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THIS MAGIC MOMENT

January 29, 2021

The temperature refuses to rise above the mid-thirties. I’m wearing my flannel jeans and an Elmer-Fudd, forest-green hunting hat with fleece-flaps covering my ears. Each time the clouds shift over the sun, the sky squeezes out a flurry of snow.

The six-foot lengths of black birch are too heavy to move and I’ve decided to cut and split them in place rather than haul the sections to the lean-to where we store our wood. I choose a chunk of the tree’s lower trunk as a chopping block. 

My chainsaw, at times obstinate, thunders to life after only the fifth or sixth pull of its cord. Forty-five minutes later the sweet scent of wintergreen mingles with that of the dust from the saw. Twelve-inch billets litter the hardened soil between the remaining lengths of wood. 

Black birch is called sweet birch by some. Others, similar to those Brothers of the Angle who insist on identifying mayflies by their Latin names, prefer Betula lenta. Small birds eat its seeds while twigs and catkins provide nourishment for rabbits, squirrels, and deer. Native Americans used the tree’s leaves and bark for a variety of ailments. Besides using its wood for furniture, past generations tapped the tree’s sap to brew birch beer. 

This particular birch had grown to a height of at least sixty feet. Over the years, it leaned over an electric fence we installed to keep deer from devouring the azaleas, rhododendrons, and other bushes and plants inside four of the twelve acres surrounding our home. It also keeps our two black Labs out of trouble. Recently, a pileated woodpecker began drilling holes in the tree’s base, sealing its fate. 

Putting aside the chainsaw, I set a radio on the tailgate of the truck and grab my maul. Trish bought me the radio a number of years ago. Although built for outdoor use, it’s engineers never anticipated the beating it would take while accompanying me into the woodlot adjacent to our home. More than once, an errant blow from a maul has sent a chunk of wood into its side. It has more dings than a traveling salesman’s suitcase and more stains than an auto mechanic’s work shirt. One year, a colony of ants found their way inside its plastic housing. The radio’s antenna is presently held together by duct tape. But like me, it abides. 

When I was younger, I swung an eight-pound maul. These days, I rely on a maul with a four-pound head. The diameter of each log is eighteen inches or more, and my lower back protests each time I bend forward to carry one to the chopping block.

I flip up the fleece ear flaps and hang my canvas jacket on the nub of a nearby spruce. A sweatshirt keeps me warm now that I’ve been working over the wood for more than an hour. Imprinted on the back are the words: Sterling College, Woodbury Commons, Vermont. I purchased the hooded garment from the college’s bookstore while attending a one-week course on outdoor writing. Its dark green fabric has faded over the years, its cuffs frayed. Unsure as to when they appeared, there are a number of small holes peppered across the front. The heavy cotton material is stained with oil and gas, but I fear it will disintegrate if washed.

The opening bars of a tune draw me away from the cordwood. After leaning the maul against the side of the truck, I turn up the radio.

“The Mississippi Delta

Was shining like a national guitar…”

Raising a tin cup to my lips, I savor a mouthful of syrupy, nearly frozen, Coca-Cola as sweet as the image conveyed by Paul Simon’s unmistakable voice.

Seated on the tailgate, my legs swing with the rhythm of the music.

“I’m going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee.” 

A flock of juncos rises from the feeders around our house. They sweep over the tops of the trees as a beam of sunlight breaks through the clouds, and in that moment, all of the illness, isolation, and strife of the last year fall away. Tears fill my eyes. 

“Going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee.” 

From the step outside our door, the dogs see me moving from side to side. As they race up the dirt drive, I slip off the tailgate, my feet hip-hopping toward the gate of the electric fence. I hold Finnegan’s front paws, the two of us dancing between the gate and the truck. Winslow Homer barks excitedly, waiting his turn. Tears are now streaming down my cheeks.

“Whoa, oh, oh 

Graceland, Graceland, Graceland

I’m going to Graceland.” 

A small family of deer stares from between a stand of beech. A breeze rustles the trees’ tan leaves that are withered, but still cling to the branches. As disapproving as any schoolmarm, the family’s matriarch, a well-groomed, good-looking doe, stamps a hoof while staring in our direction. A second doe, a bit smaller, probably her sister, stares in our direction. Behind the two adults linger three fawns born this spring. The smallest of the trio suddenly jumps straight up in the air. She kicks her back legs outward and then races in one direction only to veer off in another. The Matriarch turns her head in the direction of the little buckin’ bronco. The dogs look up at me, not sure what to do. Wondering if the little deer has diamonds on the soles of her shoes, I let out a laugh. The dogs wag their tails. The deer continue to stare.

