Part two of in a multi-part series about last weekend. The first course was The Appetizer. Stay tuned for more.
This is a great time of year for trout fishing at this latitude and altitude. The fish are as active as they get, the bugs are hatching and — my favorite part — the streamside weeds are nonexistent and hiking the banks is a much less sweaty-slipping-stumbling-tripping-tangling-cursing affair than during the height of summer. Also, the chances of hanging up your fly in the weeds behind you while casting are much slimmer. See the part about “less cursing” in the previous sentence.
All of which made me think the river, let’s call it the Rattlesnake River, would be packed on a sunny Saturday. I considered fishing a less productive and less popular stream, we’ll call it the Eau de Piscine River, but I really wanted to fish one of my favorite stretches of the Rattlesnake. Sailing east on I-94, I decided what the hell, I’ll go to my favorite bridge and if it’s too busy, the Eau de Piscine isn’t far off.
When I pulled up to the bridge, I couldn’t help but smile. There were only three other cars there! Two guys were suiting up by their vehicle and another guy came up from the river as I stood there. I heard him tell the other guys that the fish were being really “selective” and he’d only caught one.
Though I might have been discouraged upon hearing that, I think he must have been fishing way too early in the day for this season because the fish were anything but selective, or scarce, for me that afternoon. As my coworker and fellow fly-fisherman Scott says, “You should go fishing during the part of the day that’s most comfortable to you. In the spring, that’s mid-day. In the summer, it’s early morning and the evening.” Words to live by, I’m convinced.
I don’t know why it wasn’t busier. I’ve seen 10-12 cars at the same bridge crossing on other Saturdays, so my theories are
- everyone was at the big fly fishing expo going on in Bloomington,
- the initial excitement of the catch-and-release season has worn off,
- or that the I-94 bridge across the St. Croix had collapsed shortly after I crossed it.
I got down to the river to find it in what I consider perfect condition: stained a good tea color. I could still see the bottom pretty well, but it had a certain quality that meant the fish wouldn’t be quite as leader-shy, but would still require some delicacy in the calm waters.
I decided to hike a good long ways downstream before fishing so I wouldn’t accidentally bump into somebody or inadvertently fish in front of somebody working their way upstream. It’s nice to start with a good hike, especially now when the hiking is good, because I’ve found it lets my brain race through all the thinking that getting out in the woods tends to elicit, and when I actually start fishing I can really enter that zen-like zone of thinking of fishing and little else.
I got to my favorite section a mile or two down from the bridge. Right below the famous “Blue Hole” (now a few of you might know what river I was on) there’s a great section of a few riffles broken up with deep slicks up against the limestone cliff. A diverse stretch of river.
Here’s the Blue Hole from the first riffle flowing out of it.
I went down to the bottom of the stretch I wanted to fish and as I walked up I noticed rising fish for the first time that day. Seemed like a nice pod, all hanging out along the side of the river nearest the cliff wall, right over the deepest part of the trench. I couldn’t really believe my fortune, though I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a hatch on a perfect day like that.
No matter what, it was a certain joy. It was a long winter of dreaming about fishing. The sensation of a hook-up and having a fish quivering on the end of the fly rod is like no other and I’d been glowing from my first few fish of the year taken a couple weeks before. Those fish were all taken nymphing, dragging larvae and nymph patterns through through deep holes. While still a large part of fly fishing, nymphing appears coarse in comparison to fishing dry flies upstream to rising fish.
Now, it was time for dries. It was time for precision and accuracy. For intently watching the fly float past where the fish are feeding, the quietest and most subtle build-up of tension in the universe, then seeing the small hungry mouth close around your fly and the flat water broken and striking and then the frantic fleeting struggle, where sometimes the small terrified fish wins and sometimes the fisherman does.
Because it’s still catch-and-release season, which requires the use of barbless hooks, quite a few of the fish I got on proceeded to get off, but I still landed a number. I was short on dry fly patters that day so I had to make do with a number of quasi-imitations of what was actually hatching… The fish didn’t seem to mind one bit, as long as it was between a size 14 and 18 and mostly white, they’d take it on a good drift.
This went on for a few hours. The fish continued to rise, my dry fly skills — especially my casting — showed their many rusty spots, but when I could slow down and be calm I’d more often than not get my fly in the general area I wanted it. I couldn’t help but think back to a few memorable outings late last season when I’d realized I could confidently fish dry flies to spooky, rising fish, and knew that it would come back to me with patience. And persistence.
Though it was pretty short-lived, any early spring hatch like the one I happened upon is a joy unto itself. All the elements were there. By about 2:00 things were pretty quiet. But there was plenty of fishing left to do.