at the last minute.
Only the tree isn’t here. What years of ice jams and fast and high storm currents couldn’t move somehow the drought has. The waist deep run is still there though, so I still stop where I would have like the roots are still there and I make a cast up and across. The streamer plops down just under an overhanging tree and as I begin to take up slack line it goes tight. It’s one of those takes that makes you think initially that you’ve snagged a branch or something, but then all hell breaks loose.
The 7wt does what it’s supposed to, it bends, it dances, and in the end I’m looking a nice Smallie in the eye. Moving up stream is more of the same. Nothing is as it was.
A couple of my most dependable spots to get into bar room brawls with bronze backs were entire trees that had been washed down stream in previous springs or good storms when the banks had been washed out beneath them. Now they’re gone, replaced either by empty featureless pools or worse, long, shallow and perfectly flat gravel beds not more than knee deep. The trees not only served as the perfect ambush grounds for bass and fall fish to pounce on a streamer but they were landmarks on the water. When one came into sight it was my indicator for just how far I’d come, how far I still had to go, and if I was going to make it home in time to pick the kids up from school or end up trouble. They’ve either been bashed or broken apart enough to be resting in wrecks on the bottoms of long slow runs in the Mohawk River or they’ve taken up new foot holds in the tail outs of far off pools elsewhere. But from my creek they’ve disappeared.
Farther upstream I’ll find other places that have changed as well. Some for better and others for worse. I have to learn the creek all over again I guess. That’s fine, who doesn’t like exploring new waters? The good news is the smallmouths are back on the feed once again, the water temperatures have finally fallen to a comfortable level for the fish, and they seem more or less eager to play my silly game of “what’s that thing that just went splat on the water…and can you eat it?” My study so far, that being the fishing, has shown that over the entire stretch the fish numbers seem to still be decent, but the sizes haven’t yet proven to be what they’ve been the past few years. I’m not complaining yet that I haven’t caught a smallmouth as big as I usually did years past in those good pools and deep troughs that are now gone, but I have to wonder how it will play out in the time to come? Mother Nature always seems to have a plan. If we leave her alone she seems to have the means to bounce back. If we leave her alone. I’ve seen it with the brook trout up north that we almost wiped out with acid rain, the ones we wrote off and left alone. In some places they came back, and I’m sure that she has a plan for this little creek running south to north as well. And if she doesn’t have a plan, she seems to be pretty damn efficient at winging it.