Wednesday, September 4, 2013

An Evening Redness on the Stones

The viscous summer air smothered me as I slid the kayak into the river. On the opposite bank, a banded water snake dropped from a low hackberry branch and disappeared beneath the water only to emerge several yards downstream   Its head popped up next to a deadfall that doubled as a perch for a black-capped night heron, which watched all unfold with its wary right eye.

The weather prediction for today was alarmingly accurate – oppressive humidity, high heat and a frightening ragweed pollen alert. The tops of thunderheads began peeking over the canopy of sycamores while sunscreen melted into my eyes and sweat flowed from every pore. Welcome to the dog days of summer.

My right elbow has been cursed with tendonitis for the past two months, and with each forward stroke of my paddle, I felt the familiar nagging pain from a subtle injury that just refuses to heal. I paddled slowly upstream, amidst a cacophony of heat bugs that drenched the air with the pulsating white noise of their summer call. A few yards in front of me, one of the giant insects attempted to fly from tree to tree but clumsily bonked into a thick branch and fell backwards into the water. It fluttered helplessly on the brown surface of the river and tried in vain to flip itself upright, its wings softly gurgling in the surface film.

A small bluegill made the first attempt at the bug, nipping at a wing and making a “bloop” report as it tried to eat a meal decidedly bigger than itself. As the molasses current dragged the desperate insect downstream, it disappeared in a cruel swirl, swallowed from below by a much bigger fish.

I may want to try a cicada pattern, I mentally noted. [It’s these types of crack observational skills that have made me the great fly fisherman I claim to be.]

As I paddled upstream, the river turned scummy with a thick film of greenish-yellow algae peppered with floating twigs and leaves and empty plastic Sun Drop bottles, yet the water below was amazingly alive and full of shad. Oceans of baitfish patrolled bank-to-bank, with most fish being in the two-inch size range. They held in their enormous schools, and shimmered in the random clearings within the muck.

Amongst the bait, squadrons of small bass launched violent attacks, as they slashed, swirled and splashed on helpless fish, often sending their prey skyward to avoid being sucked into the gaping white mouths of the predators below. It was a bad day to be shad. 

And, I knew it then and there. I was not going to catch crap today. Matching the hatch was not a problem. My fly and tackle boxes offered plenty of perfect shad imitations. The issue was trying to get a bass to pick out my offering from a sea of easy meals.

Bass fed seemingly all around my boat. They exploded on the schools from below, scattering shad from the water and into the sides of my kayak. But, I could not get the bass to pick out my fly or lure. After watching dozens of my fruitless casts, a bored blue heron left its nearby perch and squawked in laughter as it flew above.

As the sun slid slowly behind the trees on this inferno of an afternoon, a slight breeze brought forth some relief from the heat. Yet, the air carried something sinister. From a distant register below the flapping of sycamore leaves and the incessant buzz of cicadas, came the eerie wail of a song being played from an ice cream truck which weaved through streets of a ghostly subdivision beyond the bluffs above. The siren’s song attracted some initial nostalgia, as thoughts of push-ups, rocket pops and sprinting home to beg Mom for a quarter flashed through my mind. But, amid the oppressive humidity and the stink of something dead nearby and the now-constant need to adjust my boat to accommodate the wind, the truck’s repetitive rendering of “Fare Thee Well” morphed into the soundtrack of a horror movie. As sweat stung my eyes and my fishing frustration grew, I found myself mindlessly humming along with the syrupy sweet song. An unseen murder of crows cawed in the far distance. A bellied-up catfish lay pinned against a pile of lichen-covered rocks and discarded blue nightcrawler containers at the river’s edge. A horsefly crawled on the rim of my open can of beer. At any moment, I expected Pennywise the Clown to slowly emerge from the mossy green water around me and snarl, “They all float down here, Danny.”

To salvage the now fading day, I gave my aching casting elbow a break and put down the fly rod in favor of a spinning combo and a big ol’ plastic worm. I was just going to ignore the shad massacre occurring around me and pinpoint the fishiest-looking deadfalls and stumps and do some old school bass fishing. The decision proved to be a good one. After a nice cast to the enormous root base of a fallen elm, I let the worm settle for a brief second, then gently shook the rod tip. A dull thump followed, and my line moved slightly to the right. Reeling up slack, I sharply set the hook into a keeper-sized largemouth, which thrashed its head wildly in an algae-covered froth before making the horribly unwise decision to swim to open water where I was able to gain control of the fight.

After a brief tussle, the bass relented boatside. I lipped the fish, took a quick photo, and slid it back into the river.  

And, the ice cream truck’s song stopped.

I picked up a couple of more structure-oriented bass, and even found subtle redemption when one of the open-water predators ambushed the worm as I lifted it from the water at the end of a retrieve. After a few “last casts,” I secured my rods and tackle and paddled home through the clouds of mosquitoes and midges, and enveloped in the purple-orange glow of a late August twilight.

No comments: