Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

LINES WRITTEN IN EARLY SPRING

April 16, 2022

Here, at our home located in the northwest corner of the state, a pair of wood ducks has joined the mallards that flew onto our pond in early March. Each morning, the birds splash down sometime shortly after dawn, flying off at the first sign of human activity. Restless after their winter slumber, ladybugs roam along the inside of our windows. Chipmunks now peek from the tops of rock walls that are scattered about our property. They scurry afield, returning to their tunnels with a welcome morsel, cheeks full of seed gathered from under a bird feeder or perhaps a flower from the tulip tree that towers over our barn.

The skies are changeable as are the temperatures. Early in April, winter clings to the evenings, but slowly, intermittently, warmer weather returns, claiming the afternoons, until mid-month, when temperatures swing from the high forties to the low seventies and everywhere in between.

Forsythia and lilac are beginning to bud, the former flowering yellow, the latter waiting for May to grace the air with its sweet-smelling bouquets. Daffodils have sprung up along the edges of Trish’s gardens. With the first warm days of the month, their yellow flowers are spreading spring’s cheer, tulips soon to follow. The purple flowers of a single Japanese Azalea bloom upon the bush’s naked branches, its leaves not yet formed. Around the pond and in the swamp, the mottled tips of swamp cabbage have forced their way through the damp soil. In the vegetable garden, chives spring back to life and the ruffled tips of rhubarb struggle to break through the soft earth.

Phoebes, the first migratory birds of spring, rejoin the chickadees, titmice, and finches, all of whom have remained at our feeders while weathering snow, ice, and freezing rain. These flycatchers perch upon wire and post, tails bobbing, their eyes focused on the ground, eager to swoop down and grab the first of the season’s awakening insects. By the second week of the month, a pair has taken up residence in a nest constructed of twigs held together with mud. The nest was built a number of years ago under the eave of the lean-to attached to our barn where the birds have raised successive generations, most years having two broods.

A flock of robins join the phoebes, stutter-stepping across the lawn, their heads turned to the side, eyes staring toward the damp grass as they search for earthworms.

Standing on our back porch, the early morning skies reverberate with the sound of bird song. White-throated sparrows call for “Mr. Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” while mourning doves murmur a somber refrain. From a row of low-growing bushes, cardinals sing out “cheer, cheer, cheer,” while red-winged blackbirds add their raspy notes to the robins’ familiar song, and if I listen carefully, there is the gentlest of all melodies, that of the bluebird.

Chickadees call out to one another, titmice complaining about the new arrivals, and nuthatches grunting their agreement. At the same time, throngs of finches threaten to drown out all the others with their ceaseless chatter while now and then, above the raucous din, can be heard the rat-tat-tat of a woodpecker echoing through the adjacent woodlot.

As if in celebration of the new season, this avian chorus rolls up from the lower fields and sweeps down out of the hardwood trees, washing over us from first light through early afternoon.

While cleaning out last-year’s nesting material from the birdhouses we’ve nailed to posts around the twelve acres surrounding our house, I was forced to evict a deer mouse. Having been rudely awakened from its mid-afternoon siesta, the cheeky rodent scrambled to the ground, none the worse for the scare. In another nesting box, this one made in Germany using burnt clay and sawdust, a flying squirrel popped its head out of the hole before I could remove the top. Although indignant at being disturbed during such an early hour, it accepted my apologies as I slowly backed away.

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Most years, I’ll have spent a few afternoons during the last two weeks of March casting my flies along the banks of Bonnie Brook, but the trout remain sullen, rarely interested in a fly cast upon the steam’s surface. By April, they are beginning to look upward, having awakened from their semi-dormant state, willing to rise to a hatching bug or a hook wound with a bit of fur or fluff if drifted with skill.

In early April, black stoneflies crawl along stream side foliage, their gray wings easily blending in with the drab bark of trees. These aquatic bugs crawl out of their watery homes, leaving inanimate skins on the sides of rocks as they emerge with new wings folded flat along their backs. By late afternoon, the females return to the stream. Like tiny helicopters they hover over the water. If the temperature is warm enough, fish will slash at a black- or gray-colored pattern with swept-back wings, especially if twitched to imitate the actions of these insects as they skitter across the surface to lay their eggs.

Beginning with Paraleptophlebia adoptive, a hearty, dun-colored insect imitated by anglers with a pattern called a Blue Quill, a succession of mayflies will hatch as the month progresses.

After rising en masse from the stream’s bottom, the nymphs of these mayflies will emerge through the surface film where they molt into duns that will float for a time upon the current where they look like so many tiny yachts, their gossamer wings tacking with the breeze. Those that survive the inevitable onslaught of the trout flutter upward where phoebes and swallows will take their share. After a second molt, the adults will return to the stream to mate, after which the females will lay their eggs before falling to the surface, their life coming to an end within hours of first emerging from the stream’s bottom. All of this silently played out under dark and rain-threatening skies for which the month is known.

As April progresses, two other mayflies will hatch from the streambed in much the same way. They are imitated by flies known to anglers as Quill Gordons and Hendricksons, patterns named after sporting legends who once fished rivers running through the Catskill mountains of New York State, only a few hours north of Bonnie Brook.

I often wonder that if more of us spent time along the bank of a stream or in a field of wildflowers there would be less strife in the world. If only we could appreciate those simple gifts found just outside our door, we might be more willing to set aside our prejudices, less inclined to dredge up old grievances, make war. Judging from the lines of a poem penned by the great English romantic poet, William Wordsworth, he might have agreed with this sentiment.

Lines Written in Early Spring

I heard a thousand blended notes

While in a grove I sate reclined,

In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts

Bring sad thoughts to mind…

 

To her fair works did Nature link

The human soul that through me ran;

And much it grieved my heart to think

What man has made of man.

Nevertheless, there is something satisfying in casting a fly first created by my fellow brothers of the angle, knowing that each spring I’ll follow in a long tradition of men and women who have found momentary sanctuary from a troubled world whether it be wading up a trout stream, tramping along a woodland trail, or perhaps, simply standing upon their porch and listening to the birds.

 

Unknown

 

 

 

IN THE LAND OF NOD

April 10, 2022

Bonnie Brook is as much a state of mind as it is a clear running stream that is home to a wild strain of trout. It is always with me. Perhaps after all these years, it’s become a part of me. Lying in bed, I can sometimes hear the roar of its current after an early-spring spate, or the cheerful laughter of its runs when the lilacs are in bloom. Sometimes, I’m lulled to sleep by its muffled sighs, heard during high summer, a time when moss-covered boulders appear above the sluggish riffles as the stream recedes, leaving behind russet-colored shoals.

Lingering long after I’ve chucked my hip boots in the back of the truck are the memories of the dark run that flows through a grove of rhododendron, the quiet backwater shielded on both sides by barberry and wild rose, the set of plunge pools dropping like stairs, as if from heaven’s gate, the bend pool, sweeping around an old pin oak, and just downstream, the run with the undercut bank that holds a brown trout that has resisted all efforts to pique its interest in my flies.

You might find me casting a fly upon the surface while staring down at this laptop or seated beside our woodstove as a mixture of hail and snow pelt against the window, most certainly while stalled in rush-hour traffic.

But during all the times and in all the places, there is one, more than all the others where I’ve found the fish most willing to come out of their hidey holes to play tag with one of my misshapen balls of fur and feathers. It is known as the Land of Nod, best described by Robert Louis Stevenson in his poem of the same name.

From breakfast on through all the day

At home among my friends I stay,

But every night I go abroad

Afar into the land of Nod.

For it’s on my nightly wanderings through that strange and mysterious land where I have found the weather never finer, the stream always inviting. In that land known as Nod, it is always May, that sweetest of months when the scent of honeysuckle and wild rose permeates the air. The trees and bushes are always leafed out, casting a protective shield over the stream’s inhabitants while the hillsides are aglow with sunshine. The birds of field and forest­—warblers, thrushes, and finches fill the air with their song while woodpeckers hammer away and phoebes make their nests of reeds and mud, leaving chickadees and tit mice to gossip about their neighbors. There may even be a flash of color as a redstart or yellow throat flits across the sun-dappled riffles.

Along the edges of the shore, frogs stare up from the stream’s surface, while on the banks, the next generation of the forest’s inhabitants have yet to leave their mothers’ sides. On some visits, I might happen upon a trio of cubs tumbling through the hardwood trees under the protective stare of a watchful sow, while on another, it may be four kits ambling along in single file behind mama-skunk that I encounter or a set of newly-born fawns, the twins frolicking not far from a weary, but tolerant doe.

All by myself I have to go,

With none to tell me what to do–

All alone beside the streams

And up the mountain-sides of dreams.

In that faraway place found only upon day’s end, the trout dimple the surface, forever looking upward to take their meals. My backcasts never catch on a branch or bush, my loops are always tight while my line never drags, presenting the fly as innocently as a newly born babe to its parents.

As frisky as the fawns, brook trout rise to grab my Adams, only to plunge toward the bottom, the fly clasped in the corner of their jaws, while rainbows, after zigging then zagging, splash through the surface, their crimson sash glistening with moisture. Even brown trout, those moody creatures, leave their obstinacy in the waking world, here in Nod rising without suspicion.

Although I enjoy those outings in that land beyond imagination, I am happy to wake each morning, knowing that my next visit to the little stream may find the gnats biting and the winds blowing, the current too high or perhaps much too low, the fish turned fussy, snubbing every effort at my selection of flies. For however uncertain, there remain lessons to be learned, a trick or two still to be played, but most of all, that surprise waiting around the next bend.

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FEBRUARY THAW

February 26, 2022

As I grow older the winters seem to last longer. With the temperature rising into the forties on this, the last weekend of February, I tramp through melting snow in my Sorels, the hood of a sweatshirt pulled tight over the tattered bill of my baseball cap. While collecting an armful of billets, I hear the patter of water dripping off the roof of the lean-to located across the drive from the back door of our home.

After stacking the billets beside the woodstove, I gather my sunglasses, pack, and reel, and locate the fly boxes that have found their way into the four corners of our house like kernels of corn stashed by the mice that live in our barn. The tube that contains my bamboo rod is where I placed it more than two months ago, leaning in a corner by the door. I check twice to be sure nothing is left behind before climbing into my truck.

