FIRST DAY OF THE NEW SEASON

May 6, 2017

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Unaware that I’m able to watch their effort from our dining room window, a pair of wrens takes turns carrying tiny twigs to a rusted watering can hanging from a rack on the wall of our back porch. I’m hoping it’s the real thing and not one of the many nests they will abandon throughout the spring and summer. The tiny birds used the same can to build their nest a few years back. Their young put on a show for us when they fledged, but the pair (I like to think it’s the same pair, but have no evidence to establish this fact.) failed to return until now.

I had hoped to begin my fishing season last weekend, but the weather didn’t cooperate, the temperature remaining in the low forties, the sky spitting down cold rain. A steadier rain fell yesterday. The temperature this afternoon hasn’t broken forty-five degrees, but unable to wait any longer, I leave the wrens to their labor and collect my gear from the four corners of our house.

Outside, the sky remains dull, but the trees around our home are awash with bird chatter. A flock of goldfinches scatter from the feeders as I walk past. They call down to me from the tops of the hardwoods. The tips of the branches are bursting with new life.

I always make this first trip of the season with some trepidation. Although we’ve had rain, so little fell last season that I worry for the wild fish that call Bonnie Brook home.

Patches of snow slouch in the lee of larger boulders and behind barns as I turn off the main road of town and drive past pastures where milk cows graze. Turning down the lane that passes by the farm called Heaven’s Gate, I slow to look at a group of llamas staring back at me from either side of the macadam road. They appear in good spirits. For some reason, I’m not sure why, their jaunty attitude reminds me of British rockers from the 1960’s.

I find myself humming a Dave Clark Five tune as the road ascends through federal forestland. Rhododendrons and mountain laurel replace fields. I pass by the Appalachian Trail. I’ve read that the New Jersey portion is one of the most scenic. Since the only hiking I do is along trout streams I wouldn’t know. A sign says that the chance of a forest fire is low.

After descending the ridge, I drive over a little bridge. The stream’s current is swollen with all the rain. It’s feast or famine for these fish, I think to myself. I decide to drive another mile or so up the road. Better to fish the headwaters when the water is up like it is this afternoon.

A breeze slips past as I slip on my hippers. I slide the collar of my flannel shirt up around the back of my neck before humping down the path into the hemlock forest that surrounds this stretch of stream that is more of a mountain brook as it slips out of two ponds, one north and the other east of where I’ve parked my truck. The rush of unrestrained water is no place for a dry fly. Besides, there are no insects flitting over the water’s surface this early in the season. I knot a wet fly to my line and begin to work the water.

Unlike the twelve acres surrounding our home, the hemlock forest is silent, except for the sound of the current. It is a solemn place, more so since the mighty hemlocks began dying at an alarming rate. It is more of a graveyard than woodland. Trees, some one hundred feet long, others taller, lay crisscrossed over the stream as if a giant’s child was about to play pick-up-sticks. I navigate through this labyrinth, sometimes scrambling over trunks wide enough to walk upon, most times tramping around them. Although the sky remains a mass of clouds, I wear sunglasses to prevent an unforgiving branch from poking an eye out. Wherever one of the once grand trees has been upended, a great mass of roots rises twenty, perhaps thirty feet into the air. Trunks of others are broken along the base. Limbs and smaller branches litter the forest floor. Bark is everywhere. The dead lay like the skeletal remains of dinosaurs. The survivors stare skyward, paying silent witness to their brethren.

My legs are uncertain. More than once I stumble over cobble while working my fly downstream. The water is not deep, but it is fast and wading is a chore. My casts are awkward. The trout are unforgiving as it should be. Two hours pass without seeing a fish. There is a tributary that washes down a ravine west of the brook. Many years back, while exploring the little rill, I discovered a crotch-deep pool below an outcropping of shale where four spunky brook trout fell for my dry fly, a pheasant-tail with a parachute wing. Since that first afternoon, the trout in this forgotten pool have proved eager to take a fly even on those days when the little stream is otherwise unwilling to give up its secrets. It’s a pretty spot, with water falling off a shale ridge covered with moss and lichen into a run that is no more than a few feet long and perhaps five or six feet across.

