BIG FISH ON THE LITTLE LEHIGH

October 21, 2019

More than two dozen years ago, my wife and I went on a two-day pilgrimage to southeastern Pennsylvania’s Cumberland County where I had cast my flies in limestone streams once fished by fly-fishing luminaries, Charlie Fox and Vincent Marinaro, and more recently by another member of fly-fishing fame, Ed Shenk. It was late summer, and the brown trout that call the state’s limestone creeks home were especially spooky.

I did my best to fish with the upmost stealth. Although I never entered the water, at the sound of my boot steps, the trout in Big Spring Creek fled toward the undercut banks and under the vegetation that grew in long wavering strands.

I had no better luck the following morning, casting my flies on the Yellow Breeches.

But it was the LeTort Spring Run that I really came to fish, to follow in the footsteps of the amiable Charlie Fox and those of Vincent Marinaro, who had a reputation for not suffering fools lightly. I carried with me a dog-eared copy of Marinaro’s A Modern Dry-Fly Code. A book, I purchased while in college. Since then, I’d underlined many of its passages while adding notations along the margins. It had never occurred to me that the first edition of this groundbreaking book would have any value beyond the wisdom I’d found between its covers.

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As you might expect, the brown trout of the LeTort were no kinder to a mediocre angler than those of Big Spring Creek or any of the other streams I’d sampled as we toured the region. Like the ghosts of those anglers who spent their lives beside its banks, the brown trout of the LeTort would momentarily appear in those few openings between the watercress and other sub-surface vegetation for which the stream is known, only to fade from sight whenever my fly touched upon the surface.

Last week, with the water in Bonnie Brook as low as I’ve seen it, Trish and I decided to travel to another of Pennsylvania’s hallowed waters, the spring creek known as the Little Lehigh. In particular, I wanted to fish the short stretch of stream from the parking lot below the fish hatchery to the Route 78 overpass. I’d read about the stream’s fussy brown trout and wondered if whatever skill I’d acquired over the past twenty-four years would serve me well on a stream that was once the home water of another fly-fishing legend, Jim Leisenring. Big Jim, as he his friends called him, became known for the wet flies he created and the methods he used to fish them. His technique of swinging a wet fly to a holding fish and then lifting his rod to simulate an insect rising to the surface became known as the Leisenring Lift.

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Trish and I were pleasantly surprised to find a park with a manicured lawn adjacent to this stretch of the Little Lehigh, with a high ridge bordering the far bank. On this sunny day in the middle of October the hardwood trees along the stream were ablaze in hues of yellow and gold.

A path bordering the stream provided easy access to a number of placid pools and gentle riffles. Although in early spring, local songbirds take advantage of the many houses set out along the path, this afternoon, they chattered from bushes, perhaps gossiping about the change of season. Located within the City limits of Allentown, the park makes for a pleasant place to spend an afternoon.

Trish decided to hike up a trail that extends above the parking lot while I tramped across the road onto the grass beside the Heritage section of the stream. There were a few other anglers present, but plenty of room to get off by myself.  I began by knotting a #20 wet fly to a 7x tippet (Think small!) and swinging the soft-hackled pattern through a set of riffles. Like Leisenring had espoused, I lifted the tip of my fly rod at the end of each drift, but without any result.

After an hour or so, I decided to employ a technique I learned on the West Branch of the Delaware, where the fish are also known to send the novice home grumbling at their selectivity. It’s called look before you cast. I placed my fly rod across my waders and sat upon the bank, my eyes on the surface of a glassy section of stream.

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It took some time, but eventually a set of rings emanated from the far side of the pool. Still, I waited, unsure of whether what I saw was a beechnut falling from an overhanging branch or one of the stream’s resident brown trout.

Over the next few minutes, I fidgeted with my gear, until a dorsal fin broke the surface, not any dorsal fin, but one large enough to make me shudder with anticipation. I snipped off the wet fly and tied a #22 blue-winged olive emerger (Think really small!!) to a twelve-foot leader. (Think really long.)

Taking my time getting into position, I cast the fly a number of feet above the fish and watched as the fly floated back down. After a number of casts, I noticed that my exceptionally long leader had become tangled. Back on the bank, I told myself that I hadn’t expected to actually entice one of these fussy fish to my fly, and so there should be no regret. After all, it had been a lovely afternoon, on a fine piece of water.

I switched to a more manageable nine-foot leader, but was unsure as to what fly to use. With one eye on the water and the other scanning my fly box, I remembered a chapter in Marinaro’s book about the use of patterns that imitate terrestrials. At the time, it had been a revolutionary insight, but these days it is common knowledge that fish will readily take any ant, beetle, or grasshopper unfortunate enough to fall into a stream. Heeding the ornery sage’s advice, I knotted an #18 black ant (Not so small) to my tippet.

Two casts slipped harmlessly over the seam where I’d seen the trout rise, but on the third, the surface erupted, the ant lost in a vortex of water. Unbelieving, I nevertheless had enough presence of mind to pull back on the butt of my fly rod. To my utter astonishment, I felt the power of a serious fish on the other end of my line. The Little Lehigh is not a wide stream, no more than thirty or forty feet from one bank to the other, but the fish used what water it had by swinging from the far side to the near while taking line from my reel.