It’s past noon by the time I pull into a gravel lot where three cars are parked. As is my habit, I check each one, careful not to appear too suspicious should the park ranger amble by. I’m pleased not to find any TU stickers or vanity plates that might indicate the vehicles’ owners are anglers. After completing this essential piece of reconnaissance, I slip off the Sorels and slide a pair of hippers over jeans.

Bonnie Brook appears foreign as I gaze across the snowscape. Gone is the lush grass under the few remaining apple trees scattered across an abandoned orchard between the parking lot and the stream. A large doe appears out of a line of hardwood trees along the far edge of the field. The tawny leaves of a nearby beech tree flutter in the breeze. After a moment, two yearlings follow the doe’s example.

My back rebels when I stretch down to lace my wading boots. The three deer raise their heads and then turn back into the treeline. It takes a few moments to remember how best to adjust the straps of the hippers through the loops of the jeans, but that done, I fix the reel to the butt end of the little cane rod.

After turning up the collar of a fleece pullover, I open one of the fly boxes, taken from the breast pocket of my flannel shirt. Staring down at a haphazard assortment of patterns left over from last season, I choose a #14 pheasant-tail dry fly from the ripples of foam and knot it to a 5X tippet. The parachute wing will keep the fly afloat over the most turbulent of the little stream’s riffles, the calf-tail post making it easy for my waning vision to follow while the pheasant-tail barbules wrapped around the hook shank are sufficiently “buggy” to interest any fish that may consider rising from its winter doldrums to sample a tasty morsel floating innocently upon the surface.

After adjusting a forest-green watch cap over my ears, I tramp toward a section of stone row that has collapsed from the freeze and thaw of successive winters.

Climbing over the rockslide, I trudge through the field, my wading boots making prints in what remains of a half-dozen inches of the white stuff dropped by a late-season storm. Unlike in Munchkin Land, each fall, the gnarled branches of the apple trees in this orchard give up their tart fruit without complaint.

Turning onto the trail that parallels the stream, I’m pleased see only deer prints in the snow. A white-throated sparrow peeps from among an unruly tangle of wild rose, grape, and barberry that separates the path from the stream. Finding an opening, I climb down to the water.

The current tumbles briskly through the ice that has formed along the edges of the stream. The stones are slick notwithstanding my felt soles. A chipmunk pokes a head out from between a row of boulders along the far bank, curious, I suppose, to see who would be so foolish as to be out and about this time of year. In the distance, I can hear the rapid hammering of a woodpecker.

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The bamboo rod that has accompanied me over the last few years was built by Ron Barch. The former publisher of the Planing Form, an international newsletter dedicated to the construction of split bamboo fly rods, has been working with cane for more than thirty years. My rod is based upon a taper developed by Paul Young. Measuring six feet, three inches, it is the perfect tool to cast flies on this stream that is no more than ten feet wide.

During the next two hours, I cast the pheasant-tail into the swollen current, especially beside the edges of tree trunks that have fallen into the stream, in front of and behind boulders, along undercut banks, and over any water that looks “fishy”—all with no success.

Although the sun continues to shine, it provides little warmth as I work my way upstream. Cast, mend line, take a few steps forward, cast mend line, then do it again. I’d be better served changing to a nymph, one with a bit of weight to bring the fly down to the fish that continue to hug the bottom this time of year. But I’m more interested in gaining back my rhythm than chucking and ducking.

The sound of the current rises through the canopy of bare branches. Like old friends, parts of the stream rise up to greet me.

There’s the set of riffles falling down from between twin boulders where one summer morning, a fat rainbow jumped three times before coming to my hand. Around the next bend, I find myself beside a quiet glide that slips under the roots of an old pin oak, home to a brown trout that threw my hook last fall.

A few hundred feet upstream, a number of smaller brook trout have, on more than one occasion, grabbed a fly as it momentarily floated over the three plunge pools formed by the current that descends like a set of stairs before continuing downstream.

After a while, I come upon the dark run that sweeps across a fallen willow where a number of years back, on an overcast morning in early June, a large trout rose through the tree’s submerged branches to sip a tiny dry fly, the fish breaking me off before it could be identified.

Now, looking up to discover the sun has fallen below the tops of the trees, I turn toward the snow-covered bank. Trudging back down the path, my creel is heavy with memories, enough to sustain me until next time, when a fish or two may be willing to come out and play.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE NATURAL KIND

January 14, 2022

Seated here beside the wood stove, rain mixed with hail pinging against the windows, I’ve been thinking about a statement attributed to Thoreau that “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” Izaak Walton certainly knew this. That may be the reason his book has endured down through the centuries.

Compleat Angler

Perhaps John Voelker aka Robert Traver, said it best in his Testament of a Fisherman: “I fish because I love to; because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly…”

In those beautiful environs, whether trekking to or from the stream, hiking along its side or wading through its waters, you’re sure to encounter an interesting character or two. Now, I don’t propose you stop to flirt with a lovely milkmaid as Father Issac had the pleasure of doing. (If so, be prepared to make a run for it when she texts 911 on her smart phone!) Nor do I suggest catching a mermaid as the good judge alludes to in the latter half of his 1964 Testament. (If you do, don’t be surprised if some government agency with a bunch of letters in its name whisks you off to an undisclosed location.) No, I’m talking about encounters with those four-legged animals that live stream side.