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This afternoon, a torrent of white water sweeps the wet fly back from whence it came. Scanning the single box of flies that I slipped into my pack before leaving the house, a leech-like pattern stares back at me. It is the only streamer among wet flies and nymphs, a pattern I’ve never used. On a whim, I switch flies. The bulky streamer is difficult to cast with the little bamboo rod that I favor when fishing Bonnie Brook. I fling rather than cast the weighted fly into the froth. A moment later a brook trout grabs it. I feel life, see the flash of color, and then the fish is gone. Successive casts fail to rouse another fish. At first my disappointment gets the better of me, but then I tip the brim of my cap and call out, “Fair play to you,” before turning to trudge back to my truck.

WOODLOT HAIKU

March 24, 2017

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Wearing sunglasses to block the intense glare, I watch our two Labs porpoise through sixteen inches of fresh snow that has blanketed our property courtesy of a mid-March nor’easter. Overhead, songbirds chatter in anticipation of spring. As the dogs draw close to an oak tree, a crow calls out an alarm. Another replies from farther away. Upon hearing the nasal twang of a redwing blackbird, I turn toward a slough alongside the drive. Beyond the slough, I stare out over the stillness of a woodlot. The dogs have found a huge shagbark hickory that split from its trunk during the storm — next season’s stove wood. As I step forward, snow rises above my boot.

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BLIZZARD’S EVE

March 12, 2017

While putting the finishing touches on a magazine article, I stare out the window at two blue jays perched in the branches of a nearby cedar tree. One accepts a corn kernel from the  beak of the other.

The flock of crows is back. Three or four of them congregate on the limbs of a maple, while two of their family waddle toward the feeders hanging from a metal pole in the middle of the snow-covered lawn. They’ll soon bully their way through the mourning doves and white-throated sparrows that remain under the feeders, scavenging seeds dropped by gold finches. It hardly seems worth the effort, but the occasional chickadee or titmouse flies over to grab a single seed before returning to the tree line. Juncos, some folks call them snow birds because they appear as winter approaches, peck at the seeds I’ve dropped for them on a mountain of next year’s stove wood.

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Although squirrels remain snug in their nests, the birds appear frantic. The temperatures have dropped into single digits. A skim of ice has returned to the pond, the wind picking up, precursors to the rapidly approaching March blizzard that is due to deposit eighteen inches of snow across the Appalachian Ridge before passing on to New England.

THE CRUELEST MONTH

February 27, 2017

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The woodstove has remained dormant for two days. I pass by the flannel shirt that hangs from a hook and walk outside wearing only a short-sleeve T-shirt. I expect to find the tips of bushes bursting with buds and springtime bulbs erupting through the soft soil, but find only a sprinkling of winter aconites spreading out along the garden’s edge. These tiny buttercup-like plants precede crocuses. Kneeling beside a flagstone path, I rake away leaves to discover the tips of hyacinths, and in another spot, the tops of a few daffodils. The remainder of the garden remains solemn.

Like a con man smiling at some old lady handing over her life savings, February can be the cruelest of the winter months. We look forward to the festivities at December’s end. January has no pretense. What you see is what you get — cold rain, sleet and ice, snowstorms. March may be unpredictable, but there is the promise of spring as winter draws to an end. Of all the months, February is a pretender. It is a trickster, with temperatures rising into the sixties, only to plummet back down into the thirties just when you’re about to hang your wool coat in the back of the closet.

This morning, I fill feeders that songbirds have temporarily deserted, knowing they will return when the weather turns, and add suet to cages stapled to trunks of three hardwood trees that rise from the damp lawn like an island.

Throughout the winter, rose-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers have accompanied downies and hairies at the suet stations, as have red-shafted and yellow-shafted sapsuckers. Most prominent of all, have been a pair of pileated woodpeckers. These Woody-Woodpecker-like birds are larger than blue jays. Their calls sound like what I imagine were once made by pterodactyls, those prehistoric flying reptiles that annoyed King Cong and flew through so many of the movies we watched as children.

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A crow cries from deep in our woodlot. A family of these birds, seven or eight of them, have frequented our yard over the last few months. We hear them cawing from the hardwoods each morning. I’ve notice one couple. They perch together, their wings nearly touching. At least one bird keeps watch from a branch while the others go about their business, scavenging seed dropped by the songbirds and chunks of suet left by the woodpeckers, strutting around the pond, scratching at the leaves in the woodlot. They do not abide humans, and fly off at the slightest intrusion, returning only when they feel once again alone.