After a number of runs, the trout drew close enough for me to confirm it was one of largest browns I’d encountered. I was sure the fish would break me off or slip the hook.

Whispering a prayer to the fishing gods, I imagined Marinaro growling at my ineptitude as the fish fought on, while after a number of minutes, Big Jim Leisenring merely smiled when Mr. Brown measured twenty inches against the side of my rod.

I was still trembling with excitement when Trish came walking across the lawn.

“Any luck?” she asked.

“Nothing but,” I replied.

SKINNY WATER

July 20, 2019

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The level of the little stream is lower than I anticipated, down right skinny, with tan, rust, and bluish-colored cobble winking back at me through the current. My expectations had been raised when a rainstorm swept through our region earlier in the week, but the little stream appears subdued since the last time I waded through its cheerful riffles and runs. Approaching high summer, I should’ve known better.

Earlier, while walking down the path to the stream, I could hear the periodic sound of the season’s first cicadas high up in the hardwood canopy. Gone were the bluets and violets that graced the trail along the edge of the brook. These days, summer grass, garlic mustard, and jewel weed compete with various species of ferns.

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When I step into the stream, a frog hops into the water with a loud plop. Above me, sun-dappled spider webs glitter with dew. Rhododendron blossoms are nearing their end. Now and then one of the delicate petals floats past my wading boot.

Runs that had been as high as my calves are now lifeless sloughs. Riffles are ankle deep. Thankfully for the fish, springs keep the water quite cold, and although at first glance, the little stream appears low, upon closer inspection, the current remains frisky in a few places. Now and again, I spy a piece of water no more than a few inches wide and at best a foot deep. A high-riding dry fly dappled over one of these variations in otherwise shallow water brings a splash. More often than not, a brown trout flashes under the surface before I manage to set the hook.

Farther along, there remain numerous plunge pools as the gradient steepens. The consistent force of the current falling between boulders carves into the cobble below. The cavity formed by the rush of water provides room for a fish to enjoy oxygenated water while feeding on whatever the current may sweep its way.  The miniature fall of water also provides a safe haven under which a brown trout can dash at the hint of danger.

Fishing this small stream, a river angler might think it easy to take a trout in such tight quarters, but nothing is farther from the truth. Each pool might be only twelve inches wide and perhaps twice as long, but dissecting it is no easier than comprehending a run measured in yards rather than inches.

At the head of the pool, a plunge of white water falls down between a series of boulders, creating a brief run for a foot or so before the current widens into the next set of shallow riffles. A palm-sized brown trout may be lying under the fall of water, on either side of the current, or in the tail of the miniature run, before it dissipates into the riffles below. On larger water, it is often necessary to solve the puzzle of which fly pattern to use. Here, any fly will take fish if drifted with care. The problem is that the first cast will spook these trout if not placed an inch or so above where it’s holding.

This morning, my first few attempts have resulted in fish fleeing toward the head of each pool. Crouching low, I now false cast toward the far bank, changing the course of my forward cast to place the #12 pheasant tail, with its parachute wing, at the top of the diminutive run. The fly is undisturbed as it floats down the edge of the current into the bottom of the pool. Subsequent casts aimed at the other edge of the current, and then into the foam below the fall of the water, prove equally ineffective.

A few steps farther upstream, I try again. This time there’s a splash, but I only prick the fish that streaks for cover. Through frustrating trial and effort, I determine that the fish are holding at the back of the current rather than along its sides. Another plunge pool, this time, the pheasant tail alights at the center of the run, traveling innocently for a few inches until it’s lost in a swirl.

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By the end of the morning, my shirt is soaked with perspiration. My neck and ears sting from the relentless attack of mosquitoes and gnats. Sitting on a boulder, I unknot my neckerchief and dunk it in the cool water. I run the dripping wet fabric over my head, face, and the back of my hands, wiping away the bug dope while providing momentary relief from the heat and rising humidity.

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Breaking down the seven-foot, three-inch Starlight Creek Special, I take a few moments to reflect on today’s outing. I’ve nicked a number of fish and spooked even more. With air temperatures rising into the nineties, it may be some time before I return to this little stream. Until then, I’ll have the memory of six wild brown trout, each with brilliant orange spots along their flanks and plump bellies the color of butter dripping off summer corn.

 

Rain, Rain, Don’t Go Away!

July 6, 2019

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As the month of June meanders toward summer, catbirds complain from the bushes around our home while wrens chatter from their perches. Listening carefully, I may hear the sweet song of a bluebird calling to its mate.

Each evening, a doe slips down to our pond. Her newly born fawn follows a few steps behind her. Chipmunks scamper over stonewalls and across garden paths. Cottontails munch on clover and plantain. There are weeds to be plucked and a lawn to be mowed, but beckoning from within its aluminum tube is the fly rod, a six-foot, three-inch Sweetwater model crafted by George Maurer, the Pennsylvania rod maker who died much too young.