As the final bars of the song lower to a whisper, I wipe the tears from my eyes. Like shadows under a full moon, the deer slip farther back into the woodlot. After ushering the dogs behind the gate, I return to the chopping block. 

CASTING FOR RECOVERY ANNUAL AUCTION

November 15, 2020

Want to contribute to a good cause and spend an afternoon fishing with yours truly on a western-Maine trout stream and obtain an autographed copy of my latest novel: THE RIVER KING?

For details on this offer, as well as many others that you may find interesting, check out: https://www.biddingforgood.com/auction/item/item.action?id=342270621

GOLDEN AFTERNOON

November 11, 2020

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. 

A NOD TO VINCE

July 26, 2020

There was grass to mow and weeds to pick, tools to be polished and a shed that needed to be cleaned. Then there was a tractor with that flat tire and the moss growing on the siding along the north wall of our house—chores that kept me close to home last Saturday. The temperature had slowly risen into the eighties. The air had become saturated with a high level of water vapor. Later in the afternoon, I sat on our back porch. With a book in my lap, I was happily sailing toward the Land of Nod when my voyage was cut short by the repeated trills of a house wren that persisted in announcing his presence to any females in the vicinity.

Seeing as sleep was not an option so long as the little Romeo continued his amorous search for a willing Juliet, I decided to drive over to Bonnie Brook to see what I could see. As expected, summer grass rose to my shoulders while the water was as skinny as a fashion model’s jeans.

The stretch I chose to wade was no more than six feet across. A tangle of barberry, bramble, and wild rose grew tightly on either bank. Overhead, the branches of the occasional swamp maple and white oak cast their shadows upon the meager current. It hadn’t rained for nearly two weeks. With riffles only inches deep and runs that held no more than a foot or so of water, my back porch was looking better and better.

I’d recently purchased a Royal Wulff line with a triangle taper that has always worked well with the little cane rod I’d purchased from Art Weiler back when he was still teaching high school. I hoped it would increase my ability to delicately cast a dry fly with the accuracy necessary to heighten my chances of winning a game of tag with the wild fish of this tiny brook in such low, clear water.

There are few sustained hatches on this wild trout stream, and for the first part of the season I was content to cast a pheasant-tail dry fly with a parachute wing, varying the size depending upon the fancy of the fish on any given day.

Listening to a catbird mew from inside a tangle of thorny branches, I stared down at the metal pillbox, with the words SUMMER SELECTION scrawled across the side. After a while, I plucked an ant from the modest array of terrestrial flies hooked into the foam ridges glued to the bottom of the little tin.

Fishing with terrestrials always brings to my mind Vincent Marinaro. I first read his now classic book, A Modern Dry Fly Code, while at college. Although much of what he wrote is now standard practice, back then he’d broken new ground. Many of the pages of my copy are dog-eared, with numerous passages underlined in pencil and the occasional exclamation point reflecting an Aha moment. To this day, I enjoy casting a Jassid pattern at least once each summer, but the Ant is my go-to fly this time of year.

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My ant pattern consists of a bit of brown hackle between two humps of black dubbing without a parachute wing and lacking a post of any kind. It can be fished dry, but can also be effective drifting freely under the surface, but without a parachute wing and post of any kind it’s awfully hard to track.

Sure enough, after casting upstream, I had trouble following the fly’s progress as it floated back over the sun-dappled riffles. When a fin flashed under the surface, the lithe cane bent forward. A moment later the fish threw the hook before I could react.

A few casts later, I again lost sight of the fly, but this time it was the white of a brook trout’s mouth that gave it away. The brightly-speckled fish fit nicely in the palm of my damp hand before slipping back into the stream.

Neither trout had broken the surface, and I assumed the fly had sunk, slipping under the current where the fish felt secure in taking it.

Around a slight bend in the stream, the current fell over a jumble of roots, flattening out for a few feet into a run a bit deeper than the riffles below it. Like a Haiku written by Basho that moment when a nine-inch rainbow trout rose to take the fly will remain with me for some time.

A set of gentle riffles slipped gently down the next hundred yards or so. Here and there were patches of darker water. It was from within these pockets, a few inches deeper than the those around them, that trout, mostly finger-sized, swung up from the cobble-studded streambed to strike at the black ant. For the next thirty minutes or so, I missed two or three for every one released. It was as if the ant had some magical quality, luring the fish from their secret places.

