FIRST DAY OF THE NEW SEASON

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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.

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