Shade cast by the forest cools the upper stretch of Bonnie Brook. Humidity drips from the leaves of hardwoods. It percolates on the shoulders of moss-covered boulders and off of lichen growing upon the trunks of the hemlocks that are slowly dying as a result of an aphid-like insect called the Woolly Adelgid.

By the middle of the month, pink-and-white blossoms of mountain laurel brighten the hillsides. Their showy flowers will be followed by rhododendrons, those most patriotic of our wild bushes that wait until the first week of July to burst forth with color, our eastern forest’s version of fireworks.

Downstream, sunlight dapples the brook’s surface. The flowers of April and May have given way to varying shades of green while the sweet scent of barberry and honeysuckle has been replaced by the heady perfume of wild rose that sweeps across the current upon the slightest breeze. Brambles alongside the stream have thickened. Grasses in the meadow rise to my hips. Ticks are a bother. Snakes are something to consider.

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A freestone stream, Bonnie Brook depends upon rain to sustain its population of wild trout. Without it, the riffles and runs of early spring dwindle to a trickle. Becoming moody, the fish are unwilling to leave those hidden places where they spend their afternoons thinking dark thoughts.

For this reason, the sustained drought and unusually high temperatures that gripped our region over the last few years had caused me to search out other streams to fish as early as the end of May. But not this year. Beginning in May, extreme rain events continued throughout June. What my father in law once called gully washers flooded rivers keeping them unnaturally high. As a result, I’ve heard more than one angler complain that this season has been a washout.

Although the rain has discolored the larger rivers and streams, I’ve found Bonnie Brook running clear and cool a day or two after each storm has passed through our valley. It is for this reason, that on this last week of the month, I grab the tube containing the little cane rod and head to the brook in the hopes of finding a trout, or maybe two, willing to come out and play.

Tramping down to the stream, I slip down the bank behind one of my favorite runs. This section of the brook is no more than six feet wide. A chaotic tangle of barberries, wild rose, and brambles have filled in the bank to my right. Their branches threaten to grab my line should I be so foolish as to make a back cast in their direction. I must also remember to avoid the boughs of a massive spruce tree that has fallen across the brook a foot or so behind where I am crouched.

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Ten or twelve feet above me, the current sweeps around a bend where it joins with a lesser braid that broke off from the main branch a few hundred yards upstream. The two branches form a shallow riffle that is separated by a large boulder about eighteen inches from the left bank. The pool below the boulder is perhaps three, maybe four feet deep.

A few inches below the boulder, the branch of an unruly raspberry bush droops down from the left bank. Around the boulder’s other side, the current falls unobstructed, but it is the narrow braid that looks “fishy.”

Although I’ve taken smaller brook trout at the bottom of the riffle to the right of the boulder, earlier this season, I fooled a nine-inch brown below the braid.

I’m sweating, and dunk my neckerchief into the water. Removing my wide-brimmed hat, I squeeze the cotton cloth over my head. The temperature of the  water is shockingly cold. After placing the hat back on my head, I knot the damp cloth around my neck.

It takes a few minutes to tie a pheasant-tail dry fly, one with a parachute wing, to my tippet. Avoiding the brambles and spruce tree, I manage an upstream cast.

The fly bounces off the side of the boulder, and for a moment it appears that the raspberry’s branch has grabbed it, but when I twitch the tip of the little rod, the pheasant tail floats free. As it reaches the deeper water, there is a sudden splash and flash of gold. It’s going to be a good day.

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OPENING DAY

April 4, 2019

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I admit it. I enjoy beginning my fishing season on my own schedule, getting out on the stream on that first spring day when the weather warms rather than some arbitrary date set by the State. This year, Pennsylvania’s trout season opens on April 13thwhile New York and Maine begin their open-water season on April 1st. New Jersey has declared April 6thas its opening day. More often than not I’m content to spend the official opening day of trout season working around my property, content to leave our State’s rivers and streams to those anglers, who will drop a line for a few days, and then leave the water until the following year.

So, with the temperature rising into the high sixties on this Saturday afternoon during the last week of March, I decide its time to head over to Bonnie Brook. You see, New Jersey permits fishing all year around on those streams that it does not stock, and since Bonnie Brook has not seen a hatchery truck since the nineteen seventies, I’m able to engage in this little conceit.

There is a smallish blue wing olive on the water this time of year, but I’ve only encountered this hatch once or twice on Bonnie Brook. I remember one season while fishing downstream with a wet fly, I noticed a trout rising close to the bank under the branches of a wild rose that hung over the side of the stream. I let line out, using the current to drift the soft hackle in that direction, but after two tries was unable to interest the fish. Nevertheless, the trout continued to periodically rise, grabbing something from the surface film that I could not see. Checking through my fly box, I knotted a #20 Adams with a parachute wing and drifted it downstream. As the current swept the fly under the branches of the rugosa, the fish rose, and few moments later I held a ten-inch brook trout in my moistened palm.

A hatch of black stoneflies closely follows the brief appearance of this little mayfly. These early-season stoneflies crawl from the bottom of the stream in abundant numbers, providing a reliable source of food for the trout of Bonnie Brook. This afternoon one buzzes past me before landing on the naked branch of a barberry bush. Another sweeps over the surface of a pool that extends only a few feet from one side of the brook to the other.

