Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Voice in the Darkness (Part 1 of 3)

The AuSable River is a clear, cold, slow-flowing river in central Michigan. It’s not stereotypical trout territory because there are no mountains and steep, rocky rivers. The surrounding terrain is mostly low, rolling hills of sand, pines, and fir trees, so the AuSable is quiet and unassuming. And yet, it is one of America’s great trout rivers.
AuSable riverbank
For those of us accustomed to wading in the slippery-rock rivers of the Southern Appalachians, the AuSable is a welcome reprieve. Its gentle current and sandy bottom make wading easy, the only problem being an occasional patch of mud and weeds so thick they can suck the boots right off your feet, which is something I know from experience. The mud and weeds provide prime habitat for the kinds of insects that trout relish, so the trout are big and the wading is easy. . . even at night.
It was about 1 am, and I had been fishing since the sun set about three hours earlier. Or, to be more precise, I had been standing around hoping to hear feeding fish that I could cast my fly to. So I had been listening for several hours, without actually fishing. A lot of what passes for “fly fishing” is actually just standing around waiting for something to happen. For many generations, the most important skill for the aspiring fly fisherman has been the ability to be alone with one’s own thoughts or a good book. I suppose smart phones and iPods may change all that. Why read Thoreau when you could be playing a video game?
That’s the downside to chasing bugs, hoping that they’ll land on the water’s surface as planned, prompting the fish to jump into a full-blown feeding frenzy. The bugs usually show up so consistently that you can set your calendar and your watch by them. In late-May it’s the Sulphur Mayflies; in early June it’s the Brown and Gray Drakes; by mid-June it’s the Hexagenia Mayflies. Most of these bugs mate and die then drop to the surface of the water in the cool evening air at dusk. You can count on it.
How it's supposed to work: fishing at night.
What you can’t count on is where. You can be sure they’ll hatch, mate, and die first on the North Branch and then, about a week later, on the South.  However, this insect activity can be patchy. One of us may be standing in a spot where the bugs and fish are going crazy while another is standing 50 yards away in water that’s as lifeless as a cemetery.
Just Piddling, Waiting for the Big Bug Event
 My night so far had been spent in a dead zone, and now as I waded my way downstream I realized that I had waited too long. I had stayed in the dead section, expecting it to turn on at any moment, only to find out that it wouldn’t turn on at all. Once again I’d spent several hours listening and hoping, then wondering, then despairing… but never actually fishing. Once I decided to move elsewhere, the show was over. The bugs had probably arrived, the fish had eaten them, and I had missed it because I was in the wrong place at the right time, which isn’t quite good enough.
So, like a whipped pup, I sulked my way quietly downstream toward the rickety, old public dock where I would get out and wait for Tim and Keith to return with tales of their fishing exploits. I, once again, would have to report no bugs and no fish for the second night in a row.  I wasn’t looking forward to our reunion.
As I approached my take-out point at the dock I saw the light of a cigar ahead. No sound, just a tiny, orange glow. This nighttime insect activity draws fishermen from throughout the eastern US, so it’s not unusual to see a few fellow fly fishers on the river after dark. It’s common courtesy for the guy who’s wading through to ask permission to pass, at which point the guy who is stationary will tell the wader which side to wade down on. Usually the best route is along the river’s edge behind him because he’s usually standing a few feet out in the river watching for bugs and fish in the middle and across the river.
Hex mayflies and Purple Iris
 I said “Hello?” I didn’t have to shout because the night was deep, the river was quiet, and the sound of my voice would drift unhindered down the river.
A “hello” returned to me from the vicinity of the orange glow, sounding so hollow that at first I wondered if I had heard my own echo. But my “hello” had a question mark at the end of it while the response was in the declarative mode with a Midwest accent. Plus, this part of the country has very few hard surfaces to create echoes. So I continued, “Which side should I wade down on?” I guess this is about as close as a guy normally gets to asking permission. It’s not exactly a “may I wade through” kind of request. It’s more of a “I’m coming through, so just tell me where so I don’t spook the water where you’re fishing.” Of course, that’s way too many words for two guys to exchange. Thus, the abbreviated “Which side…” version.
An old man’s voice responded slowly and clearly from out of the darkness: “I’m not fishing.” [To be continued]

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Throwin' 'em Back


I don’t eat the fish I catch. I’d like to say that it comes from a deep commitment to maintaining a balance in nature or a well-thought-out wilderness ethic – you know, a “take only pictures, leave only footprints” kind of thing – but the truth is much simpler than that: I’m selfish and lazy. I throw the fish back because I’m too lazy to clean them, and if I throw them back then maybe they’ll be there the next time I fish that spot. On a slow day, it’s good to know exactly where the fish are (because you put them there), even if you can’t see any evidence of their presence. Catching a fish in a spot that gives no outward appearance of having fish makes you look like a magician or alchemist who can turn a rock into gold, or in this case, water into a trout.


Such a fisherman can soon gain the reputation of being a master of the craft, someone who has special knowledge that has been hidden for millennia from mere mortals. The Da Vinci Code had the Priory of Sion. Fly-fishing probably has its own secret society, its Sect of Enlightened Ones, who can conjure up a trout in adverse conditions. I said there’s “probably” such a secret society. I wouldn’t know for sure because I’ve not been invited to join and am certainly not a likely candidate for membership. I’m just a guy who claims to be a fly fisherman, but all that really means is that I own a few fly rods and take them out to the river every now and then.


Catching and releasing a big fish is especially hard because the male ego kicks in once a trout reaches the 18 to 20 inch range. A 20 inch trout just needs to be bragged about and shown off, like a new truck. In fact, many of the same questions apply: What kind is it? (Chevy or Ford, Rainbow or Brown.) How big is it? (Horsepower or inches.) How fast does it go? (Fast enough to scare me.) Maybe size doesn’t matter in all areas of life, but in fishing it does. It’s not the only thing, but it’s usually the main thing.


Now you might think that the regulations in a mountain wilderness like the Smoky Mountains would require catch and release, to preserve the wilderness, untouched by humans. After all, it’s illegal it pick wildflowers, ramps, ginseng; pretty much anything. But you can keep any trout over 7 inches.


I know what you are thinking: “Seven inches? Doesn’t that mean you can keep all your fish? Aren’t they all bigger than that?” Well, actually, no. Six inches is very common; seven is about average. A 12 inch trout in the Smokies is a big fish. A 12 inch brook trout would be legendary.


If you are a bass fishermen, you’re proabably giggling right now, right? Any species where 12 inches is “big” is not worth getting your feet wet. Well, under normal circumstances I might agree with you. But there’s another rule at work in the Smokies: context. Context matters.


After a day of catching 6 and 7 inch trout, the occasional 9 or 10 inch fish will make you giggle like a school girl getting ready for her first dance. A 12 inch fish will make you look around for someone to tell your story to. Of course, in such situations you are usually alone, so you have to settle for a moment of self-congratulations. You’ll talk to the fish, even thanking him the way ancient hunters would apologize to an animal’s spirit for catching and killing him, and then you gently slip him back into the water. You part as friends. And, of course, being friends, you make a note of where he lives so you can come back to visit him again.  (Maybe next year when he’s an inch or two longer.)


The other part of the “context” is the mountains, rocks, rushing water, rhododendron, and all the other stuff that brought you there. That’s when you remember why you came and spent the day wading in a river. Actually catching fish was one of the reasons, but it wasn’t the only reason. It wasn’t even the main reason. That’s why you don’t regret throwin’ em back.