As I walk toward the woodpile, squirrels scurry across a lawn littered with winter’s detritus. Trails cut through the grass by voles wandering from one garden to another are visible now that the snow has melted. Dog prints are embedded in the earth. An acorn lies broken open along a stonewall. Grabbing my maul from the corner of the shed, I spend the next two hours working up a sweat while splitting stove wood for next winter.

With the sun shining down on my bare arms it’s hard to believe that by tomorrow night snow will once again fall. Songbirds will converge around the feeders, woodpeckers at the suet, while back in their nests, female squirrels will soon give birth.

 

Working With Wood

December 2, 2016

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After the gardens are cleared and the leaves raked. After the gutters are cleaned and the long-handled tools hung inside the barn. After the tractor is winterized and the bucket loader exchanged for the plow. After seed is purchased and the bird feeders filled. After I’ve set aside my fly rod for another season. After this year’s supply of stove wood is neatly stacked in the lean-to. After the saws are oiled and their chains sharpened, it’s once again time to harvest wood for the winter that will follow this one.

Part of the twelve acres that surround our home is a woodlot comprised of a variety of hardwoods. Among maples, black birch, poplars, tulip and ironwood trees, there are beech, red and white oak, shagbark hickory and white ash that I prefer because of the ease with which they split and for their excellent heating value.

The oaks are best for kindling. After splitting logs with my six-pound maul, I collect smaller pieces, and swinging an axe, split them into thin strips. These are set into plastic bins piled one on top of another in the barn to dry out. Shagbark is a bit harder to split. Bits of bark fall to the ground and must be swept away, but it is strong and in my opinion of all the hardwoods is best to burn. Ash is also fairly easy to split and burns well. Yet, it’s the beech that I covet for they split with ease, and are the cleanest, and the easiest to stack. Each fall I limit the amount of beech trees felled, doing my best to conserve my supply for the years to come.

A long gravel drive extends down from the macadam road that runs beside our property. It bends around a swamp in the shape of the letter S. The bottom of the S washes up against our house like a large pool formed at a bottom of a waterfall. A pole barn is an easy walk out our side door and across the gravel pool. Attached to the barn is a lean-to where Trish stores her garden pots, stakes and fencing. A shed is a few feet away. It is where I keep my tools that include two chainsaws, a number of axes, wedges and a maul. It is also where I store the birdseed. Attached to the shed is a second lean-to, where the stove wood is stored.

I’ll spend the next few months in front of these structures, building a mountain of wood to be burned during the following winter. Before I begin the work of felling and hauling trees, cutting them to size, and then splitting the logs and heaping each onto the steadily rising mountain, I must prepare the work site.

Each year, as the air chills and the November clouds sweep overhead, I clean away the debris — bits of wood, bark, twigs and branches embedded in the sawdust and soft earth. A walkway extends from the drive to the shed. On one side of the dirt walk are wooden pallets enclosed on three sides by a wooden fence while on the other is a smaller area, which also contains a set of wooden pallets. The smaller section is where logs are stored before they are split while the larger is where I pile the split wood. There is a large circular chopping block on one side of the walkway. Beside the block is a taller wooden frame that can hold branches, limbs and longer logs to be cut.

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After I check the pallets that keep the wood above the soil, I secure the wooden fence that sets the work area apart from the gravel drive. The wooden frame is near collapse after four or five years of use and requires my attention if I am to use it for another few seasons. Once the site is ready it’s time to collect wood. In addition to my woodlot, there is the occasional neighbor, who offers a fallen tree to anyone willing to clear it from his property. This year, I collect three truckloads of red oak from the front yard across the macadam road. Cut to size, the logs are ready to be split.

It is in this way that we heat out home. After more than thirty years, I still stare at the empty pallets and wonder how it can be that by the end of January the mountain of stove wood will once again stand tall.

 

A JOURNEY TOWARD SIMPLICITY

September 11, 2016

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“We take delight in things; we take delight in being loosed from things. Between these two delights, we must dance our lives.