Stoneflies have four wings that make them look like tiny helicopters when they are in the air. The one flying past was quite large, perhaps a #12 while the one drifting down with the current was noticeably smaller, maybe a #16. I’m not sure if they are the same species or two separate types of stones. No matter. I open my early-season box of flies that contains black stonefly patterns in different sizes. They are meant to imitate the adult form of these aquatic insects as they return to the stream’s surface to lay their eggs.

I knot a fairly large fly, with a dun-colored CDC wing and a body dubbed with beaver fur dyed black. It is a very simple pattern, but quite effective this time of year.

I’m unable to raise a fish from the first pool and after a number of casts move upstream. A flash of crimson takes me by surprise as the pattern with the CDC wing floats down a crisp riffle running out of plunge pool. I’m able to dislodge the hook without raising the rainbow from the water. I estimate it to be at last eight inches, a nice size trout for this little stream.

A brook trout, an inch or so smaller than the rainbow, is the next fish to grab the fly.  It goes on like this for the next two hours. I release three rainbows, each measuring eight or nine inches and four brook trout that are smaller. In between, another nine or ten fish flash below the fly.

I end the afternoon on a perfect note. A rainbow, a bit smaller than the rest, rises from the bottom to inspect the stonefly pattern that bounces down with the current. I watch the fish float side by side with the fly. I can see it clearly—the red stripe splashed over parr markings, the black eye following the fly, and the splayed tail as the little trout turns and then descends out of sight.

OPENING DAY

April 1, 2019

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I admit it. I enjoy beginning my fishing season on my own schedule, getting out on the stream on that first spring day when the weather warms rather than some arbitrary date set by the State. This year, Pennsylvania’s trout season opens on April 13thwhile New York and Maine begin their open-water season on April 1st. New Jersey has declared April 6thas its opening day. More often than not I’m content to spend the official opening day of trout season working around my property, content to leave our State’s rivers and streams to those anglers, who will drop a line for a few days, and then leave the water until the following year.

So, with the temperature rising into the high sixties on this Saturday afternoon during the last week of March, I decide its time to head over to Bonnie Brook. You see, New Jersey permits fishing all year around on those streams that it does not stock, and since Bonnie Brook has not seen a hatchery truck since the nineteen seventies, I’m able to engage in this little conceit.

There is a smallish blue wing olive on the water this time of year, but I’ve only encountered this hatch once or twice on Bonnie Brook. I remember one season while fishing downstream with a wet fly, I noticed a trout rising close to the bank under the branches of a wild rose that hung over the side of the stream. I let line out, using the current to drift the soft hackle in that direction, but after two tries was unable to interest the fish. Nevertheless, the trout continued to periodically rise, grabbing something from the surface film that I could not see. Checking through my fly box, I knotted a #20 Adams with a parachute wing and drifted it downstream. As the current swept the fly under the branches of the rugosa, the fish rose, and few moments later I held a ten-inch brook trout in my moistened palm.

A hatch of black stoneflies closely follows the brief appearance of this little mayfly. These early-season stoneflies crawl from the bottom of the stream in abundant numbers, providing a reliable source of food for the trout of Bonnie Brook. This afternoon one buzzes past me before landing on the naked branch of a barberry bush. Another sweeps over the surface of a pool that extends only a few feet from one side of the brook to the other.

Stoneflies have four wings that make them look like tiny helicopters when they are in the air. The one flying past was quite large, perhaps a #12 while the one drifting down with the current was noticeably smaller, maybe a #16. I’m not sure if they are the same species or two separate types of stones. No matter. I open my early-season box of flies that contains black stonefly patterns in different sizes. They are meant to imitate the adult form of these aquatic insects as they return to the stream’s surface to lay their eggs.

I knot a fairly large fly, with a dun-colored CDC wing and a body dubbed with beaver fur dyed black. It is a very simple pattern, but quite effective this time of year.

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I’m unable to raise a fish from the first pool and after a number of casts move upstream. A flash of crimson takes me by surprise as the pattern with the CDC wing floats down a crisp riffle running out of plunge pool. I’m able to dislodge the hook without raising the rainbow from the water. I estimate it to be at last eight inches, a nice size trout for this little stream.

A brook trout, an inch or so smaller than the rainbow, is the next fish to grab the fly.  It goes on like this for the next two hours. I release three rainbows, each measuring eight or nine inches and four brook trout that are smaller. In between, another nine or ten fish flash below the fly.

I end the afternoon on a perfect note. A rainbow, a bit smaller than the rest, rises from the bottom to inspect the stonefly pattern that bounces down with the current. I watch the fish float side by side with the fly. I can see it clearly—the red stripe splashed over parr markings, the black eye following the fly, and the splayed tail as the little trout turns and then descends out of s

THE BLUEBIRDS RETURN

March 24, 2019

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Each morning, I rise from our bed on the second floor of the little house where we have lived for thirty-five years and lumber across the hall into the bathroom. A window is set above the toilet. It’s the perfect height for me to look out before I rise to take a morning shower.