Farther upstream, the current fell against a fallen limb that stretched over one side of the brook. Flipping the line over my right shoulder, I met resistance that prevented a forward cast. Turning, I discovered the wild rose that had grasped my fly. After a few choice words, and a number of minutes untangling my leader, I tried again. This time, I overshot the target, the ant tumbling through the streamside verdancy. To my surprise, the little fly bounced off a branch, onto a bush, and then a boulder before sliding down into the current that carried it along the edge of the limb where I once again lost sight of it.

The pull of good trout made setting the hook unnecessary. The fish fled under the limb taking my six-x tippet with it. With effort, I raised the heavy branch with one hand while urging the trout back into the current where it performed a pirouette worthy of Balanchine. A few moments later, I detached the hook from the jaw of a ten-inch trout with a crimson sash down its side. By then, all that was left of the ant pattern was a bit of dubbing trailing off the back of the hook.

They say Marinaro was a bit of a curmudgeon. At the very least, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. Reading this story, he might certainly have grumbled, “What’s all the fuss about?”

After all, although stream bred, the trout of Bonnie Brook do not have the cornucopia of aquatic insects that the brown trout of his Letort enjoyed and I’m sure he might have observed that the trout of my little brook are neither as selective nor as large as those he’d encountered. But maybe, just maybe, he might have grunted his approval. At least, I’d like to think so.

V_Marinaro

 

SETTLING INTO SUMMER

July 3, 2020

I’m hiking down a path, one that winds along the edge of a field choked with brambles and wild cherry trees. Beside the trail, birds gossip about the salacious behavior of caterpillars that writhe within their gauze-like chambers. My attention turns to the complaints of a red squirrel, the little rodent scolding me from atop a rock wall. As I move on, the thorns of an unruly rugosa pull impatiently at my shirtsleeve.

Slipping under a canopy of hemlock and hardwood, I walk through deepening shadows. Climbing higher, I follow the ridge trail, its rock and lichen sides hidden by mountain laurel. The laurel’s white blossoms are in full bloom on this June afternoon. Wild rhododendrons sprawl down the side of the ravine. Their flowers are biding their time, waiting for July to open. As the sun slips below the western rim of the hills that encircle Bonnie Brook, the heat of the day recedes, but not the humidity. By the time I descend into the coolness of the glen, perspiration has soaked through the back of my shirt.

The trout season begins under gray skies and hard rain, then progresses through a month of pleasant temperatures when the fish are easy to find and the sweet scent of barberries, honeysuckle, and wild rose hangs above the banks of the little stream. The waters of this inconspicuous rill flow high and fast through April and May, but begin to slow as June approaches. By Father’s Day, the raucous laughter of early spring slows to a chuckle.

The creatures of the forest go about their secret lives, unconcerned by the sound of my footfall across the earthen trail. My pace quickens as I draw closer to the current. Below, a vole, (or is it a shrew?), scampers past my boot.

The calls of black-and-white warblers sound like squeaky wheels in the tops of the trees. A yellowthroat flits through the streamside brush. The bird’s notes — witchety, witchety, witchety — seem to tumble down with the current. A redstart snatches an insect out of the heavy air as it darts from one bank to the other. Watching the blur of black and orange feathers, I nearly step on a garter snake. Like a yellow ribbon abandoned upon the path, the snake’s body lies in long curls, soaking up the warmth as another sun-streaked afternoon slips into shadow.

The path widens, more or less level as it follows the course of the brook. Around a bend, I startle a Great Blue Heron. As the gangly bird takes flight, its legs remind me of some knobby-kneed septuagenarian.

The water is cool against my hip boots when I wade across the stream. On the far bank I step around boulders, over roots, and the occasional fallen limb. Careful to carry my little cane rod with the tip facing backward, I stop to catch my breath.

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A few minutes later, I arrive at the pool. It is the largest on this little brook that I’ve come to know over the years. While I sit on a moss-covered log, a dragonfly interrupts its search-and-destroy mission to hover inches from my face. Drawing a neckerchief from the back pocket of my jeans, I dip the thin blue cloth into the pool. The cool damp spreads down my neck and moistens my shirt.

Still seated, I scan the pool’s surface for signs of trout. While doing so, my concern for this sylvan Avalon rises like a fish to a fly. Over the years, I’ve found that heat and humidity descend sooner, drought and hurricane becoming more frequent. These extreme weather events hang like a shroud over this woodland stream, with the difference of only a degree or two sounding the death knell for the wild trout living here. I agree with Joni Mitchell when she sings that “we are stardust, one-billion-year-old carbon,” but although our bits may be eternal, their unique combinations are not. Whether guided by the Almighty or nature’s elegant plan, the stardust that has created each moth, mayfly and mosquito; squirrel, snake and spider; bird, bush and brook trout; and yes, even man, comes together for too short a time, making all life on this planet that much more precious.