—Philip Harnden, Journeys of Simplicity

 

My wife, Trish, and I have owned a camp in the Rangeley Lakes Region of western Maine for nearly thirty years. It is land that has not changed much. A time traveler from the late 1800s might find that the lakes, streams, and ponds there have remained about the same. The fish are still here. On average they are not as large as they once were, but a sixteen-inch native brook trout is not uncommon. Sometime in the late 1800s landlocked salmon were introduced and now also swim wild through the region.

When we first arrived, I spent all of my time casting large streamers and weighted nymphs in a manic search for ever-larger fish. Such fishing requires time on the water soon after the spring thaw, which in western Maine does not come until mid May. This is when the smelt, the region’s principal bait fish, leave the lakes to make their spawning run up the rivers — with brook trout and salmon following close behind. In the latter days of September, if the rains come in time, the trout and salmon once again swim upriver on their own spawning runs, providing the fly fisher a second opportunity to take a fish measured in pounds rather than inches. These are the times when most anglers are on the water.

But there is another type of fishing to be had here, one that is productive between May and September. It requires the fly fisher to heed the words of the legendary American naturalist, John Muir, who wrote, “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.” In doing so, I discovered the many tannin-stained brooks that slip across the Canadian border, streams that bend and twist through balsam and spruce for mile after mile, some of them headwaters of those larger rivers where the majority of anglers continue their search for trophy fish. On these hidden streams I can cast to brook without ever coming upon another angler. The trout here are diminutive compared to the fish in the big rivers. A few no larger than my pinkie, the largest fits snuggly in a palm. In these narrow ribbons of running water under the shadow of this vast conifer forest, I came to truly appreciate what Thoreau described as “…these jewels…these bright fluviatile flowers, made beautiful, the Lord only knows why, to swim there!”

I enjoy reading almost as much as fishing with flies. In my early years I read Hemingway and Steinbeck, Harrison and McGuane. Along the way, the fly-fishing poet, Richard Brautigan, brought tears to my eyes while the rabid environmentalist, Edward Abbey, forced me to raise my fists. In my 1990 edition of Gary Snyder’s thought-provoking book, Practice of the Wild, the poet-turned-Buddhist explains:

“The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home.”

I suppose it was inevitable that I would gravitate toward tenkara, a method of fishing that has extended this journey toward simplicity to my days on the water. Like a haiku by Japan’s seventeenth-century Zen poet, Matsuo Basho, tenkara strips away all but the bare essentials, freeing the mind to be in the moment and perhaps even stop time, as a six-inch brook trout slips from my moist fingers back into the cool current of some sunlit stream.

I now seek out those waters too small to gather serious attention from other anglers; those secret places, where trout live out their lives in the lee of boulders, under the shadows of spruce, pine, balsam, and birch, rarely seeing the splash of an artificial fly. No longer do I feel compelled to wing heavy nymphs past my ear, or make sixty-foot casts until my shoulder aches. I can leave my fly-box-laden vest at the cabin as well as my reel. Freed to boulder hop with ease, an activity that allows my middle-aged body to once again feel young, and carrying a wisp of a rod, I can gently dap my dry fly or work a wet fly just under the surface.

With less distraction, this uncomplicated method of fishing allows me to enjoy the creatures found along the edges of running water —the colorful flash of a tiny warbler or the song of the secretive thrush. I’ll catch myself smiling at the splash of a frog or staring into the eyes of a bashful toad. Along the way, I’ve seen otters, mink and beaver and even the occasional deer, black bear, and moose that have lumbered down out of the forest.

Our time in western Maine remains an escape from the madding pace of modern life while tenkara has made it possible for me to follow the road less traveled along a stream with brook trout, however small, willing to play tag with a bit of feather and fur.

THIS ESSAY FIRST APPEARED IN THE JANUARY 2016 EDITION OF TENKARA MAGAZINE

IN THE LAND OF FISHING LEGENDS

August 21, 2016

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There are ghosts beside the rills and runs splashing down the sides of these slopes thick with spruce and balsam. They linger along the tannin-stained pools of rivers that meander through the shadows of this conifer forest. I’ve heard their rustlings in the still of a summer evening while walking barefoot along a deserted cove, caught movement at the edge of a fog-soaked pond as I cast my flies at dawn.