The window overlooks a set of bird feeders that hang from a metal stanchion. A blue spruce stands a few feet away from the feeders. The conifer is thirty-eight years old. I know because Trish and I planted it not once but three times—the first, in a field where we had hoped to build our home, a second time, when a few years later, it accompanied us to the home we purchased when she and I first married, and again, when we moved to a twelve-acre combination of fallow fields and woodlot where we settled for the past thirty-five years.

Farther back and to the other side of the feeders, three sugar maples grow tightly together. I’ve nailed cages to their trunks that we fill with suet. Beyond the spruce grow two black pines and another maple tree. The hardwoods that were a mere fifteen, perhaps twenty feet tall around the time our house was constructed, now dwarf the single conifer, and have grown twice the height of the house.

Beyond the trees is the electric fence that spans the interior four or five acres of the property. The fence keeps the deer out and our dogs in. Beyond, is a sometimes-stream that dries up in August, but during the rest of the year slips into a small pond with an earthen dam surrounded by a woodlot where I harvest trees to be cut and split to fuel our wood stove.

Staring out the window, something always catches my eye, keeps my interest for a while. This being the second week of March, a number of juncos join a few mourning doves pecking for seeds that have fallen to the frozen ground. A mixed flock of house and gold finches flit around a tube feeder while chickadees sweep down from the little spruce, take a seed, and then fly back to eat the morsel in peace. Tits and nuthatches periodically join in while across the way a rose-headed woodpecker and two downies peck away at the suet cakes.

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Some mornings a pair of pileated woodpeckers sweep down from the woodlot to dominate the suet cages. I have read that these birds mate for life, and Trish and I have been lucky enough to view these woody-woodpecker-like birds since we first arrived here.

This morning a small family of bluebirds suddenly appears. The little blue comets flutter around the wooden nesting boxes, where the previous spring, they spent the first few weeks of their lives. One or another slip inside to check out the accommodations for this year’s broods.

I know these birds will leave and not return until the earth warms and the insects that they eat are once again active. Even so, their appearance marks the beginning of spring or at least the end of winter. Soon, the phoebes will once again build their nest under the eve of Trish’s potting shed, the robins will stutter-step, with one eye pointed toward the dew-dampened grass, and I’ll be casting a bit of fur and feather, perhaps a soft-hackled wet fly, to the little brook trout of Bonnie Brook.

 

 

 

 

WINTER STORM

February 8, 2019

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Trish calls with the forecast, and I decide to return home from the office earlier than usual. Clouds press down from an ashen sky, the first flakes beginning to fall as I pull into the long dirt drive that leads to our home. Earlier in the week the temperature had dropped to minus eight degrees, unusual for the northwest corner of New Jersey.

The previous evening a red fox had sprung from our neighbor’s property across the road, streaking onto our twelve-acres of hardwood and fields. The white tip of the fox’s red tail trailed behind. Foxes mate during the winter and I assumed this was a male searching for food to bring back to the vixen who’d be busy building a den. We hadn’t seen any gray squirrels since the temperatures had dropped, but an unlucky mouse or unwary cottontail would do just fine.

Trish had filled the Kubota with diesel. We had replaced the bucket loader with the plow as winter approached, and the tractor stood ready behind the barn door. She had also filled the bird feeders, and with the below-zero temperatures, set out corn on the earthen dam behind the pond for the deer.

The dogs rush to the door to greet me. Finnegan, the younger and larger black Lab rises on his haunches to place his big paws on my shoulders while Winslow Homer wags his tail, as he waits his turn to have his chin scratched. The Jotul woodstove is cranked up high, and after changing out of my office attire, I go back outside to collect wood from the lean-to. After I stack the wood in the metal cradle beside the stove, we sit down to an early dinner of beef stew accompanied by steamy hot rolls. As darkness falls, we turn down the lights and watch the silent fall of snow.

The storm ends around ten as Trish has predicted. After changing into flannel-lined jeans and layers of fleece, we walk outside accompanied by the two dogs, who race through the five inches of light snow like two kids with the day off from school. Trish clears off our vehicles while I turn on the lights of the Kubota and begin plowing the drive. As I pass by, the dogs leap upon the banks of snow created by the plow. By eleven thirty we are all back inside.

The next morning, the sunlight is blinding as it reflects off of the snowscape around our home. The branches of the dogwoods, maples, and black birch remain coated with a mixture of snow and ice that glistens under the early morning sun.

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As I dress for another day at the office, I watch a flock of finches dominate one of two feeders Trish had filled with sunflower seeds while chickadees, titmice, and the occasional nuthatch flit back and forth from the other.

A pair of cardinals perches in the branches of a small spruce tree we’d planted a few feet from the feeders while juncos, sparrows and mourning doves work the snow-covered ground underneath.

As I knot my tie, a pileated woodpecker flies out of the woodlot and over the pond. The large black bird with the red-crested head lands on one of the trees between the pond and our house where Trish has crammed suet into metal cages. Standing at our bedroom window, I watch the pileated frighten a rose-breasted woodpecker and a smaller downy, as it works down the trunk of the tree until coming to one of the suet cakes.

