As we walked the dirt road in the rain, felt soles beneath wading boots hushed our steps. We remarked about all the worms lying about on the road, joking about all the flies fly fisherman tried to force feed to trout. Someone said it and we all laughed. “Trout like worms. They like worms you know.” I laughed and we carried on comically about it, but I was thinking of something else in my mind.
Two weeks ago I’d walked into the maintenance shop at work and there was Frank standing with a couple of the other guys. They’d looked up to me from their conversation and Frank had said “There’s Mark, he should know. Hey, where are there any bait shops left around here?” I told him I only knew of one, over in Marcy. And he’d said he’d gone looking and that was the only one he’d found too. Then someone else asked him if he was going to start fishing again. Frank smiled a little, looked down as if he was looking back into the past and told us that yeah, he thought maybe he was. He hadn’t hunted or fished in a couple years, and that he thought maybe he should. It was time again, not to catch fish so much, but just to get out. Frank was 74 years old, semi-retired. He worked three days a week, and we often joked that he still worked just so he could play cards at break and lunch time. That was on a Thursday, and he’d gone into the hospital that weekend. He was still in the hospital as I looked down on those worms.
When we got to the stream we were going to fish, Nick and I went down stream, and the other two guys went upstream. We all planned that we’d be out all day, exploring a stream none of us had ever been on, hoping to catch brook trout. Nick had driven all the way from Buffalo, over five hours, hoping to catch his first Adirondack brook trout on the fly. On any other day this time of year I figured that would’ve been as easy as tossing a small streamer into any fishy looking spot on the stream and setting the hook. But not today. Today was going to be a challenge. It had been pouring for ten hours straight now, and it was supposed to continue raining all day. And it had already been a wet spring. In the north country that meant the snow and ice might’ve just disappeared only days ago, and that the ground was still saturated and running off. I didn’t have a thermometer, but the water felt cold. Really cold.
The stream was obviously high, because instead of looking for the high water marks on the boulders that would have normally created the pocket water brook trout love to dart out from for a fly, we were looking for the boulders themselves. They were all underwater. And so were the banks. For an entire day and roughly eleven miles we painfully made our way downstream, hoping to find a fish, but eventually just hoping to find the end where we’d find ourselves back at camp. Nick caught his first brook trout in a junction pool at the beginning, which gave us that little hope needed to push through a rainy day in horrible conditions. It was small, only about four inches long, and it flew through the air on the hook set because it simply didn’t have enough weight to keep it in the water. But it was his first, and as far as brook trout go, it was on a remote stream in the Adirondacks, and we could be sure that it had never seen a fly before. Not a fly tied on a hook tied to a leader anyway.
The rest of the day was spent traversing downstream in probably the worst brook trout fishing conditions I’ve ever fished in. The water was easily a couple feet higher than its normal level. On a choked up and confined Adirondack stream that means finding a path to walk is tough. It means picking your way carefully. Where the stream ran flanked by forest, the trees hugged the banks, crowding them like a line of pushy people waiting to get into a sold out concert. The stream was too high to safely wade most of the time, so if we couldn’t skirt the banks we’d have to move through the forest. For a good deal of the day there was a disappointing lack of fishing which was replaced by a concentration of attempting to navigate safely, so we talked to get to know each other better having only just met the evening before at camp. And the conversation helped to sideline the stress of wondering what obstacle was next while still trying to overcome the present debacle.
The stream flowed through three flat lands. Three beaver meadows. If you know beaver meadows then you know that they flow slowly, like still waters, through grass lands, usually flanked by alders. It was hard enough to move through such a place when it was dry. But on that day where we should’ve been walking in dry high grass, stepping from one clump of green blades to the next, instead we were in knee to thigh deep water. It was freezing, and it slowed progress immensely. Beavers use a series of trenches off the main branch to move about, to eat and travel unseen, and it can be dicey work jumping over them normally, as they can be fairly deep sometimes. It’s impossible to jump over them when you’re already standing in two feet of water. We’d get tired of the struggles of the flooded beaver meadows and opt to try walking through the forest instead to bypass them. Which turned into its own nightmare each time.
