Sunday, August 31, 2014

Soft hackles

“How’s the finger?”
“Ahhhh.” Sitting cross-legged in a living room chair, watching Fox News and backlit by the sepia glow of an approaching sunrise, my brother dropped the remote and raised his bandaged digit. The disgusted look on his face told me I’d be fishing alone this morning. 
“They generating?” 
He took a sip from his cup of coffee. Up since well before me, Tim was probably on pot No. 2. 
“Nah. Turned them off at 7 last night. You should be good. I’d go up and fish the riffle. There are big browns up there.” 
The river was cloaked in a dense, blue-ish fog, but just upstream, I could make out the fuzzy silhouette of a fly-fisherman casting in the pre-dawn gloom. 
“I think somebody’s already fishing it.” 
“That’s Mr. Davis. He won’t be there long. Probably just long enough to smoke a cigar.” 
I yawned and instinctively stretched. 
“I won’t bug him. I’ll stay a little downstream.” 

I threw a bottle of water and a cereal bar in my Orvis sling pack, dropped my blood pressure pill in my left shirt pocket, my cell phone in my right, and slipped on my waders. The air was heavy. The steps down to the river were slick and randomly mined with raccoon turds just hours old and laden with wild cherry pits and sunflower seeds. Dodging the droppings, I carefully slipped into the cold river where I was immediately enveloped by the fog. 

There was still a good bit of current left over from the previous day’s generation, and the push of water tried to nudge me downstream as I made my way across the river to a small island. From there, I planned to wade upstream through the fog, and stop a respectable distance down from Mr. Davis. I would fish back to the house, nymphing along the way with a streamer already selected as “option B.” The end strategy included fishy-smelling hands, a frayed tippet and some awkward fish photos on my iPhone. I'd text those to my friends back home, most of whom were currently on their way to spending their next eight hours on earth in an 8 x 8 cubicle awash in the harsh light and dull buzz of fluorescent lights, as they “multi-tasked” their way through conference calls and surfed the web for fishing reports, fly-tying recipes and weather predictions for the upcoming weekend. I would dedicate my performance to my brothers left behind, and hope my texted photos of freshly-caught browns and rainbows would only bring them joy. And pain. Sunshine. And rain. 

The trout staged upon this expansive riffle first got to see my homemade, ragged-looking sowbug pattern drifted below a leggy grasshopper fly which also served as an indicator. They hated both offerings; my hubris probably undercut by karma, and perhaps by a bit of angling incompetence. After about 20 minutes of watching the hopper bob and weave through rise rings of feeding fish, I went to option B.

I tried a streamer Dad had tied. It’s an awesome pattern that incorporates some unique material, giving it a very life-like and tantalizing appearance underwater. It pulses and waves and looks very much like something — a minnow, a crawfish, a hellgrammite, etc. — a trout would want to eat. And, eat it they do. Almost always. Except on this morning. 

As my worry began to mount, I double-hauled Dad’s wonder fly across the river. While the casts were long and felt pretty, the trout gave me the middle fin and rudely rejected the presentation. The little scaly bastards. Through the fog, I couldn’t tell exactly what the fish were feeding upon, but I guessed midges. Hell, they’re always eating midges. Tiny ones, too. The hatch I dread to match. 

I’m not a soft-hackle fan. But, when fish are rising and seemingly everywhere and your lanyard fills and becomes the land of misfit flies, you tend to get desperate. For me, soft-hackles are desperate measures. It’s very much of a “well, I might as well try these” approach. 

Using a long, fluorocarbon leader and tippet, I rigged up a tandem rig consisting of two poorly-tied red-and-black soft-hackle flies (technically, the pattern is called the “Red Ass”). Casting long steady loops slightly downstream, I let the current pull the belly of my line while I retrieved — quickly and steadily — in short strips. The flies skated just a fraction of a inch below the surface, and hopefully attracted the interest of the trout, which were very actively feeding. 

The fog had begun to dissipate, seemingly devoured by the relentless beast of the August heat and humidity. Dad plied the waters of a pocket downstream with his streamer pattern. He wasn’t having much luck. Yet. It was only a matter of time before he dialed it in. I watched him in the periphery, as my fly line steadily chugged its way down and across the stream. On the second cast, the line zipped tight and shot skyward, shedding a long spray of water which caught the emerging sunlight and scattered and fell like sparks from a blown transformer. Fish on. 

The spunky rainbow fought hard, but was ultimately brought to hand, unhooked and released. The next cast was a repeat, and the pattern continued for an amazing seven straight offerings. Rainbow, brown, brown, bow, cutt-bow, bow, brown. For the next half-hour, this continued, as seemingly every cast resulted in at least a bite, if not a fish. None of the trout were big, but all were colorful and fought hard. In the midst, I yelled downstream to Dad to let him know what I was using. He was studying his flybox, with his rod tucked under one arm and an empty tippet end pinched between his lips. He mumbled something that sounded like, “Um, ok.” In The Official Language of Fly Fishermen, that meant, “I’m going to try this caddis pupa pattern instead.” 

Suddenly, the fish stopped biting my flies. I slowly made my way downstream, one unproductive cast at a time. The trout had clearly decided to eat something else. And, Dad’s bent flyrod and tight line revealed exactly what that was.  

I reeled in my fly line and looked at what was left of my soft hackles. Two nearly-bare hooks, each only covered with a thin layer of black thread. Their hackles had been chewed away — probably several fish ago. I clipped off the flies, tossed them in my fly box and searched for a more appropriate selection. 

“Hey Dad, do you have another caddis pupa?” 

The question floated downstream, over the moss-covered rocks and the gentle riffle and through the angled sycamores and honey locusts before it was eventually drowned in the happy noise of a splashing rainbow trout and the subtle giggling of a man who had once again figured them out.