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Five deer slowly walk out of the woodlot. They make their way along the far edge of the pond in single file. The pond that has been hidden under ice since the precipitous drop in temperature is now blanketed with snow.

I watch the deer spread out along the dam. Bedded down during the storm, they now feed on the corn Trish had put out for them. The family consists of a mature doe we call the Moocher because of her habit of coming to our outstretched arm for a handout, her mature daughters from two years ago, and this year’s fawn, now a yearling. The fifth deer could be the Moocher’s sister or brother or another part of her extended family. The males lose their antlers and so from the bedroom window it’s hard to tell. Over the last many years we have watched this matriarch guide her family through drought, flood, sun and storm. Although she learned to come to our bucket of corn, the other members of her family maintain their fear, which we do not discourage.

Walking down the stairs, I find Trish in the kitchen. The dogs are fed and she is pouring herself a mug of coffee. I’d prefer to spend the day with Winslow Homer and Finnegan lollygagging around the property, perhaps refilling the feeders, maybe splitting wood, most surely taking a walk through the woodlot and into the one hundred acres of undeveloped woodland beyond. Instead, I kiss Trish goodbye and trudge out to my car.

 

FORGOTTEN TROUT

October 6, 2018

My first book, Fishing with Faeries, is an account of my encounters with the wild trout of a brook that flows a few miles from our home. It is the same brook described throughout this blog. I suppose it’s not much different than many freestone waters flowing down the sides of the Appalachian Mountain Range. In most places, you can cross from one bank to the other with only a single stride, maybe two.

Bonnie Brook (No, I’m not foolish enough to use its real name.) is no more than six miles long from its source—two ponds snuggled into the southern edge of the Kittatinny foothills—to its terminus, a large river that separates an adjoining state from the northwest corner of our state. Whether spilling briefly off the side of the mountain, meandering across fields that have grown fallow, picking up speed while falling through a gorge, or in its final mile, following a serpentine course through a swamp, the little brook’s depth, with only a few exceptions, is never higher than my calf.

It is a gentle stream. Depending upon the season, a slip or spill might result in a hip boot full of icy water, but never a life-threatening drowning. There is little else to fear here. Yes, there are the ever-present ticks that hitch a ride back to our house and must be picked off after I shower, and it’s true that I once crossed paths with a timber rattler dozing in the high grass of summer and that other time when I stumbled upon a black bear. (The bear was busy eating berries and I was concentrating on the rise of a trout, neither of us aware of the other until we were only a few yards apart.) But although both incidents left a large level of cortisol coursing through my body, I managed to walk away with life and limb intact.

The upper portion of the brook contains ankle-deep riffles that connect a series of plunge pools, which slip and slide under the shade cast by hundred-foot-tall hemlocks. There are a few deeper runs, and a number of holes gorged out by the current in front of or behind one of the many lichen-covered boulders that protrude through the stream’s surface, but for the most part the rush of water in this section of stream is easily waded.

This upper stretch is inhabited almost exclusively by brook trout. The brookies are small, ranging from pinkie size to perhaps six inches. But it is not their size that sets these fish apart. These trout are as wild as any you’ll encounter in Maine or for that matter, Labrador. They are ferocious! Watch one of these Lilliputians erupt through the surface, turn their tail in the air, and drop back down with your fly in its jaw and you can’t help but marvel at their outrageousness. At ease, finning under the dappled sunlight cast by the hemlocks, they display a delicate grace. But it’s only when holding one in a dampened palm that you can truly appreciate their beauty.

As the stream descends from conifers to hardwood, it straightens and narrows while dropping through a series of steps. Each contains a pool no larger than the average kitchen sink. By now, rainbows have joined the brook trout. On the whole these fish are larger, their average length six inches, with enough eight, nine, and even ten-inch trout to keep an angler guessing. While a brook trout will dive deep with a determination three times its size, rainbows will engage in aerial acrobatics that the Flying Wallendas would envy. If this doesn’t work, these scarlet-slashed warriors will zig and zag in mad dashes that can exhaust both fish and fisher.

Sweeping down out of the hardwoods, the stream now meanders at a slower pace, gliding out of the forest and into fields that have grown fallow over the years. It’s as if the current has slowed down to smell the roses, in this case, wild rugosas joined by sweet-smelling honeysuckle and barberries that grace the banks and combine to provide the brook with a sweet perfume from late May through the entire month of June. Wild grape, Virginia creeper, and poison ivy vines add to the perplexity that forms an impenetrable barrier along the sides of the stream broken here and there by a deer trail. The branches of maples, pin oaks and choke cherries offer shade to the fish, some of whom take shelter between the submerged roots of these trees while others hide in plain sight. Vermicular markings across their green backs are perfect camouflage viewed against the cobbled stream bottom.