Just last August, I was wading down South Bog Brook, one of countless streams slipping unnoticed through the North Woods of Maine, when I heard the high grass rustle along the far bank. I stopped, expecting a deer or perhaps a moose to break out into the stream, but instead was surprised to spy a young coy-dog peering over a tall clump of Joe-Pye weed. No more than ten feet away, the inquisitive animal sniffed the air while standing on its hind legs, front paws in the air, seeking a better view. When I took a step, the canine yipped twice before disappearing back into the forest.

On an afternoon in early July, I’d been wading up Wiggle Brook, another mountain rill, this one falling off western Maine’s side of the Boundary Mountains. I’d been taking native brook trout with my go-to dry fly—a pheasant-tail, with a parachute wing and calf-tail post. It was an unfair contest, the palm-sized fish rising to inhale the innocent-looking pattern on every third or fourth cast. Having spent the better part of that afternoon drifting the dry fly through the sun-dappled riffles and into the many plunge pools that characterize this stream surrounded by balsam and fir, I decided to take a breather.

While seated on the trunk of a fallen spruce, I noticed a splash below a boulder in the middle of the stream. Looking closer, I watched a red squirrel bob to the surface. I thought of wading out to help the poor bugger, but a moment later watched as it doggy-paddled toward the limb of a tree that had fallen into the water. After climbing onto the large branch, the cheeky rodent shook from side to side, water spraying from its russet-colored fur. Now what? I thought, but then the intrepid traveler slipped back into the stream and swam the final twenty feet to the far bank. Who knew squirrels could swim?

A similar incident occurred while I fished the West Branch of the Delaware, downriver from the town of Deposit, New York. I’d been sight casting a #20 soft-hackled nymph with reddish-orange dubbing to large brown trout that were plucking sulpher nymphs from the fast water in front of the cabins of the West Branch Angler, a sporting lodge I frequent when in the area. I noticed movement some forty yards or so below me. Something had been attempting to cross the long, slow run that lies below the cabins.

At first, I thought it might be a muskrat. I’d once spent a frustrating afternoon casting the tiniest of tiny Blue-winged Olive emergers to a single brown trout that continued to rise under the branches of a large willow tree while one of these rodents kept me company. As I switched from one fly pattern to another, the spritely rat repeatedly swam to a lodge it had built under a massive limb split from the willow’s trunk, each time carrying a mouthful of reeds clasped between its jaws.

Leaving the trout to dine on the sulpher nymphs, I reeled in and waded out of the fast water, deciding to investigate the little ball of fur that was making negligible progress against the sluggish current in the lower run. Drawing closer, I found that the fur ball was a tiny rabbit that must have slipped off the high bank. The cottontail was about done in, having gone under more than once as I waded down the pool. It took a few more minutes, but I managed to work my way below the animal that now pressed against my thigh. We were still thirty or more feet from shore when I slipped my hand under the poor creature that appeared more than happy to allow me to do so.

A few moments later I was seated beside the rabbit on a grassy knoll. I’d never seen such a sorry sight, the bedraggled thing lying on its side, heart pumping wildly, lungs breathing overtime. After some time, the little guy, or gal, one never knows with rabbits, shook off the remaining water, and began preening. When I rose to my feet, it hopped away, soon I’m sure, to slip under the wire of the lodge’s vegetable garden.

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This was not my only encounter with a stream side rodent. More than a dozen years ago, on a rainy afternoon in June, I’d been wading down Bonnie Brook. With a rain jacket zipped over chest waders and a hood pulled tight over my cap, I’d been in the zone while casting a Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ear. Twitching the wet fly each time it sunk under the surface had provoked a number of the stream’s brown trout to come out of their hidey holes. After bending forward to release one such fish, I looked up to discover a tiny field mouse, no more than a foot or so away, trying to stay dry while seated on its haunches in an indentation along the bank, its beady black eyes staring back at me, as if to say, “move on, nothing to see here.”

Time does not permit the story about the flying squirrel too fat to fit its backside into the hole of a blue bird house, or the one about the wood turtle found dozing after a flash flood, in the branches of an alder some ten feet above the stream’s surface, or the fox kits that each morning popped their heads out of a den dug into a hillside beside our seasonal cabin, spending their afternoons entertaining my wife and I with their playful antics.

Instead, I’ll close with an afternoon some three years ago. I was wading up Devil’s Hole, a fast-moving streamlet in northeastern Pennsylvania. It was a lazy day in August, the sun high in the sky with only a slight breeze. The branches of swamp maple and those of tulip trees cast shadows over the little steam’s surface, and although the temperature had slipped into the eighties, the current was cool against my calves. I was wearing hippers and one of those lightweight shirts made of some type of parachute-like material while teasing ten-inch, wild brown trout with a black-ant pattern, the big, bushy fly making a loud splash whenever it plopped upon the surface.

Stooping to wet my neckerchief, I heard a strange noise coming from a grove of rhododendron. Scanning the far bank, I spotted a large black bear, its back toward me. Seated on the trunk of a fallen tree some twenty feet away from the stream, the bruin’s massive shoulders were bent forward.