It’s been nearly thirty years since my wife and I drove down the logging road along the shoreline of the most western of the chain of lakes that comprises the Rangeley Lakes Region of western Maine, turning into our camp for the first time, our infant daughter nestled beside our black Labrador. Since then, we’ve come to appreciate the rich sporting tradition of this part of the state that has earned its nickname as The Land of Fishing Legends.

Before purchasing our cabin, Trish and I stayed at Bosebuck Mountain Camps, one of a number of traditional sporting lodges found within a seemingly endless forest that stretches south past Quebec’s Boundary Mountains and north from the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Birch, poplar, oak, and maple combine with pine, spruce, and balsam to shelter tiny streams that slip across the Canadian border expanding into larger rivers that connect vast bodies of water. Some retain their Abenaki names — such as Umbagog, Aziscohos, Cupsuptic, and the largest of them all, Mooselookmeguntic Lake. Others — Upper and Lower Richardson and Rangeley — are known by their English names.

Like many lodges in the region, Bosebuck was built in the early 1900s and caters to those men and women traveling here to fish pristine waters, hunt abundant game, or simply to tramp through the unspoiled woodland.

My wife and I were newly married that first time we made the nine-and-a-half hour trek from our home in New Jersey to the lodge that at that time was owned by Tom Rideout, a master Maine guide, well known throughout the region. Unaware that we would soon own a cabin along the opposite shoreline, Trish and I pulled in beside the rough-hewn boards of the camp’s main building, the windshield of our first-generation Isuzu Trooper coated with pollen, its hood with dust from the forty-five minute drive up the logging road that swings around the western edge of Aziscohos Lake.

A fly fisherman, I was in search of trophy brook trout, a fish native to Maine, and landlocked salmon, those fish that leap through the surface to dance on their tails upon feeling the prick of a hook.

Smelt, the baitfish that replaced blueback trout as the principal food source, keep the brookies and salmon fat and happy. Sixteen-inch fish are not uncommon while trout as big as an angler can imagine are still found in deep pools with iconic names like Little Boy Falls, Cleveland Eddy, Warden’s Pool, Stump Pool, Pond-In-The-River, and the waters below Middle and Upper Dam.

We purchased our cabin in 1987, then until now paddling over the region’s ponds, motoring across its lakes, and wading the rivers and streams. Although hiking well-marked trails has its benefits, we more often choose to bushwhack through the forest just to see what we can see.

This land of shadowy swamps and sparkling lakes, thunderstorms and rainbows, deadfalls and painted trilliums is frequented by sudden spates and fierce squalls, the salmon in its big lakes preferring those blustery days when wind-swept waves break over a boat’s bow. Although his scenes depict the Adirondack Mountains, Winslow Homer’s art comes closest to capturing western Maine’s primitive beauty as do the watercolors of the contemporary artist John Swan, whose family has owned a camp on Big Kennebago Lake for three generations.

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Although a hard land, western Maine holds the promise of trophy fish from May through September in two of its tailwater fisheries. Beware, however, for these rivers are to be taken seriously. Beginning at its outlet below Middle Dam to its confluence with Umbagog Lake, the Rapid is a brawling take-no-prisoners affair, falling 120 feet in only three miles. To its west is a short mile-and-a-half stretch of the Magalloway River. To paraphrase a recent movie title, this section of the Magalloway is “no river for old men,” as it sweeps out from below the Aziscohos dam and forms rapids that can humble the most experienced angler.

Unlike the unbridled current of these bruising waters, the upper portion of the Magalloway River, as well as the Cupsuptic and Kennebago Rivers meander through hummock-covered marshes and are best fished at the beginning or end of the season when the water temperatures are cooler. Then there are the smaller streams and brooklets, many without names, where behind each boulder and under every plunge pool there is a brook trout, some as small as a finger, each as bright as a lupine and as brash as a pup. While casting flies to these unrefined fish you can feel the presence of those who once waded the same water, treaded the same trails. Fossils found when Aziscohos Lake was drained for repairs on its dam confirm that over 10,000 years ago ancestors of the Abenaki tribes hunted Caribou here. In the 1870s, John Danforth, a young trapper, was one of the first white men to explore the wild country through which the upper section of the Magalloway River flows.