Throughout this middle stretch, brook trout continue to enjoy the shallow riffles that bounce over rocks too small to be classified as boulders while rainbows dominate the deeper bend pools and those runs sweeping around fallen trees, where there is always the possibility of a thick-shouldered fish erupting from the depths to engulf your fly. A ten-inch trout may not sound like a challenge, but consider the tip of your bamboo rod bouncing up and down as the rainbow whirls around a pool no more than a few feet wide. Add a few tree roots, a rat’s nest of broken branches and other debris eager to free steel from jaw, and the encounter matches any I’ve had with larger fish on wider rivers.

After a while the brook sweeps over the remains of a concrete dam. I’ve never caught a brown trout above these broken blocks of concrete. Moody cousins of the naive brookies and rambunctious rainbows, the stream’s browns can only be found in the pools and runs below the dilapidated structure. As suspicious as any fish you’ll find, the brown trout of Bonnie Brook require extreme stealth, a well-placed fly and a drag-free drift to make their acquaintance.

A few of the adjoining fields have been planted with corn to encourage pheasant, turkey, and deer to browse. This is the State’s way of helping hunters. After a mile or so, the fields turn to forest. Hemlocks once again predominate as the brook swings down into a steep ravine. The current picks up speed, alternating between fast-flowing runs and deeper pools wherever debris collects around the trunk of a fallen hemlock. Mountain laurel and wild rhododendron flourish under the trees’ canopy.

At one point, the brook drops some fifty feet. The pool at the bottom of this impressive fall of water is the widest and deepest of the entire stream. From its waters, I’ve taken fish exceeding twelve inches. Once, during an evening in the latter part of May, as darkness fell over its surface, I released a brown trout that measured twenty inches against my rod.

Flowing out of the ravine, the brook enters swamp-like terrain bending in on itself as it twists and turns for the next mile or so before entering the big river. I imagine that if I could stare down from the treetops, its current, now dark and slow moving, would resemble one of those ten-foot black snakes I’ve seen napping on the hot pavement during high summer.

While tramping the banks of this little stream for more than thirty-five years, I’ve learned its idiosyncrasies and am on a first name basis with many of its fish. Even so, I’ve rarely entered this lowest stretch of water.

Like Nick Adams in Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River, I’ve often wondered if fishing there would be a “tragic adventure,” and although, after all these years, time may be running short, like Nick, I tell myself that there will be plenty of days coming when I can fish the swamp.

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BRIGHT WATERS

August 5, 2018

Well, hello. Yes, I know it’s been a long time, but sometimes life gets in the way of our best intentions. You see, I’ve been working on a book of short stories as well as a new novel while continuing to write columns for Skylands Magazine, and more recently for the Northwoods Sporting Journal. Then there are the articles for Maine Homes, Boats and Harbors magazine, a high-gloss, coffee table periodical and the popular online magazine, MidCurrent, all of which keep me fairly busy. Okay, enough with the excuses. On with the Blog!

 

The little brook that flows a few miles from our home is a freestone stream, which means it depends on rainfall to sustain its population of wild trout. Like the children’s story about Goldilocks and the three bears, not too much rain so that banks erode and not too little so that pools dry up, but just enough allows the current to slip over the russet-and-tan cobble that forms the brook’s bottom.

For years, I’d fish Bonnie Brook throughout the summer. Sure, there were days when it was too hot to stir from under the eave of our back porch, but the weather always moderated and you could be sure of a rain storm every week or so. Not some monsoon-like deluge, but a gentle summer rain that refreshed the spirit of both man and fish. That has seemed to change over the last ten years or so as extreme fluctuations between drought and flood have become the norm. It’s a wonder that the wild trout of Bonnie Brook have been able to survive. (Whether its called Global Warming or Extreme Weather, ask any fly fisherman from Washington State to Maine and they will tell you that recent weather patterns are having an adverse effect on their favorite stream.)

So when the extraordinary heat of June continued into July, I slipped my fly rod in its tube and set the tube in the corner by the door while working on that collection of short stories. Eventually, I broke down and phoned a friend looking for permission from a local farmer she knew to cast my flies over his pond. The two-acre impoundment is chock full of bluegills, pumpkin seeds and other sunfish with iridescent colors more reminiscent of fish finning over a coral reef in the Bahamas than those in murky water of a pond periodically visited by a small herd of Holsteins. These fish are pushovers for any fly twitched under the surface. If lucky, I might even locate one of the schools of spunky smallmouth bass that call the pond home.

When my friend called to give me the green light. “Just stop at the back door and tell him Celia says hello,” I pulled out my six-weight bass rod from the closet, intent on making the short drive to the farmer’s field. But all that changed when the rain began to fall and did not stop until a total of no less than four-and-a-half blessed inches fell across the northwest corner of our state. Not at once in some gully-washer storm, but on and off over a period of five or six days so that by Saturday morning when the clouds cleared, I slipped my six-weight back into the closet and grabbed the rod tube from the corner by the door.

Twenty minutes later, while slipping my cane rod from its sleeve, I could hear the reassuring sound of the little brook’s current. At first, I was surprised at the verdancy that had grown up along the stream’s banks. Thorny branches of wild rose clung to my shirt and pricked my arms while reaching out to grab my fly on every roll cast. Barberries that were calf-high in June now rose to my waist. Vines of wild grape and Virginia creeper entwined blackberry and raspberry canes to create an impenetrable barrier on either side of the stream so that once in the water, I waded through a virtual tunnel of vegetation.