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After reeling in my line, I debated whether to advance while continuing to hear the sound that first drew my attention to the bear, something akin to a handsaw cutting through wood. Although doubting the wisdom of proceeding forward, I nevertheless advanced, staying in the middle of the stream, ready to turn tail at the slightest indication of trouble. After passing, I looked back over my shoulder to find the bruin’s eyes closed, snores emanating from his long brown muzzle.

River Flowers

For information about my newest book—RIVER FLOWERS Check out his website: forgottentrout.com or email him at magalloway@mac.com

THERE AND BACK AGAIN

December 24, 2021

(This essay appeared on December 22,2021 in the online fly fishing magazine, MidCurrent)

As a young man, I read Hemingway and Steinbeck, Harrison, and McGuane. Along the way, the fly-fishing raconteur, Richard Brautigan, brought tears to my eyes while the rabid environmentalist, Edward Abbey, had me raising my fists in outrage. I took to heart the words of Gary Snyder, the acclaimed poet-turned-Buddhist, found in his thought-provoking book, Practice of the Wild:

“The wild requires…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.”

Over the years, I’ve tried to follow his advice, attempting, from time to time to tell a good story when returning home from the Rangeley Lakes Region of western Maine where my wife and I have owned a camp for nearly forty years. It is a part of the country that has not changed much over the years. The rivers, streams, and ponds surrounding our cabin are about the same as Johnny Danforth and Fred Baker found them when they decided to spend the winter of 1876 hunting and trapping the land above Parmachenee Lake. The fish are still here. On average, they are not as large as they once were, but a sixteen-inch native brook trout is not uncommon and landlocked salmon remain as wild as the moose that sometimes plod down to the river’s shoreline to muse over the mysteries of the forest.

When we first arrived in the region, I’d cast large streamers and weighted nymphs in a manic pursuit for ever-larger fish. I wore a vest with more fly boxes than Samuel Carter had little liver pills and a pack heavy with reels containing lines that sunk at different rates and clothing for the constantly changing northern New England weather. Such angling requires time on the water, especially after the spring thaw. This is when smelts, the region’s principal bait fish, leave the lakes to make their spawning run up the larger rivers, with brook trout and landlocked salmon following closely behind. In the latter days of September, the trout and salmon once again swim upriver, this time on their own spawning runs, providing a second opportunity to take fish measured in pounds rather than inches. In rain, and sometimes sleet, and even snow, buffeted by bruising wind and under blistering sunlight, harassed by black flies, mosquitoes, and no-seeums, from first light to dark, I’d swing a streamer or drift a nymph, addicted to the tug.

But there is another type of fishing, one that can be employed on the many tannin-stained brooks that slip across the Canadian border–streams that bend and twist through balsam and spruce for mile after mile, some of them headwaters of those larger rivers where the majority of anglers continue their search for trophy fish. Along these secret rills, I can cast to brook trout without coming upon another angler. To be sure, the fish here are diminutive compared to the trout in the big rivers, a few no larger than my pinkie, the largest fitting snuggly in the palm of a hand. In these narrow ribbons of water, hidden under shadows cast by a vast conifer forest, I’ve come to appreciate what Thoreau described as “…these jewels…these bright fluviatile flowers, made beautiful, the Lord only knows why, to swim there!”

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On the losing side of middle age, I now seek out these waters too small to gather serious attention from other anglers; forgotten places, where trout live out their lives in the lee of boulders, under conifer branches or as they sometimes do, in a set of sunlit riffles. These are fish that have rarely heard the splash of an artificial fly.

This type of fishing requires an angler to heed the words of the legendary American naturalist, John Muir, who wrote, “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.”

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No longer do I feel compelled to wing heavy nymphs past my ear, or make sixty-foot casts until my shoulder aches. Instead, I carry a single metal tin that fits nicely in the pocket of my canvas shirt. Once holding cough drops, these days it contains a handful of flies. There are pheasant-tail patterns, ones with parachute wings, maybe a few elk hair caddis or black ants if fishing during the summer months, and fixed-winged and soft-hackled hare’s ear wet flies for when I work my way downstream. While casting a rod constructed by the late George Maurer, my mind is free to be in the moment as a six-inch brook trout rises through the surface.

With less distraction, this uncomplicated method of fishing allows me to enjoy the creatures found along the edges of running water—the colorful flash of a tiny warbler or the song of the secretive thrush. I’ll catch myself smiling at the splash of a frog or while staring into the eyes of a bashful toad. These moments, like a Basho haiku, remain frozen in time.

Western Maine remains an escape from the madding pace of modern life that has allowed me to trod a trail less traveled—the one alongside a stream where brook trout are willing to play tag with a bit of feather and fur—and return to tell a tale or two.

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BLACK FRIDAY – SORT OF

November 26, 2021

I’d like to thank all of you, who have pre-ordered RIVER FLOWERS, my newest book, a collection of stories about wild fish, the places they can be found, and the men and women who seek them out. Primarily set in northern Maine and New Hampshire, there are a few detours to New Jersey and Maryland. As she did for THE RIVER KING, my daughter, an accomplished artist, Emily Rose Romano, was kind enough to provide the cover art. This time around, she has added a number of watercolors to complement the stories found in RIVER FLOWERS.

