The world was charcoal gray, if I could have seen the horizon it would have been silver. Everything on my body felt wrong. My stomach felt like it was full of acid, my head and neck felt stiff. I wasn’t (really) hungover but I had gotten to sleep only a few hours before and all I could do was push myself forward.
As I left St. Paul the dawn came. I had about 30 miles of I-94 to drive before where I would turn south to the trout stream that was my destination. I had a cup of coffee and I drank it as I drove, little other traffic, the morning still cool though the day would be hot. When I turned off the interstate and onto the two-lane highway and I was closer to the landscape I saw how the fog was thick in the low spots and where there was water. The sun was just above the horizon and the shadows of the trees still stretched west all the way across the fields so there was just a narrow jagged band of bright sunlight between where the shadows of the trees to the east terminated and the next row of trees.
At first I thought that the fog seemed to be fleeing the sun, then that it seemed to be making a last desperate charge at it, and then I thought it was none of that but just that the fog was falling back to the water and the fields where it had risen from in the dawn.
When I arrived at the bridge where I would access the river there were four other cars there. It was 6:45 a.m. The trico hatch was in full swing, and because it’s really the only major late summer hatch, and because it happens right as the sun hits the water before the hot August days, and because trout fishing is otherwise extremely difficult at this time because the water is low and clear and the sun is high and bright, and the fish have been assaulted for months now, and because the tricos are tiny, absolutely tiny, and thus it’s difficult fishing but holds the potential of being extremely rewarding, for all these reasons I was startled but not surprised when I arrived at 6:45 a.m. and so many others had beaten me there.
I put on my boots and my vest, drank water, finished my coffee, laced up my rod and set out for the river. I had counted on hiking a ways, I think a good walk before fishing is one of the best things you can do. It seems that the distance I hike before my first cast is directly proportionate to how well I do fishing. When I walk a good long ways my head is much readier to devote the necessary attention to fishing. But I had not anticipated how bad the banks would be. I knew it would be bad, but neither my memory or imagination was enough to prepare me. Weeds like an unending net, over my head at many times, obscuring the uneven ground, nettles as tall as my shoulders. All of it was wet with the dew and I was soon soaked though I hadn’t gotten in the river yet. I fought my way through the weeds and said to myself, “Forget the hike” and when the nearly invisible path led me into the river I began to ready for a few casts and looked downstream and there was a fisherman just 50 yards away so I turned back up the bank and continued to fight my way through.
When I came to the point where I usually don’t see any more people before the section I like to fish there were two people there. The going was nearly impossible now. What had been a tightly-woven net of foliage became a wall because few people hiked this far. I had to walk a long ways in the water, then fought my way up and through it to a field and the walking was a little easier. I saw a gorgeous spider web and I took a picture and walked a bit further and looked to my right and right there was another bigger web and HOLY SHIT that’s a big spider and I said “My God” to myself out loud and walked faster. I’m not completely scared of spiders, but that one was big and sitting right in the middle of his web, waiting, and I didn’t like being on his turf.
When I cut back down toward the river the weeds were still awful and I slipped a few times and when I finally stepped into the water I spent the first few minutes splashing water on my arms, rubbing them, stinging from the nettles. Then I looked around me. Fifteen feet across the river a cliff rose 15 feet. The water was fairly deep two-thirds of the way across. Upstream it was flat for 50-75 feet, a leafy branch obstructed the water on the left side. Above the flat was small riffle. Another 50 feet downstream from me was another riffle.
Fish began rising in the flat water above me. I looked downstream and saw the most amazing cloud of bugs over the riffle there. The Tricos. The name of the game this morning. I tied on a pattern, the smallest I’ve ever fished with, and began to cast. A good fly angler would approach the trico hatch like this: They would arrive at a good stretch of water a half-hour earlier than me and they would crouch down on the bank and wait for the bugs. When the bugs came they would watch each rising fish and figure out which one was the biggest. They would focus on that fish and study the pattern by which it was rising. One rise, another quick rise, 30 seconds, again. Or one rise, two minutes, another rise. Then they would get in the ideal casting situation for this fish, moving unbelievably slow, and they would deliver a cast two to three feet upstream from the fish and their tiny fly on the almost nonexistent leader would pass over the fish and it would take it.
