Spring rains have continued into June. It was hard to get out of bed on Sunday and overcast skies and a continual drumming of moderate to heavy rain slowed the whole process. I didn’t leave the house until 11:30am. I arrived at the Conway River expecting high flows, but I got flood conditions. The Conway was in no way fishable so I set my sights on one of its small feeder streams, Pocosin Hollow. I drove past a local clearing debris off the road with his tractor, parked my car on the empty dirt pull off, and began my hike. Pocosin, usually no more than a trickle, was raging. I hoped that I could hike up the ridge far enough to find fishable water. No Trespassing signs tried to discourage me from finding trailhead and if it weren’t for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club app on my phone, they might have succeeded. A half mile on private roads (only open to public foot traffic) and I eventually found the trail. The stream flowed fast and clear and with enough force to make all crossings at least slightly hazardous. I rigged up my rod and nymphed one deep slow run. It seemed that any fish would have been too deep and spread out in the high flows, so I broke down my rod and shifted my mentality from fishing to hiking. With the goal of trout no longer hanging on my mind, I was fully able to appreciate the wild rainforest like setting. A heavy mist hung in the air suspended in the green branches overhead. The drumming static of the water lulled the mind like a white noise machine and I knew I was alone. I hiked up the three or so miles to the Pocosin fire road before turning around to begin back down.
Thunder echoes in the distance like some great invisible engine while the rain comes down thick and steady overhead. The dense tree canopy intercepts the drops, combining them before sending them on to the forest floor to continue the journey towards the river. For weeks, the storms have moved through the mountain. Loose dirt and debris has been washed away and now the river flows full and fast, but the water is clear. In the deep pools and slow back eddies, wild brook trout keep free from the aggressive current. But above the surface, there is much activity, a flurry of new life, a hatch. The trout cannot resist the action for long.
The rain is my cover. Heavy drops silence my steps and disrupt the water surface, obscuring the trouts wary vision. The environment is working in my favor, but my own excitement betrays me. There is so much water to cover, new water that I have never seen before. Fly fishing rewards patient and thoughtful movement, but punishes quick careless motion. My mind is occupied with the mystery of what lies beyond the bend and it is reflected in my movements. Bumbled casts and slippery feet, I am fishing too fast, and it is painfully confirmed with single a missed step. Eyes locked on a seam, I shuffle my feet forward while adding line to my false cast when the left side of my body collapses into the water. It is as if someone pulled the riverbed from under my feet. In a split second moment, I know that I’m going into the knee deep water, I accept it, but I refuse to let my Winston rod suffer from my mistake. My right arm shoots towards the sky as far from the impact zone as my reach allows. My body can handle cuts and bruises, but the thought of crunching the emerald green rod, turning my four piece into a five piece, makes me sick to my stomach. The rod survives without a scratch and I with only a few bruises. My clothes are completely soaked but the river only finishes what the rain had started. I am fishing too fast, so I stop.
For a long time I stand still, letting the river flow through my legs. The rain continues to fall, adding weight to my body and saturating what is left of my dry clothes until the water drips back into the river. I become a silent feature of the landscape, a passive piece in an existing system. Around me things begin to move, no longer hesitant of the clumsy presence trudging upstream. A mayfly lands on my arm and a trout rises. I make a cast. The fly twirls between the raindrops, bobbing and spinning like a drunken dancer for only a moment before it plunges beneath the water fastened to the mouth of a wild trout. I set the hook and the trout clears half the pool in one terrific leap, landing in the swift current. For a moment the trout works the current pulling line, threatening to drop down a small waterfall into another pool, but gentle pressure from the tip of the rod guides the fish back to hand.
The rain breaks in the afternoon. The clouds part and timid beams of light stretch down to the river where steam rises from the wet stones. The rain has stopped but there is a steady drip off the wet leaves, a soft rhythmic sound. Now the real hatch begins. It is not overwhelmingly dense or even consistent, but utterly diverse. From the shallow river rises mayflies, caddis, midges, stones in all sizes and colors. Bright yellow mayflies lazily glide through the air and jet black caddis zig and zag above the water, golden stoneflies and gray stoneflies crawl on the rocks, ants and beetles adorn the banks. The menu has been set and it is a balanced meal. The trout gorge themselves. They launch attack after attack on my beetle pattern until the fly is shredded and soaked and no longer floats. To my left, a beam of sunlight illuminates a flat moss covered boulder like a spotlight does a stage. I sit down to replace my fly with another pattern that is durable and will float high and well, a Royal Trude. Before I return to my feet, I breathe in the setting and watch the rising fish at the head of the pool. I wonder what lies beyond the next bend. Maybe I will find out today and maybe not. There is no hurry and I won’t rush.
Blood on the River is the title that I might lead with if I intended for a heart felt dialogue about the familial bond between brothers and the commonality among fly fishermen. The truth is, A River Runs Through It covered that topic pretty well, and besides, my brother doesn’t really fly fish.
My brother and I are similar in many ways, but we have our differences. We have different priorities and different hobbies. But something we do share is an appreciation for quality time with each other and quality time in the outdoors. We are intentional about spending time together. Sometimes these fraternal hangs meet on neutral ground, but most recently, we met in my arena.