I also want to thank Jerry and Rick Kustich whose company, West River Media, published this book. Both are well-known for their angling accomplishments over many years—Jerry, as author and bamboo rod maker, Rick as author, instructor and expert on fishing for Musky and Steelhead.

I look forward to catching up with those of you whom I’ve met in the past and meeting some new readers as I appear at various fly-fishing shows, T.U. Chapters, and fishing clubs to help promote the book. If you haven’t already done so, you may wish to consider taking advantage of the pre-publication offer that will expire on December fifteenth.

SEE YOU AROUND THE NEXT BEND IN THE RIVER

BOB ROMANO

NOW A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR

November 13, 2021

I have two SHADOWS IN THE STREAM and one NORTH OF EASIE available for sale. If interested, email: magalloway@mac.com for ordering and price information.

SILVER TROUT

November 11, 2021

The skies have remained gray all week. They match the landscape as well as my mood. Juncos flit among the cedars like the first snowflakes of the winter that looms ahead. A few sparrows shuffle over the lawn. They’re searching for seeds scattered by the chickadees and titmice visiting the feeder that hangs from a metal post outside my window. Even with the window closed I can hear their chirps as they complain about the cold, damp weather. The bird song lures me away from the warmth of the woodstove, and after gathering my fishing gear, I find myself making the short drive to Bonnie Brook.

I roll down my window upon approaching the narrow bridge that spans the little stream and watch the current slide over fist-sized cobble in colors that range from dun to cerulean and from sienna to rust.   A doe and her yearlings graze in a meadow beside the bridge. When I pull the vehicle off the road, they look up, the young deer sidling closer to their mother.

The pin oaks and beech trees still cling to their withered leaves, but those fallen from the maples and silver birch, hickory, and ironwood crunch under my wading boots as I amble down the narrow path that weaves through the forest. During that first season, I’d tramped along the tiny stream’s banks while rarely finding evidence of fish. There was that set of ripples spied from the corner of my eye, and the occasional streaking shadow as I waded around a bend, but not much more to verify their presence. It took an entire season before meeting my first brook trout, and although I made the acquaintance of the rainbows soon thereafter, it took a few years before the first brown introduced itself.

Over time and with much patience, I eventually learned that although the stream’s ankle-deep riffles are shallow, they provide aeration for the slightly deeper runs, where palm-size brook trout may seize a wet fly drifted with care, and if a dry fly is cast with skill, a chunky rainbow might splash through the surface. Then there are those few thigh-deep pools, dark enough for a resident brown trout to spend the daylight hours brooding over its future.

This afternoon, the stream is dark, cold. It does not beckon. I’d hoped for a mid-afternoon midge hatch, maybe a few blue-winged olives, perhaps some late-season stoneflies, but the caddis larvae lie snug within their stick houses while mayfly and stonefly nymphs have burrowed deep into the bed of the stream.    

I knot a soft-hackled Hare’s Ear pattern to the end of my tippet. After a short cast, the fly sinks from sight, tumbling soundlessly around a boulder, its shoulder mottled with bright green lichen. Although I imagine hackles undulating enticingly as the pattern drifts naturally with the current, the trout are unimpressed.

Working through a set of riffles, I pull back, but feel only the lifeless tug of a submerged leaf. Without a hatch the trout remain lethargic, unwilling to come out and play. Even so, what is fishing if not an exercise in hope.

Ninety minutes later I remain chilled despite a flannel shirt and wool vest. My joints creak, muscles burn. I follow the stream’s course as it falls in a series of plunge pools surrounded by a forest populated primarily by hemlocks. The tops of a number of these stately trees have split from their trunks creating a hodgepodge of timber scattered across the forest floor. I’ve read that the wooly adelgid is attacking these trees that have sheltered the upper reaches of the stream for generations.  If not brought under control, the exotic pest will be the demise of the forest. As the hemlocks go, so go the trout. For its the shade that keeps the temperature of the stream cool enough through the summer months to sustain the population of wild fish that inhabit its waters.

It’s impossible to navigate through the spindly branches of the fallen limbs and I’m forced to hike up and around the massive deadfall. Rhododendron, and to a lesser extent mountain laurel, spread down the sides of the hills as I pass farther down the stream.

After more than forty years, I’ve come to know this brook as well as an angler can know such things. Six miles from its origin, a pond nestled in the foothills of the Kittatinny Mountain Range, to its terminus at a well-known river that drains four states, the little stream flows down the hemlock-studded mountainside, eventually passing through fallow fields once farmed by colonial farmers, then falling faster through a forest ravine, its current slowing through the final mile or so as it follows a serpentine course through swampland before flowing in the big river.

I remember a time before the fall of the hemlocks when its headwaters remained cool through July’s heat and August’s humidity. Barberries and brambles, wild grape, and rose bushes sheltered its banks as it passed out of the forest and through fields of high grass and meadows brightened in summer by daisies and black-eyed Susans. The untamed tangle of thorny branches and vines held the sides of the stream in place, the bushes discouraging erosion, and yes, made my backcasts a study in frustration. But over the last few summers Bonnie Brook has seen less rain than in past years followed inevitably by excessive flooding that has scoured the banks, causing them to collapse. Once unheard of in the northeast, mircrobursts have leveled sections of the stream bed, lessening the ability of the brook to hold in water deep enough to sustain trout.

