Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Enchanted Run

We've all heard tales from fellow fly fishermen about an unbelievable run where big, fat trout were landed after every dry fly cast, and the fish were un-spookable.  I finally experienced this kind of magical run myself.

For about the third September in a row, I met up with some of my usual partners in the Driftless for a few days of camping and fly fishing. I love fishing this time of year. The red pigments of sumac have begun revealing themselves, the early morning air has started showing signs of frosts to come, hints of fall aromas fill the valleys, and the underbellies of brown trout have transitioned to a deep, buttery yellow. Though the fishing was slow for the most part of the weekend due to bright skies, warm daytime temperatures, and low water levels, as most fishermen will tell you during tough fishing: it was just nice to be on the stream.

It was during one of these slow days that I came upon a very special run; the type of run existing only in my daydreams up to this point; the type of run I may never come upon again; the type of run that warrants the line, "You shoulda been there last week/month/year!" 

It was an enchanted run.

I had been fishing hoppers most of the day with little interest from the trout.  I persisted despite the lack of action, assuming that things would eventually turn around, and if not, it was just nice to be on the stream. I've had days fishing hoppers where there was a trout under every undercut bank and below every overhanging branch.  The trout were where they were supposed to be, and a good cast--or even a sloppy one for that matter--was consistently rewarded.  I'm actually amused by slow days on the same water when the perfect cast goes unrewarded; when a hopper drifts tight along the grassy bank and there's no splashy grab for it.  I find it both amusing and reassuring when a particular stretch of water doesn't fish well every time and when trout are fickle and uninterested.  It's evidence that fly fishing isn't always easy and trout aren't stupid.

I began fishing a stretch of stream that flowed tightly against the side of a bluff, while one of my fishing partners hiked further upstream and the other fished below me.  This was a beautiful stretch of water with nice pools that required technical casting around and through overhanging branches.  Limestone rocks rose above the water and falling leaves made it apparent that autumn is on a fast approach.  At a certain point, the stream made a 90-degree left turn into a tall meadow filled with goldenrod, thistle, and asters.  It was about thirty yards from this bend that providence decided to reward me.  Perhaps it was a reward for my patience and persistence in the face of many challenging days on the water.  Perhaps it was a reward for my respectful attitude towards Mother Nature and her trout.  Perhaps it was just dumb luck that I found myself at the right place at the right time with the right fly.

I know by putting the following events into words that some of the brilliance of the run will be tarnished, and I know I won't find the appropriate words to convey the magnificence of the run to its fullest, but I'll give it a shot anyway.

I carefully approached a nice looking bend with a textbook riffle and run below it.  The outside corner of the run was fairly deep and shaded by overhanging vegetation.  I was fishing a hopper with a mayfly cripple trailing behind it, and I began casting to the lower end of the run along the bubble line.  On my first cast I landed a plump brown trout on the hopper.  After powdering my two flies in desiccant, I casted again into the bubble line.  I saw two splashes just as the flies hit the water and was shocked to see two trout at the end of my line.  I had heard tales of such doublers from other fishermen, but had never seen it firsthand, let alone at the end of my own rod.  After releasing both trout, I took a minute to appreciate the milestone and consciously decided this event marked a great day of fishing.  I could go the last two weeks of the season without catching another trout and hang up my waders on a high note.  With that feeling of contentment enshrouding me, I dried my flies again and casted further up the run.  I got a nice drift along the outer bank with no interest, so I assumed the two previous trout spooked the run with their splashes.  I casted again to the bank and floated my flies under an overhanging branch.  I saw a rise and set the hook, which resulted in a buttery brown in the net that was too large to hold with one hand.  At this point I began looking up and down the stream, hoping one of my fishing partners would appear to witness the events.  During the course of landing the last fish, the trailing fly had wrapped around its body, so I snipped it off leaving just the hopper.  I dried the fly once more and casted closer to the head of the run.  I was sure the last fish was the biggest of the run, so I was completely flabbergasted when the fly hit the water and I pulled in an even larger trout.  At this point, I was probably in mild shock and thinking there couldn't possibly be any more willing trout in there, but just to be sure I casted the hopper into the head of the run.  Unbelievably, I landed another brown large enough to have a hooked lower jaw.  After releasing this fish and watching it disappear into deeper water, I sat down on the bank in utter disbelief.  After a few moments, I reeled in and headed upstream.

In the untruncated version of the story, I landed about a dozen trout in fifteen casts, the smallest of which was 14" and the largest pushing into the 20" range.  I caught the three largest Driftless trout of my season there along with my first double take.  There are no pictures to prove the existence of the larger trout and no witnesses to corroborate the events.  Like the best fishing tales, the story sounds too good to be true, and as the details become fuzzy, the size and number of trout may slightly increase over time.  One detail I hope will never become fuzzy, though, is the elation I felt during that moment in time on that stretch of stream.

Some fishermen would immediately make plans to return to this enchanted stretch of water, but I'm holding off from doing so any time soon.  I know some of the magic will ware off from the experience when I return, since the run is unlikely to fish as well next time.  And why should it?  The stars only align so often, so I won't be pushing my luck.  I know I'll make it back to this stretch eventually, maybe even as early as next season, but I'll approach it cautiously and surreptitiously.  I'll keep my curiosity subdued and work my way up to it slowly from downstream.  When I reach the bottom of the run, I'll treat it like any other stretch of Driftless water.  I won't expect it to fish exceptionally well again and, honestly, I'll be a bit disappointed if it does.  These moments should occur serendipitously--when your guard is down and your mind is open. 

That fleeting hour on the stream is gone, but I'll keep it logged in my memory to be pulled out now and then for my own revelry.  I'll bring it forth to share with other fishermen around tailgates and campfires when prodded or bolstered by inebriation, and I'll savor the memory this winter when the season is closed and I'm daydreaming of hoppers and buttery yellow browns.