But, I’m not a good fly angler. My approach was to just keep my fly drifting past fish as much as possible and hope that a fish or two would decide to take mine instead of the thousands of naturals floating by. I had a lot of stuff on my mind, possibly because it had been a while since I went fishing alone, and I thought thoughts at the pace I can only think when I’m fishing alone. There is time to think a thought to oblivion, to approach it rationally and irrationally, realistically and otherwise. To flip it over and turn it inside out and maybe sing the same song lyric to myself in my head a million times. There is time for the fact that I have time to do all this to work its way into me. I had the Pixies song “Debaser” in my head. I just heard it on the radio the night before and have always liked it but don’t know any of the lyrics except Frank Black screeching “Debaser!” in a painfully beautiful way and that was in my head. So were my friends and my dad and my coworkers and some dreams for the future and regrets from the immediate past.
I was probably thinking a bit too much to be fishing well but I needed to think like that, think those thoughts like that, more than I needed to catch a big trout or a bunch of trout so I let myself go. The sun was getting hot and the day was drying out and the fish stopped rising after I caught two little eight inch brown trout, their spots red and their skin dark yellow.
After that I waded up to the hole. The Hole. Maybe one of the most famous on this river, bottomless and flat, always shaded, the kind of hole that you want to put on a snorkel and mask and flippers and swim down into because there are surely monsters down there that will never take your fly but that we somehow believe need to be seen by a human during their long life in the river but which will probably come and go rarely disturbed by man except maybe the splashing of swimming farmkids on a hot afternoon.
I hadn’t tried fishing this hole many times. I’ve walked by it before, I like fishing below it, I like sitting on the bank where there’s a little-used fire ring and watching the calm pool. But it’s making a statement to fish it and it’s not something to be stated lightly. But I was not ready to be done fishing and when I walked up through the riffle that spills out of the hole I saw that several fish were still rising there, often enough that there must still have been tricos floating on the slow-moving water. I said to myself and the world that I can’t claim to be capable of catching a fish from this hole but that I am capable of trying and that’s all I needed to say.
When I casted out into it I could see the shadow of my line on the bottom and after only a couple casts the fish that were rising within my range were not rising any more. So I tied on a beetle, a big — hopefully irressistible — pattern and tied a shiny beadhead nymph on a dropper underneath. I sent it out ahead of me and watch the beetle float on the surface and only a few seconds went by before it jerked underwater and I set the hook and brought in another small trout.
It was a brand new nymph pattern I was fishing and I only had the one and it got mangled as I was trying to remove it from the upper lip of the fish. I tied on another nymph under the beetle and I waded along the left side of the hole and stayed on the edge of the drop-off, the water in the shallows up to my waist. To my right I could see down to where it was probably eight feet deep and beyond that it was just blue.
I fished a while longer without catching anything and then walked back downstream to where I could cross to the other side of the hole. I sat on the bank and watched the big suckers on the bottom and some good size trout swimming amongst them and I ate some bread and drank some water. Then it was time to head back but I was dreading that hike. I went back across the field and followed it as far as I could to get around a big corner in the river and I managed to avoid a lot of messy stuff and get down into the river without too much pain. I couldn’t bring myself to walk in the woods much so I slowly picked my way up the river. There weren’t any signs of other fishermen, the tricos had come and gone for another day. Wading slowly upstream killed my legs, especially combined with the fist sized rocks on the bottom that contorted my feet. Yet I tied on a different fly for every possible hole and I didn’t catch anything.
The river seemed to have grown longer. Every step back toward the car reminded me of another leg of the journey yet ahead. The sun was high and hot and I put more sunscreen on the back of my neck. I waded into the deepest holes when I could so that the cold water chills my legs.
Finally, I walked up to the big hole at the bottom of the big cliff, the bridge only 50 yards away. I had to make a few casts. Again with the beetle, plopping it on the water as close to where the cliff drives down into the river as I could, nothing happened. A few fish were rising occasionally, but none show interest. I clipped the fly off my line and reeled in and broke down my rod and walked up to my car.
It was 2:00. There was one other car still there. The little gravel pull-off at the bottom of the river valley was still and hot and quiet. I changed into shorts and sandals, thinking about home, about a nap, about a party with friends that night. I drove home, a Neil Young bootleg from 1975 in the CD player.