GOLDEN AFTERNOON

On this afternoon during the third week of October, the hardwoods along the banks of Bonnie Brook create a golden canopy over the little stream.  Each time the breeze sweeps down off the surrounding hills, I hear the tick, tick, tick of leaves that flutter down through the branches of the trees, many gliding along with the meager current. 

It rained briefly last night. Enough to fill the air with the pungent smell of wet leaves, damp bark, and summer’s decaying vegetation as I hike along a deer path that follows the contours of the little brook. Batches of purple asters provide a bit of color among the tawny blades of tall grass that flank the forest trail. The sun slips in and out from behind a fleet of fast-moving clouds. The temperature, somewhere in the mid-sixties, is quite pleasant. I disturb a flock of robins exploring the far bank for worms. I hear their calls as they sweep up into the branches of the trees. 

After a while, I come to a stone bridge that marks the lower stretch of water where I intend to fish. Tying a #16 ant pattern to my 6x tippet, I try a few upstream casts. The fly rides upon the current, each time passing where I’m crouched, floating under the bridge. I’ve taken a number of spunky rainbow trout this way, but on this day, the fish ignore my offering, preferring to play a game of hide-and-seek rather than one of tag.

A few yards above the bridge a tiny rill enters the brook. Before doing so, it forms a pool, a bit deeper than the stream’s riffles. This is the reason why I’ve hiked this far downstream. No more than three feet across and perhaps four feet long, its inhabitants are protected by brambles on either bank and the low-hanging limb of a swamp maple that extends half way across the rivulet. Using a side-arm cast I’m able to avoid the maple, but the fly is nearly caught by the thorny branches of a wild rose. A flip of my wrist rescues the ant, but it glides too close to the bank to interest any fish. My second cast places the terrestrial at the head of the little run where it enters the meat of the pool. A moment later I’m into my first fish, a wild rainbow trout that erupts through the surface, zigging and zagging within the confines of the little run. The nine-inches of zany energy seeks shelter in a confusion of submerged twigs and leaves, forcing me to lower my arm up to the elbow to rescue my leader that no longer throbs with life.

Wringing out my sleeve, I work on the ant. After cleaning off the debris, I pull a chamois cloth from my shirt pocket and dry its hackled body before moving on. The water is at its seasonal low, the riffles for the next few hundred yards no deeper than my ankles. On occasion, a shadow darts silently through the skinny water as I work my way farther upstream. 

Below a little plunge pool formed between two large rocks, a brook trout no larger than a finger rises to the ant pattern. On a long narrow run that slinks around a brace of boulders like a black snake, I once again prove that Brother Cotton’s advice to cast far and fine is easier said than performed with any sense of accuracy. 

For the next hour and a half, I wade up the middle of the stream while casting to my right and left. Now and again, the ant lands upon the bank, and with a flip of my wrist, falls into the stream. Each time I twitch the tip of flaming cane held in my right hand, the fly appears to struggle as it floats upon the current. In this way, I mange two more fingerlings and a larger rainbow that does its best to put on a show before coming to my hand.

Seated on a comfortable boulder, I take in my surroundings. A family of titmice that has flown into a nearby tulip tree are exchanging gossip. When a crow calls from somewhere farther back in the woodlot, the little birds fly off. A dragonfly, one of the last of the season, sweeps past. It does not see the tiny dun-colored mayfly that flutters upon the stream’s surface. 

A rustling among the fallen leaves draws my attention toward the far bank where a mink weaves through the exposed roots of a swamp maple. It’s dark fur glistens in the late afternoon sunshine. I remain still as the little predator raises its head in my direction. Staring across the stream though intelligent eyes, the mink’s whiskers twitch with excitement, but when I lean slightly forward it vanishes more like an apparition than an animal of the forest.

Twenty minutes later, I come upon a familiar pool. It begins with the current forming a deep slot as it slides along the far bank for perhaps three feet before washing against the front of a boulder. Over time, the current has cut through the cobble in front of the boulder, forming a deep trench. From there, it slips around the outer edge of the boulder, forming a shallow pool. 

I approach carefully, crossing from one side of the stream to the other well below the pool. Creeping through brambles along the far bank, I move into position across from the boulder. Crouching low, I wait, hoping to catch a sign, perhaps a rise or subsurface flash to tell me where a fish might be feeding, but after a number of interminable moments, neither rise, nor movement reveals the presence of a trout. 

In the past, when fishing downstream, I’ve had fair success drifting a wet fly or weighted nymph along the far bank or into the trench in front of the boulder. In this way, I’ve managed to take a ten-inch rainbow earlier in the season, and a few years back, a twelve-inch brown. Fish have never been willing to rise from either location to take a dry fly. I know from experience, the trout behind the boulder might do so, but they tend to remain at the very back of the pool, where on an afternoon like this one, they’d take the opportunity to carefully examine the ant pattern, more than likely retreating under the boulder should they spy my leader or the slightest bit of drag. With the stream as low as it is, any fish lurking in that shallow water will have already felt my presence, and if not, will surely flee before my fly hits the water.  

But there is a chance that a trout might be feeding in the current along the edge of rock where it’s a bit deeper, and after a single backcast, I hold my breath as the fly flips off the boulder’s shoulder. 

Seated here at the computer, I’m able to replay in slow motion what happens next—the maw rising to inspect the fly that swirls in the current, the worm-like markings surrounding the dorsal fin, the flash of white as the mouth opens wide. After that, the film speeds to a blur, ending with the release of a brown trout as golden as the afternoon when I was fortunate to make its acquaintance. 

10 Responses to “GOLDEN AFTERNOON”

  1. Cliff Parmer Says:

    I love this essay, thanks for putting it out on a lovely Fall afternoon, at least where I am. To me, a small stream is a joy to be on, I think it reminds me of playing in the creek as a boy. I was immediately drawn into the story and I think enjoyed every sound, smell and delight. Thanks again for a marvelous essay.

  2. patiocpl Says:

    Fabulous!

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Dennis Kujawski Says:

    Love it!
    Thank you.
    Dennis

  4. Melissa Hoffmann Says:

    Great story! Made me wish I was back in the woods of the North Country…

    • forgottentrout Says:

      Melissa, you don’t have to be in the North Country to appreciate the out-of-doors. There are woods outside your back door. Hope you and your family are doing well during these troubling times.

  5. bruceedwardlitton Says:

    Enjoyed the story and the photographs. Thanks!

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