After departing early from work on Thursday, I picked up my brother in Georgetown and we headed up river. Two miles later, the noises of the city gave way to the soothing chatter of birds and the soft rhythmic thumping of rain hitting damp leaves. The air was thick and wet, a steady back and forth between heavy mist and light drizzle. To many folks in D.C., it was a dreary day, but to those fortunate enough to be fishing on the Potomac, it was perfect conditions. As might be expected on a rainy Thursday afternoon, the usually bustling Fletcher's Cove was empty save for a few other fishermen silently combing the water. We arrived at slack tide and watched as the current shifted, pulling towards the Chesapeake Bay. The return of movement to the water prompted a flurry of activity on the surface. It looked as if some unseen persons were lobbing handfuls of gravel across the entire river. The splashes most likely belonged to gizzard shad swiping the surface. Every few minutes, a big kerplunk turned our heads just in time to see bubbles and rings sent out from some mystery fish. I have heard that the larger splashes are from catfish jumping, but I know that carp also join in the acrobatics. Fish of many sizes jumped all around us.
I rowed our small wooden boat into a seam and dropped anchor. I quickly hooked several fish. The hickory shad dominated the catch, but a few herring also made it to the boat. Once I selfishly confirmed that the fish were biting, I shifted from angler to instructor. I handed my brother the 8wt rod and gave him a few casting tips, 10 and 2...allow the line time to unfold...let the rod do the work. I wanted to believe that my brother heard to my instruction only to be betrayed by his stubborn arm movements. He tried and often failed to maximize casting distance, repeatedly swinging the rod past the two o’clock position resulting in a finely coiled fly line plopping down on the water. But we pressed on and there were moments of brilliance exemplified by outstretched line and leader. My brother progressed, and more importantly, my brother caught fish entirely on his own: cast, retrieve, hookset, fight, land, unhook, release, high five.
Family and fly fishing are two beautiful things and I am hopeful that they will continue to overlap more in my life.
The air is warm and inviting and a pleasant stillness hangs over Washington, DC. It is a nice Saturday in the city, but it is always nicer in the mountains. A casual 3pm departure from the nation’s capitol and I head west. The sun, still high in the sky, begins to lose intensity when I arrive at the Dickie Ridge Visitor Center along the famed Skyline Drive. The ranger and I speak briefly. He asks me about my proposed route, number of nights, and bear preparations before giving me a backcountry permit to attach to my pack. The sun is waning when I finally reach the trailhead. I adjust the straps of my pack and sling it onto my shoulders to begin my descent into the valley wilderness. The first step on to the dirt sends an intense freedom coursing through my body. It is a bizarre mix of adrenaline and peace, leaving man’s world behind to be left alone in the care of nature.
I have seen over a dozen bears in these Blue Ridge Mountains, but the bears have seen many people and pay little attention to our presence. I once turned a corner to find a bear 30 feet away. It looked lazily at me for half a second and went back to grubbing. Still, it is safer to avoid spooking the wildlife so now I make up songs, singing them aloud to nature and to anything that I don’t want to sneak up on. The songs are mostly observational nonsense fixating on tree bark, unravelling ferns, or whatever passes my vision. It is a liberating form of self expression. By most standards I am a terrible singer, but nature doesn’t seem to mind my off key half rhyming gibberish, or at least it can’t vocalize its disapproval. Carefree and singing, I cheerily bounce along the trail doing my best Tom Bombadil. It is just me and the trees and trickling water flowing towards a central point on the valley floor. Time is measured by nothing more than light and shadow.
When the sun finally dips behind the ridge the temperature also drops and the blue evening glow deepens. I hastily set up camp hoping to find hatching insects dancing in pools in the mountain creek before darkness takes away my vision. Camp is nothing more than a sack of food strung high up in a tree and a hammock a safe distance away. The few preparations are made and my focus shifts to the water. It is the native brook trout that lead me to this spot and I am anxious to meet my hosts.
The insects are active but no specific hatch dominates. Large black stoneflies mingle with creme colored mayflies and near transparent midges. A stealthy approach with a #16 Royal Wulff and the welcoming party greets me in the most spectacular way. Wild 4-8” trout launch out of the dark water one after the other. Pools the size of coffee tables yield a dozen strikes. Most of these little trout miss the fly completely and only few stay on the hook long enough to come to hand but it matters not at all. I am completely in the moment, focused on my surroundings, on the fly rod, on the fish. The light is gone so I cast with familiar motion into pools unable to see my fly, listening for the unsubtle rise to set the hook. The evening is black and quiet and it feels like it could be the middle night, but it is only 8pm. I turn in early, drifting off to sleep with the comforting knowledge that the trout will be hungry again tomorrow.
Flies are often tied more for the fisherman than the fish. We can't help ourselves, colorfully decorated hooks are appealing. When I look into my flybox the flashy ones draw my attention and I convince myself that they will do the same with trout. Little midges continually fight for my recognition yet they they deliver time and again. None more than the WD-40. It is little more than thread, dubbing, and wood duck feather and it needn’t be anything else. Trout love this fly.