Before entering the swamp, the current twists through a narrow flume where it falls from a height of more than twenty feet into what had once been the stream’s deepest pool as a result of an oak tree that had fallen across the back of the run, its massive trunk creating a formidable dam. Now, as the afternoon’s muted light wanes, I stare down from the top of the falls to find that the pool is less than half its normal size.

Although sometimes difficult, I’ve learned to accept change when caused by the natural course of events, but descending into the ravine, I discover that the ancient tree is gone. Looking closer, I find marks where a chainsaw has scarred the remaining portion of the oak’s trunk. I ask myself, why? (Upon coming upon a park ranger later in the week, I’m told there was fear that if the tree had been swept away, the resulting downstream discharge could cause harm to those who frequent the trail leading up to the pool.)

Like wisps of fog, memories slip over the pool’s surface as wet snow drips down from the ashen sky.

There was that time I came upon a black bear seated upon a log. It was June and the trout were as frisky as fawns. I’d waded within ten feet of the bruin before looking up from the stream’s surface. The bear was seated with its broad back toward me, its legs apart while chewing on red caps plucked from a tangle of brambles. After slowly backing away, I spent the remainder of that afternoon staring over my shoulder.

I recall another time, when I jumped into the air and turned tail, all in one motion, upon hearing the rattle of a snake in the high grass of summer. There was no more fishing that day.

I’ll not forget the trout I named the Old Groaner. For many seasons, whenever I approached, the fish streaked from its feeding lane to hide under a boulder. Upstream casts failed to bring the trout to the surface, but I’ll always remember the anticipation, when changing tactics, I slipped my fly downstream, letting out line, all the while waiting, waiting, waiting, until the cagey old fry-of-a-brown-trout rose to sip in the #20 Griffith’s Gnat at the end of my tippet.

There have been many fish, some big, most small. All brought me joy, but there’s was one that stands out among all the others. It was a brown trout, one that I stalked over two seasons. It resided under the falls, its domain the pool that before the amputation of the log had been the widest and deepest of the entire stream. I remember losing that fish when it slipped the hook, my line springing back in a hopeless confusion of tangles as a wood thrush called in the gloaming, and how the following year, on a warm evening during the first weekend of summer, with caddis swarming over the pool’s surface, that fish once gain rose to grab my fly from under the fall of water. How we fought, holding my breath when it streaked back under the foam caused by the falling water, cursed when it tangled my line in a pile of submerged branches, and again when water slipped over my hippers as I slid my arm down to dislodge it, and how near the end, as darkness fell, I muttered a desperate prayer, until the two of us lay exhausted, the fish finning in the shallows, me lying upon the damp cobble.

Although wild places have a way of jealously guarding their secrets, I’ve

listened carefully whenever the little brook whispered in my ear. Of all the lessons learned, perhaps the most important is the fragility of the fish struggling to survive between its banks. It would be easy to remain in the past, but I fear for the trout of this little mountain brook. The damage its sustained brings to mind Harry Plunkett Greene’s evocative Where The Bright Waters Meet. Like the trout of the River Bourne, I worry that the wild fish of my little stream will succumb to events beyond their control.

In his book, Greene describes how his “silver trout” thrived during the first few years of the twentieth century until they were unwittingly crippled by the introduction of hatchery fish, soon thereafter to vanish altogether as the result of overfishing and the runoff from tar and salt “needed” to maintain the local roads beside the chalk stream.

Now, I’m an angler, at my best when wading through running water. There will always be drought and flood. The life of a trout will never be an easy one. But if it will give these audacious fish a fighting chance, I’m all for reducing fluorocarbons, fighting the infestation of imported pests, and at the very least, leaving streams and their inhabitants to their wild nature.

As I trudge back up the trail, the snow continues to fall, a bit harder now. It turns to ice by the time I reach the truck. The deer are gone. Beside the meadow across the road, the branches of a dogwood tree appear to shimmer like so many silver trout captured for one last moment before passing into time.

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BEND IN THE RIVER

October 17, 2021

Seated on a log beside my favorite stream, cushioned by moss that has crept across the bark, I wonder why it is that I tend to gravitate toward these little ribbons of water. Although the sun shines brightly on this afternoon in late September, it’s lost most of its heat. The leaves are turning the distant hills into an autumn palette. The brook trout that I’ve been teasing with a wet fly over the last few hours are also decked out in their autumnal attire: flaming bellies of golden orange, dark backs, and red-in-blue dots along the flanks—the reason old-timers call them speckled trout. These are small fish, the largest fitting snugly in my palm. Like me, they prefer the solitude of the deep forest to larger rivers that are more readily accessible.

A number of years back, Trish and I spent two weeks along the western coast of Ireland. Our daughter had spent a semester at the Burren College of Art in County Clare, and we’d traveled there to fetch her home. The plan had been to tour the countryside. While the ladies snapped pictures of an Abbey built for the Augustinians in 1120, l unpacked my fly rod.