Others made their mark catering to those wishing to spend time under the sweeping branches of spruce and pine. The preeminent guide of his time, Wallace Stevens worked out of his camp located below Upper Dam. In 1920, his wife won second prize in a fishing contest after catching a brook trout in excess of six pounds with a streamer of her own making. An article published in Field and Stream described the event and propelled Carrie Stevens and her streamers to national prominence. Her many patterns continue to be used today to catch fish measured in pounds rather than inches.

Well-known decoy carver, and good friend of Wallace and Carrie, Charles “Shang” Wheeler spent the fishing season at Upper Dam where he wrote The Ode of White Nose Pete, a poem about a legendary brook trout that some say continues to break leaders and steal flies.

Set in the 1930s, Louise Dickinson Rich’s now classic book, We Took To The Woods, depicts her life with husband Ralph, along the rugged and isolated Rapid River. Today you can spend a long weekend at the “Winter House,” the one-room cabin that Louise insisted Ralph build beside their rambling summer residence known as Forest Lodge, where, with their son, Rufus and dog, Kyak, they remained warm from first snow until ice-out.

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Yes, there are ghosts in these hills surrounding the lakes, rivers, and streams of this Land of Fishing Legends. While paddling up the Little Magalloway River, scan the rocky outcropping known as Wheeler’s Dam and you might glimpse a line of Palaeo-American hunters carrying their stone-pointed spears. Sit with me for a while beside this campfire and you might see the shadow of young Johnny Danforth hiking up the side of Big Buck Mountain with a rifle slung over his shoulder, a brace of rabbits clasped in his hand. Tomorrow we can drive down the logging road to Upper Dam, where you can cast a streamer, but be on your guard, lest White Nose Pete snatch another fly, his dorsal fin breaching the surface as he leaves your line limp.

Oh, and if, like Trish and me, you decide to spend the night at Louise and Ralph’s Winter House, don’t be concerned if you hear scratching at the cabin door. It’s only Kyak looking for a handout.

(This essay first appeared in slightly different form in Maine Boats Homes and Harbors magazine and again in MidCurrent, an Online Fly Fishing Magazine.)

Like Stars In The Midnight Sky

July 8, 2016

The fishing in western Maine can be quite good in August, if you can find where the trout are hiding. This requires time and patience. By keeping your ears open and mouth shut, you might catch some gossip while waiting on line at the general store, hear a bit of loose talk between locals while pumping gas, or a sport boasting over dinner at the sporting lodge. Of course, nothing beats putting time in on the water, which is what I’m doing on this particular afternoon during the last week of the month.

With sleeves rolled to the elbows, my lightweight shirt damp with perspiration, I steer the Grumman, our sixteen-foot, aluminum canoe, along the eastern edge of the lake. Turning toward an island, I cut back on the four-horse-power outboard fastened to the craft’s square stern while checking out a nest built high up in a spruce tree. Earlier this season a state biologist had banded two eagle chicks. Although there is no movement in the massive labyrinth of branches, a few yards away, in another spruce, a mature eagle, its white head offset against a dark blue sky, glares down at me from a cold, yellow eye.

Crossing over to the western side of the lake, I motor northward. Evergreens spread down from each bank. The smell of balsam is strong. A moose grazing along the shoreline raises her head while I watch thunderheads build over the hills that rise in the distance.

As the lake gradually narrows, marsh grass that remained submerged during most of the spring has formed a wide plateau extending outward from along the western shoreline. In August, the forest palette is comprised of varying shades of green, the marsh grass lighter, more vibrant than the hills with their dark green conifers and lighter green hardwoods.

A loon dives a few yards off my bow. Not far away the bird’s mate follows. The same biologist who tags the eagles also monitors the lake’s loon population. He once explained that few loon eggs survive predation, the hatchlings that do, breaking free of their purplish-gray eggshells each year around the first week of July.

I follow the lake around a rocky peninsula that was once dammed to raise the water level as part of extensive log drives, which in years gone by used the waterways to float timber from smaller streams to lakes and from the lakes down wider rivers to still larger lakes until reaching the paper mills built along the banks of the Androscoggin River across the border in New Hampshire.