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And there they were, as if waiting for my return—the trout of Bonnie Brook. In every riffle and run, luxuriating in the cool current, as giddy as kids splashing in a town pool, brook trout, no longer than a finger, leaped through the surface to grab my fly. In the deeper pools, rainbows, some as long as ten inches, daintily sipped the pheasant tail with its parachute wing only to summersault into the air before careening from one side of the stream to the other.

bright waters

When I returned home, I took down Where The Bright Waters Meet from the shelf. Written by Harry Plunket Greene, it is one of my favorite books and has remained a strong influence on my own attempts to convey a sense of place. The book takes its title from the first lines of a poem written by the Irish poet, Tom Moore, lines that can easily be applicable to Bonnie Brook:

“There is not in this wide world a valley so sweet                                                              As that vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet.”

Writing during the first few years of the twentieth century, Plunket Greene spends the better part of his book describing the Bourne, “a lovely little river in Hampshire, England.” More than ninety years later, Nick Lyons begins his Introduction to my Easton Press Edition by stating that Where The Bright Waters Meet “…is surely one of the happiest—and saddest—fly-fishing books ever written.” For you see, by the book’s last chapter Greene laments that in a span of no more than twenty-five years his silver trout were no more.

“So they were born, and grew up and bred in the open, wild fish every one of them, and models to the Itchen or the Kennet or the Windrush or any other river in the British Isles. It was man that spoiled them.”

I suppose it’s a minor miracle that the fish of my “little river” have survived for all these years. One reason is its width that can be jumped across in two strides, so small that anglers driving over its single bridge virtually ignore the narrow ribbon of water on their way to a larger, well-known trout river only a few miles to the north. Spared any significant fishing pressure, the stream’s trout have been left on their own since the mid seventies when the State discontinued stocking its modest current with dull-witted, hatchery-bred fish. Because of its location inside a federal park, the brook has until now remained immune from development. All of these factors have contributed to the stream’s ability to sustain a population of healthy trout as wild as any I’ve encountered.

And yet, in recent years, severe flooding has resulted in significant siltation as clay and mud slide into the streambed from the surrounding hills. Trees and bushes have been ripped away leaving some banks bare, the shade that once cooled the water and provided fish with protection from osprey, heron, and otter, now gone. Narrow sections of stream allowed for deeper pockets where trout could hold, but as floodwaters gouged out the banks, the stream widened, resulting in shallow stretches devoid of fish. Add to this, the Asian woolly adelgid that over time will destroy the hemlocks through which the stream’s headwaters flow. Already, there are places where I must navigate through a fallen maze of these once magnificent trees that now lie bent and broken across the forest floor. I cannot, but be saddened, stumbling through these silent graveyards. A local forester recently explained that these invasive insects can destroy a healthy hundred-foot tree in less than ten years.

So I return season after season, with a growing sense of trepidation and the realization that against the odds I’ve been blessed to cast my flies for more than thirty-five years, where at least for today, the bright waters continue to meet.

 

OLD FRIENDS

March 11, 2018

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The snow started during the early hours of Friday morning. The power went out mid morning and did not return for another two days. The wind picked up by mid afternoon and did not let up for another two days.

When it was all over the early March storm dumped ten inches of wet snow that still clings to the naked branches of those hardwood trees that survived the winds. Those of spruce and pine sag under the weight while bushes, such as forsythia, spirea, and the climbing hydrangea bow in supplication.

But it is those trees that succumbed to the elements that break our hearts. These old friends that began as seedlings before we were born, that matured before we began our stewardship of the twelve acres surrounding our home, trees that graced our lives with their presence, watched our daughter grow and eventually leave to begin her own family, trees, some of which had grown to one hundred feet or more lay like so many “pick-up-sticks” in every direction.

A sound, much like that from a shotgun blast, accompanied the cracking of each limb as it was brought crashing down by the wet snow. Neither hardwood nor conifer were immune from the power of the wind that blew so fiercely with gusts of up to sixty miles an hour splitting the trunks of many of the trees. The earth, already saturated from repeated rainfall, failed to hold others.

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Behind our pond, a once majestic white oak collapsed against a shagbark hickory, the two larger trees taking with them a number of smaller ones, the ground around them now a hopeless tangle of bark and branches. A red cedar, one of three whose dusty blue berries are favored by cedar waxwings, was one of the first to fall. Another is leaning against one of our sheds. Although the trees’ trunks are intact, their roots stare toward the sky. Across the yard, the top of another cedar fell across a dogwood tree breaking off a limb of the smaller tree. Another oak, a neighbor’s tree straddles our property line. The oak’s trunk is too wide to be cut with the sixteen-inch bar of my chainsaw.

It will take time to clear away the debris. The wood will not go to waste. We will use the cedar for posts. Over time, the oak, poplar and hickory will be cut, split and stacked—fuel for the woodstove. The spruce and pine will be fashioned into rough benches placed beside the saplings Trish and I will plant to shade and shelter those who will follow when we are gone.