A caddis crawling along my sleeve catches my attention. Looking closer, I notice others fluttering in the air. A few skitter along the stream’s surface. I pull a pill box from my breast pocket and choose a pattern from the half dozen or so collected in the metal tin—one similar in size, shape, and color to the little bug that flutters above my head like a tiny tan helicopter.

White-throated sparrows that had earlier called for Mr. Peabody have grown quiet now that the light has waned, leaving only the occasional pip, pip, pip of a wood thrush as it scratches among the fallen leaves.

For the next hour or so I cast my fly, now and again feeling the pull of a good fish. As darkness falls, I cast one last time. Twitching the fly when it slips onto the far edge of the pool, I provoke a strike, water spraying outward when a trout, larger than the rest, slashes at the surface. The little cane rod momentarily bends under the strain of the fish, but when I pull back to set the hook, the knot fails, the line springing backward, lying at my feet in an impossibility of tangles.

Climbing back up the trail, I look down upon the pool that shimmers in the moonlight. A field mouse scampers over my boot. The rodent disappears in the leaf litter beside the path. In the distance an owl hoots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FIRST FISH OF THE SEASON

March 28, 2020

Like so many others these days, I awake each morning plagued by a feeling of dread. Over the last few weeks, the weather here in the northwest corner of our state has matched the mood of the country. The temperature has vacillated between the mid thirties and high forties. On occasion, it had slipped into the low fifties, but only when accompanied by a cold rain.

This morning, our dogs follow me onto the back porch of our home. As I take a first sip from my mug of tea, that uneasy feeling slowly dissipates. Finnegan, the younger of our two black Labs, leaps down the steps. He chases Winslow Homer, who is three years his senior, down to the gate that leads to a small pond tucked into the woodlot that is part of the twelve acres where we live. I tell myself I should adopt the youthful dog’s philosophy—Why walk when you can run?

Daffs

The sky above us is as soft as a baby’s blue blanket. Sprinkled here and there, daffodils join with forsythia, doing there best to bring a bit of relief to the otherwise drab landscape. Under the leafless branches of maples and oaks, the little periwinkle flowers of creeping myrtle join in the conspiracy.

In the corner of our house, by the side door, is an aluminum tube that holds the fly rod I recently purchased from Jim Becker, the bamboo rod maker from the State of Maine. He constructed the seven-feet, nine-inch- long elegant cane for use on larger water than that found in Bonnie Brook, but on this first warm day of spring, I can’t help but call upon it to keep me company on the little stream.

Rod Case

Worry returns on the short drive from our home—worry over my health and the health of my family, worry over whether my business will survive, worry over the state of our fragmented and leaderless country.

After buckling my hip waders to the loops on my jeans, I slip the rod from its tube. Last season’s leaves crunch under my boots as I tramp through an abandoned apple orchard. Pecking for worms in the damp earth, a pair of robins raises their heads in my direction while a phoebe calls from the side of the wooden bridge that spans the stream.

As I approach the brook, the sound of the current is strong from recent rain. The brambles along either bank remain bare except for the barberry bushes that are beginning to leaf out. Coltsfoot flowering between the stones of a shoal provides a flash of color.

I sit on the trunk of a fallen tree. The sun is strong enough to warm the back of my neck, and I decide to roll up the sleeves of my flannel shirt. A black stonefly, its wings all a flutter, drops onto a dark slick of water along the opposite bank. The insect is immediately lost when a trout rises to engulf it.

Anticipating the appearance of these aquatic insects, I carry with me a single box of flies. Although unable to convince a fish to rise in a run beyond the fallen tree, my first cast below a tiny plunge pool brings a five-inch brook trout to the surface.

The first fish of each new season is always special, and taking a knee, I hold the little trout in my damp palm for a moment longer than usual.

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Over the next two hours, nine fish rise to my fly—six brook trout and three rainbows. None are longer than seven inches, each more beautiful as any I’ve seen or at least that is how I feel after being away from the stream for nearly four months.

Walking back to my truck, I realize that for at least a short time my only concern was avoiding the prickly thorns of wild roses and the low-hanging branches of hardwood trees.

 

March 28, 2020

 

 

 

 

SOCIAL DISTANCING

March 14, 2020

I’m a loner. Always have been. I’ve never been a joiner. As a kid, I suffered through Little League, plagued by anxiety over what my teammates might think if I struck out (which I did routinely) or dropped the ball (which I did more often than not.) As an adult, I spent an evening at a meeting of a well-known national association never to return. I pay dues to my local chapter of Trout Unlimited, but must admit I rarely attend meetings.