The water here is shallow, vegetation just under the surface prone to strangle an outboard’s propeller, causing an engine to overheat. Not far beyond are a series of submerged boulders. Although of no concern in the spring, this time of year I must be careful to navigate around both obstacles. A cormorant stands atop one of the boulders, the bird’s wings extending outward like a pudgy vampire about to take flight.

As the clouds draw closer, the surface of the lake grows still. After motoring around the outstretched arm of land, I enter a large cove that remains shallow forcing me to proceed with caution. The conifer forest drops down along the eastern shoreline while great expanses of marsh grass continue to advance from the west. After reaching the far side of the cove, I cut the engine and drift into a narrow channel formed between the marsh and a small island. I can see that the gut is deeper than the water in the cove.

The sun slips in and out of the clouds that now hang over the marsh and threaten to sweep over the lake. I hear a little stream that enters the other side of the narrow channel. Slipping out of the forest, its current forms a set of shallow riffles that glide over a bed of cobble and into the deep trough through which I’d pass.

Dragging the boat onto a shoal, I gather my gear. An osprey rides a thermal current over the cove while snipes spiral upward then dive toward the marsh plateau. The air whistling through their wings makes an eerie sound. In the distance a logging truck rumbles over the wooden bridge that traverses the stream. Although unable to see the vehicle, I can hear it wind along the eastern shoreline, the sound of the rig fading into the forest.

After connecting the two pieces of my cane rod, I knot a Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ear to the end of the line and wade back toward the channel. The stream’s cobble gives way to the lake bottom, a mixture of grit, mud and sand pluming upward as I shuffle into deeper water. I cast toward the edge of the channel, where the river’s colder, clearer current mingles with the warmer, tannin-stained water of the cove.

A meager breeze sweeps out of the southwest momentarily ruffling the lake’s surface. Along the sod bank, strands of grass sway as if in anticipation of the coming storm. The Hare’s Ear sinks a few inches, a brook trout striking as soon as I impart movement to the wet fly.

The little fish takes my breath away, its scarlet fins etched in white and black, its belly golden. Sprinkled along the flanks are red-in-blue dots that combine with yellow spots, the gills the shade of blood. All in stark contrast to the somber beauty of the vast forest surrounding this dark water that reminds me of a moody lover.

The clouds that rolled in over the lake block the sun. The trout at the entrance of the gut remain small, no more than six or seven inches long, but when I extend my cast a nine-inch fish, and then one that measures ten inches strike the fly.

I stare out over the great expanse of wavering grass, can almost feel the gray clouds pressing down, the air heavy, the scent of balsam mingling with that of the lake, the grass, and the grit and mud kicked up by my wading boots. The distant hills are lost under a shroud of falling rain that has yet to descend upon the water. I untie my neckerchief, submerge it under the surface, and after removing my cap, wring out the water over my head, wiping the damp cloth across my face before tying it back around my neck.

After releasing a trout longer than the last, I cast my fly in search of a larger fish, a brook trout measured in pounds rather than inches, perhaps a refugee from a time when Herb Welch and Wallace Stevens worked this water. Although few in number, these piscine apparitions haunt my dreams.

When the strike comes it takes me by surprise, the trout running, my hand trembling when the rod arcs. Then, with the reel screaming, the line goes suddenly limp.

I look up at the gray shroud. The cove is silent, the air still. I want to shout or perhaps cry. Instead, I reel in and after checking the fly, cast once more into the dark water of the deep trough, but the moment has passed, the ghost fish gone. After another ten minutes I slog back to the boat, the first raindrops falling upon my shoulders. Beyond the narrow channel, across the vast expanse of the cove, each drop is like the rise of a trout, as many trout as stars in a midnight sky.

This essay first appeared in the June edition of Midcurrent, an online fly-fishing magazine.

Author in Residence

May 1, 2016

I’m honored to be Author in Residence  during the latter part of June at the Ames Free Library located in North Easton, Massachusetts. If nearby, drop by on June 18th. Topics of discussion will be books, brook trout and anything in between!

library (1)

Ain’t Getting Any Younger

March 27, 2016

I’ve been writing a column for Skylands Magazine for many years. Much like this blog it focuses on the seasons. This spring The publisher decided to use one of Trish’s photos for the cover. He advised, “No matter what I did with photoshop I couldn’t make the guy look any younger.”

spring cover (1)