In the forest were the spruce traps. Spruce traps are large and congested stands of young spruce trees. But they aren’t just standing there looking like an overcrowded Christmas tree lot, they also grow out of and in between the rotting carcasses of their ancestors. That’s the trap part. When you walk into them, holding a fly rod high trying to keep the six to ten foot tall trees from grabbing line and rod out of your hand, you’re closing your eyes as they claw at your face and stepping blindly, hoping for the best. Just pushing through. Even if you’re wearing sunglasses and can keep your eyes open, you can’t see the ground. The trees hide everything from you. What they hide is the worst terrain you could imagine short of a lava pit. I’ve never had to cross a lava pit, but I bet a good spruce trap could have you questioning if lava might be easier.
Imagine and entire forest of pines, big pines, small pines, medium sized pines, all fallen, all randomly lying across each other, hundreds of them for acres. So many that the forest floor can’t be seen. Rotting, covered in moss, the nubs of branches jutting out in all directions. You can walk on some of them. On others the moss is so slick Teflon would give you more traction, and still other rotting tree trunks are so soft that they crumble and fall to pieces as you take your next step onto them. Now, cover them all up with the new growth. You can’t see any of this, you only know it’s there as you fall in between them, as your left foot fights for a place to anchor while your right foot steps and you find your shin being raked by the broken off branches of something akin to those bobby traps you see in movies with the logs with all the spikes in them.
At one point Nick was several feet in front of me in one of those spruce traps. I could hear him struggling, and I could see his fly rod held high above him, the taller trees still reaching out and catching the tip and the line whenever they could. I heard him say “Oh crap!” Then I heard the dull crunch of rotten wet wood, followed by a splash and a thud. “There’s a hole here.” The announcement was made more matter-of-factly than with any excitement or concern. When I got there I could see that he’d stepped forward onto a rotten log, and it had landed Nick into the crater created by the uprooted tree that had once stood there. We fought through spruce traps and the flooded beaver meadows all day. There were no more brook trout caught.
I’m not saying it was a bad day, it’s one of those experiences that’s hard to explain. The fishing wasn’t good, it was lousy. The weather wasn’t good, it was lousy too. But we got to see a stream and an area that I’d always wondered about but had never seen. And now we could see that it was probably pretty good, when the water level was normal and things were a little more pleasant. And Nick was able to say that he caught his first Adirondack brook trout. And although it was pretty small, the story that went with it was pretty unforgettable. And the next day he caught a couple on a hidden reservoir down the road, and on dry flies at that.
As I was standing at the open door of my Subaru trying to find a dry sock in three days’ worth of chaos, Rich Stedman, another angler out with us walked by and heard the Tom Petty playing through the door speakers. He remarked that we had the same taste in music. I told him that Tom Petty had just enough upbeat tunes and just enough sad songs to make for good road trip music.
On the trip home I was thinking about the past four days, the way every angler does. I was reliving the good stuff, rethinking the stuff that didn’t go our way, and just day dreaming while listening to the rest of Tom Petty’s greatest hits, thinking about life with each next song. My phone had been off, no cell coverage for the past four days. Only a camera. It was great. But now I’d driven far enough to get back into cell coverage and the emails and text messages and notifications were going off like a pissed off droid from a Star Wars movie. I was going to ignore them all until I saw one from my boss flash by. My heart sank. It was a day old.
FYI. Frankie passed away a few minutes ago with his family by his side and grandson holding his hand. God Bless you Frankie.
I thought about those worms on the ground. I remembered the bait shop conversation. I saw him in my mind smiling about how he thought maybe he should go out fishing again, just to get out. I wondered if he was fishing now. Tom Petty played on, moved onto his next song…
Some days are diamonds.
Some days are rocks.
Some doors are open.
Some roads are blocked.
I figured I should probably go fishing again soon. Not to fish so much, but to get out.
Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod and his latest book, Carp Are Jerks. Both are available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and signed copies are ready for purchase on this site, jprossflyrods.com.