I suppose that is why I write, for writing demands time alone.

That also may be why fishing with flies came so naturally to me. It is an endeavor I can engage in with only red squirrels, chipmunks, and the occasional kingfisher or blue heron as onlooker.

I’m at ease with both activities.

While in college, I naturally gravitated toward Thoreau and good old, Billy Blake, the godfather of the British Romantic movement, Good old, Bobby Blake. Like most students of American literature, I came to admire Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But between McGuane and Harrison, Kerouac and Ginsberg, I read the stories of Judge John Voelker aka Robert Traver, and soon discovered his: Testament to a Fisherman. Although every line is a treasure, one stood out to me:

“Because, in a world where most men seem to spend their lives doing things they hate, my fishing is at once an endless source of delight and an act of small rebellion.”

In 1990, a line from an essay in Gary Snyder’s book, The Practice of the Wild, also struck meThe world-renown poet and naturalist wrote:

“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.”

For most of my life, I’ve tried to nod to the plants, animals, birds, and fish, mostly brook trout, perhaps because brook trout prefer those streams the farthest from town and city.

I was able to find a wife, who shares my propensity to spend time away from others. Although Trish does not share my piscatorial passion, she often accompanies me into the forest. While her husband wades upstream and down, she collects bones, skulls, and other detritus found along the shoreline or woodland floor.

Many of my non-angling friends have never experienced the quietude found along a forest path, the anticipation upon hearing the sound of a mountain brook’s current at the end of the trail, or the smell of balsam drifting from the shoreline as early-morning fog rolls across its surface.

All this brings me to Social Distancing, a technique the world is using to reduce the effects of the Coronavirus. While others complain about the disruption that this is causing to their day-to-day lives, Trish and I are simply going about our usual routine—packing a lunch, herding our dogs into the back of the truck and heading for Bonnie Brook.

CHANGE OF SEASON

December 9, 2019

As the days shorten and the temperatures drop, I vacillate between the trout stream and woodpile. Catbirds no longer chatter from the tangles of streamside brambles. Redstarts have ceased to sing from the branches of hardwood trees. The birds of field and forest that accompanied me along the banks of Bonnie Brook will not return until next spring.

For the next week or so, the stream’s wild trout will continue to look toward the surface for their food. A wet fly with a soft-hackled collar twitched at the right time or a big, bushy fly, perhaps a Hornberg or Stimulator, bounced off a far bank may trigger a surprising response.

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Back home, the pair of phoebes that raise their broods under the eave of Trish’s potting shed and the little wrens that make their nest in an old watering can that hangs from the wall of our porch have also gone.

The last flocks of robins have fattened up on the dusty blue berries of our cedar trees. As they have done for many years, waves of blackbirds recently darkened the sky. The black horde descended upon our dogwood trees, only leaving after they devoured nearly every blood-red berry.

Between our barn and house is a mountain of stove wood that I raised last season. Across from this pile of billets is a row of logs that will supply heat for next winter. They can’t be split until I stack the mountain in neat rows under the eave of a nearby lean-to.

Eventually, ice will encase the little stream. Its trout will fall into a semi torpor until the skunk cabbage once again erupt from their moist beds and the trilliums add color to the shadows cast along the forest trail. At about this time, little chickadees will return to the feeders Trish and I keep filled. By then, the mountain of wood will be stacked in the lean-to and our home will once again fall under the warm embrace cast by the woodstove.

This is when I set my fly rod aside and pick up my maul. I can rent a log splitter, but that seems like cheating to me, not much different than using worms to fool trout rather than flies.

For many years, I swung a six-pound maul that was light enough to handle with relative ease, but strong enough to split all but the most recalcitrant log. I’d wrap layers of duck tape around the base of the maul to reduce the damage caused to its wooden handle each time I missed my mark.

No so long ago, a friend presented me with a maul constructed with a metal arm that was shorter than the one I’d been swinging. It took a while to become accustomed to the shorter arc, but eventually I found it to be quite satisfactory. Nevertheless, for someone who prefers bamboo fly rods to those constructed of graphite, the idea of an arm made of metal irked me.

Last winter, I may have found the perfect implement while perusing a Garrett Wade catalogue—a four-pound maul, with a hickory handle measuring only thirty-one inches. As a bonus, a steel collar is fastened to the base to avoid damage while raised “cheeks” on either side of the head provide additional power when splitting wood with difficult grains.

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Aesthetically pleasing, wonderfully balanced, and lightweight, I’ll spend the next few months raising another mountain of stove wood while swinging what to a log splitter is the equivalent of a bamboo fly rod built by the late George Mauer.

 

 

 

 

 

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.