Opening Day Donkeys by Mark Usyk

I wasn’t going to bother going out on the first day of trout season. Opening day is a big deal to me, but not because of the trout. I still cast my fly rod for trout all winter, it’s not about the opening of the season. No, to me the first day of trout season is the unofficial first day of spring. Usually there’s still a little snow in places, the creeks are high and brown, but you know from the first day on that each time you go out it’s only going to get better. Finally. But like I said, I wasn’t even going to bother with it this year. I was going to wait, see what happened with the whole virus thing. Save my time for later when I might need it if everything got shut down, my essential job even. But then there was a text from JP. Said he had a fever. I thought “Uh oh, that’s not good.” But it ended up being a fever that only a fly fishing prescription could take care of. I told my boss I wouldn’t be in the next day. You have to take care of your friends.

We parked at a walking path trail head. We’d never been here. Well, I had. I’d worked literally less than a hundred yards from this spot, but I’d only fished downstream, never gone up.  A woman pulled in with a horse trailer as we began walking. I thought in my head “Remember that opening day a few years ago when everyone was trying to keep their distance because of the virus, and I got trampled by a horse when we were trying to go fishing?”  We walked, I kept looking back, she’d either gone the opposite direction or her horse was really slow.

We passed a barbed wire and electric fence. A couple donkeys turned to face us as we passed. JP stopped and began talking to them. I didn’t like the way they were staring us down, looking at us like we were the jack asses. A chicken casually picked its way through the brush off to the side, and while the donkeys stared us down, I thought that chicken was acting suspicious, like it was trying to be stealthy without actually looking stealthy. “Oh don’t mind me, I’m just a chicken. I’m not acting suspicious at all. Just doing chicken things.” I wondered if there weren’t other chickens hidden in the brush trying to flank us. We walked on. Now I was looking over my shoulder for a trotting horse and sneaky chickens. I was sure the donkeys thought we were the jack asses.

About a half mile down the trail when we got to where we wanted to drop in on the creek we found posted signs. Should’ve known, we’d been seeing them along the trail for a while now. But once you walk so far, you may as well walk the rest of the way. We turned back. We spotted signs for public fishing rights down on the creek nailed to trees on the banks, and then realized there was a couple hundred feet where there were no posted signs. We slid down a steep incline using saplings to slow us, and finally stepped into water.

I was already rigged up so I began casting pretty much immediately. A black woolly bugger with some flash and a gold cone head was my fly of choice. I’d meant to tie up some Hendricksons the night before but didn’t have any of the right materials. Instead I’d tied half a dozen dries that were nothing more than three moose hairs for the tail, brown dubbing for the body, and a reddish brown hackle tied in behind the hook eye. Size 14s. I’d been drinking a weird stout craft brew while tying them…Sweet Potato Stout. “Made with sweet potatoes and lactose” it said on the bottle. So I’d named them, a pattern I was sure already existed with another name already somewhere, The Sweet potato Stout. But I was starting off with the bugger, and just hoping there’d be a hatch of something small and brown sometime while we were out there.

After JP had taken a few moments to stand in the middle of the creek leaning on his walking stick, absorbing in the view, he rigged up his fly rod. A few casts later he said something about his headache being gone. I asked him “Oh, had a headache did ya?” And he said yes, for two weeks now. Tylenol wasn’t touching it. Whiskey may have helped him sleep but probably wasn’t helping it. But a few minutes standing in a creek and it was gone. I told him I guess we knew what was causing the headache. He nodded in agreement.

There was a deep and fast run along an undercut bank. And I realized a good way to spot a fly rod builder on the water. He’s probably the one doing stuff with his fly rod that you wouldn’t dream of because he built it and breaking it doesn’t mean as much to him as it would to you. He was trying to get a streamer down deep below the fast top water downstream from him and so he was letting the streamer drift down by that undercut and then plunging his rod tip down deep into the fast moving water. I smiled when I saw him doing it. Brilliant. It still didn’t get him a fish. But I filed that move in my brain under “stuff I shouldn’t ever do but incase I do and break the rod I know a guy.”

JP was upstream maybe forty feet give or take when I saw him wave to me as if to say hi. I thought that was a little odd, but I waved back anyway, not to be rude. He shook his head no, then pointed behind be. I turned and saw two other anglers in the tree line, they waved and began making their way out and around us, considering both social distancing during the pandemic and stream etiquette. I waved and made another cast. JP stopped and began talking to them. Small talk. Fishing small talk. You know, have any luck, do you fish this a lot, stuff like that. They were talking through the brush line to each other when one of the anglers stopped and looked at me and asked “Are you Mark?” I wondered if I knew them, we were all wearing hats and sunglasses and you never know who you might run into on a creek on opening day. It turned out his name was Jessie, he read both my books, and bought them from JP. Actually he’d won the first one. Jessie and Jeff told us there were fish here and plenty of good holes. They’d lost one fish so far well downstream. JP and I were moving down stream and they were moving up. We parted ways with the typical pleasantries but without handshakes. You know…, the virus thing.

For the rest of the day we made our way downstream, fished every fishy looking hole and run, lost a couple flies, and saw no bug hatches. My Sweet Potato Stouts stayed in the fly box, saved for another day when I’d find small brown things and fish rising to them, maybe on this creek, maybe on another somewhere else.  

The whole virus thing has everyone stressed out, with good reason. But I figure we have to take care of ourselves, not just physically, but mentally. One affects the other in the end. The next day at work I saw JP about halfway through the day. “How’s everything today?” I asked him. “That headache still gone?” He said it was beginning to come back. I figured at least he’d managed to get rid of it for a day anyways. Mentally he was stressed out with everything going on, which was straining him physically in the form of the headache and whatever else he wasn’t mentioning. I thought about being back on the creek again. I wondered if donkeys ever got stress headaches. I looked around for sneaking chickens.

Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod and Carp Are Jerks. Both books of stories about life where fishing happens. They can be found online on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Walmart, or perhaps anywhere else you might stumble across them. And you can purchase signed copies right here on while you’re picking out a new fly rod or perhaps a new Ross or Able reel along with other gear and gifts.