Located in County Mayo, the village of Cong is where The Quiet Man was filmed. For many of us who grew up in the States during the 1950s, this movie, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, remains synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day. Now, I must be getting old because back home there wasn’t a single person in my office who’d heard of The Quiet Man.

“John Wayne? Wasn’t he that guy who played a cowboy?” my secretary replied when asked if she knew of the movie.

On that day, the wind had picked up by the time we took the turn at a wooden sign with the words QUIET MAN BRIDGE painted on it. Above the little stone bridge was a slow-moving stream surrounded by a wild marsh of grassy hummocks. Below, the current quickened as it flowed through the bridge’s stone arches.

After tramping through tall reeds, I stood where more than sixty years ago Barry Fitzgerald carried John Wayne to his ancestral home on the back of a one-horse cart. I was about to cast a tiny pheasant-tail nymph into the current, when an old man humped over the muddy lane that led down from his white-washed farmhouse. His threadbare coat was buttoned to his chin, his hands sunk deep in its pockets. Wisps of white hair danced around the wide-brimmed hat he wore low on his brow while a cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. By his side, a dog of unknown origin snarled until the old man kicked him with a rubber boot.

“Tell me boyo, what might you be doin’?” He spoke without removing the cigarette from between his lips.

“I was hoping to catch one of your Irish browns to write home about,” I replied.

“A Yank, are ya, then?” he croaked.

“Meant no harm.” I gave him my best smile.

“Guess I’ll leave you to it,” he replied. Turning his back, he called to the dog that had continued to stare with bad intention.

I spent my final few nights listening to “trad” music in the pubs we found along the road and my days searching out streams that flowed under the shadows cast by the “Twelve Bens,” a series of mountains in Connemara that Oscar Wilde described as “a savage beauty.” I did so, not so much to catch fish, but to stand near the places where they were found.

Perhaps John D. Voelker said it best in his short piece, Testament of a Fisherman: “I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly…”

Voelker lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a part of the country where the rivers and rills are as wild as those found along the western coast of Ireland and as untamed as any flowing out of the mountains that separate Maine from its northern neighbor. 

If you don’t remember The Quiet Man, you probably won’t recall Anatomy of a Murder. Based upon the novel written by Voelker, this intense movie, starring Jimmy Stewart as a mild-mannered, fly-fishing, defense attorney, was also filmed in the 1950s. The money Voelker made from the film allowed him to spend the remainder of his days on trout streams that he preferred to the courtroom where he’d practiced law, first as an attorney and later as a judge.

I first discovered Voelker a few years after graduating from college. He’d written a wonderful book of stories entitled Trout Madness under the pen name of Robert Traver. It inspired me to purchase my first fly rod—a cheap fiberglass model manufactured by the Cortland Company. A number of years later, I, too, became an attorney, and even wrote my own book of stories. I now own a number of fly rods, most constructed of graphite, a few from bamboo, while the Cortland, with its chipped paint and frayed wraps, rests comfortably on the wall of my den.

On the six-and-a-half-hour flight home from Ireland, I thought of The Intruder, a Voelker tale found in Trout Madness about a stranger who unexpectedly shows up at the angler’s favorite pool. You’ll have to read it to see why the times, they apparently are not changing. Upon my return home, I took the book down from the shelf and reread it cover to cover.

Now, seated on this log, surrounded by the spruce and balsam of western Maine, listening to the timeless current pass by, I’m once again reminded of John Voelker, a.k.a. Robert Traver, who died in 1991, at the age of 88; and of my father, who at age 83 passed away after struggling for many years with a heart condition; and my uncle George, who joined him a few years later, a guy who couldn’t catch a fish if it leaped out of the water and into his arms, but who was the most enthusiastic angler I’ve had the pleasure to know. And of my best friend, Trish’s dad, who found it hard to release a trout he’d fooled fair and square, and who, later in life, after losing his sight, I’d entertain with tales of my western Maine adventures.

I remember that Irish farmer humping down the wind-slept lane to see what “a Yank” was up to, and all the other fellows, now in their 70s, 80s, and older, some still wandering rivers and streams, with backs stooped forward, leaning on wading staffs, their eyes still twinkling with mischief, their minds filled with a lifetime of memories.

I like to think of them, not as they were in those later years, but as young men filled with possibility.

Rising from my seat on this moss-covered log, I can see the next bend in the river. Perhaps that’s what best about a trout stream. There’s always one more bend to explore.

RIVER FLOWERS – TALL TALES ABOUT WILD FISH, THE PLACES THEY’RE FOUND, AND THE MEN AND WOMEN WHO SEEK THEM OUT

October 9, 2021

You may wonder where this blogster has been these many months. Well, when not doing research on my favorite trout stream, I was putting the finishing touches on RIVER FLOWERS, my latest book, a collection of short stories set mostly, but not entirely, in western Maine, where my wife and I have had a cabin for nearly forty years. An accomplished artist, our daughter was kind enough to contribute artwork for the cover as well as a number of illustrations. Due out for the holidays, the publisher is providing a prepublication discount as set forth below. ALL THE BEST – Bob Romano