By: Joel Anderson
Introduction: Every fishing trip is its own short story. Here's a short story I've been working on based on a mid-week trip recently. Warning: Very Long!
It was 4 AM on a Wednesday in the middle of October and my fly fishing obsession had me heading east on Route 202 in search of landlocked salmon. Apparently 6 days on my favorite fall river last week wasn’t enough. Something was pulling me back to the river for one last encore presentation.
Still four hours from my destination, I found myself shifting uncomfortably in an effort to alleviate the pain in my neck and shoulder. The pain had been an almost constant companion over the past 2 months and no doubt was the direct result of almost daily fly-casting since late August. And, of course, the advancing age that I try to ignore. When you‘re past 50 and try to remain active, ibuprofen becomes a way of life. Like a Major League pitcher who's arm is shot after a long season of abuse, I was rolling it out there one last day.
I was solo on this trip because even my fly fishing buddies thought driving for 8 hours was a poor trade for ten hours of fishing. That’s their story anyway. If the truth were known, however, the real reason is that they either don’t have as understanding a significant other or boss as myself. Jaynie is as supportive as a partner can be and I’m fortunate to have a boss who has his own passions, specifically hiking and biking, so he’s more understanding and indulgent of mine. “Besides,” I always add as justification, “I’m the guy who’s here in July when the rest of you clowns are on vacation!” Either way, he bought it
In the past, I might nave questioned my own sanity for making such a trip. No more. I made peace with it long ago. I no longer feel the need to justify or apologize for my obsession with fly fishing to others, especially those who don't fish. It’s been 30 years now and the fire still burns as strong as ever, perhaps stronger. I do what I do because I love it, and because it brings infinite challenge and reward to my life. I’m not interested in opinions of others who don’t think of it as a legitimate or worthy use of time. And to be sure, I often feel sorry for those who don’t have a true passion in their life.
In the words of John Voelker, (a.k.a. Robert Traver) from his verse about why he fishes; “...And finally, not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important, but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant and not nearly so much fun.”
The ride was a blur, with my thoughts drifting from work, to family, to what to do with that seven foot roughed-out bamboo blank, to where on the river I will fish today. Before I knew it, I was rolling into the quaint little fishing village.
I love this place. Here it’s all about the fishing and the town probably wouldn’t exist without it. You don’t come here in October if fishing is not part of your itinerary. Here is one of the few places in Maine where you can walk into the general store in a pair of waders and not get a second look. Here, in that same general store, you can buy great pizza and a spool of 6X tippet material.
Arriving at the parking area near the dam, I greet John, a guy with whom I shared this pool for a short time last week. Like me, he just had to come back for one more day and he himself had just completed a two and a half hour drive. He gets it. John is once again trying to come to some sort of agreement with the switch rod he recently purchased and, based on early reports, the smart money is on the relationship not lasting.
I decided to head down stream to one of they more popular pools on the river in hopes of finding an open spot. Sure enough, the mid-week traffic on the river is light and the far side of the river is void of fishermen. Crossing the river against the high flow is not easy, but it’s doable with a wading staff. It’s enough to keep most fishermen on the “closer side” of the river. I took up residence at the tail of the pool with the idea of swinging soft hackle wet flies. It’s overcast and the fish still should be responding to wets. Instead of a soft hackle, however, I selected a very sparsely dressed size 16 chocolate RS2 Emerger, and begin working line out. Casting and mending line to present the emerger pattern on a wet fly swing with my hollow-built Dickerson 8014 is a joy. It’s the perfect cane rod when your fishing will involve anything from size 20 nymphs, to size 4 streamers. As a result, it has seen the bulk of the action this fall, displacing my beloved hollow-built Payne 102.
Two quick strikes to the RS2 resulted in no solid hookups, however. The pool was starting to fill in with fishermen. Lou appeared in his usual spot. He’s been a constant fixture on this pool for as long as I can remember and his fishing prowess is legendary. Lou recently bought a place just up on the hill. Now retired, instead of traveling up from southern New England every year, he simply has to walk down his hill to his favorite fishing spot. Lou definitely has his priorities in the right order.
“Is that you, Joel?” Lou shouted out.
“Yes, Lou. I had to come back for one last day!” I answered back.
Lou nodded his head understandingly. He gets it and no further explanation is required.
Lou introduced me to Paul, his fishing companion for the day. Paul is also a cane rod aficionado, having built a bamboo rod in a weeklong class, and we briefly exchanged stories.
I decided to head down around the corner to a lesser pool that doesn’t get anywhere near the attention as this one. It’s a beautiful pool, especially at high flow, but I wasn’t at all surprised to find it void of fisherman. Happily, I begin working the pool with the RS2 still attached to my leader, repeating the rhythmic “cast, mend, drift, step, cast, mend, drift, step…” as I work my way from the top to the bottom of the pool. About mid-pool my drift is interrupted by a moderately-sized male salmon. After a short battle, the first fish of the day is released. Another nice fish, a female, also fell for the swinging RS2 at the tail of the pool. I switched to a olive wire body soft hackle and worked through the pool once again. It was wonderful to have a pool to myself and one more salmon fell for the swinging wet fly.
Now at the tail of the pool, I decided to work back upstream with a heavily weighted streamer. This is a technique that I’ve recently dusted off after neglecting it for many years, with the exception of river fishing for smallmouth bass, where it has always been a favored presentation. While most fishermen present streamers with a conventional “down and across” approach, this techniques calls for casting a streamer directly upstream, allowing it to sink to the bottom, and then occasionally “bouncing” the fly off the bottom as it drifts back to you. I’ve found that fall salmon can be absolute suckers for this approach.
The first two casts to mid pool with the streamer resulted in hooked and landed fish, with one of them a male that might stretch to eighteen inches. A short while later, a very aggressive strike causes my fly to part company with my tippet. Lazily, I never changed from the 5X tippet I typically fish with wet flies, and the end result was a lost fish and fly. I knew it was going to happen, but I let it happen anyway.
After a few more missed strikes, the fish stopped responding to the streamer, so I decided to switch over to nymphs. The rig I set up includes a size 14 scud pattern with fluorescent orange bead head and a pearlescent shell back. This is a pattern left over from the Montana trip this summer and I was surprised how many salmon actually took it last week when I added it to my leader as a “weight fly”. The dropper is a size 18 Pheasant tail, tied with a flashback, but no bead. The small PT has accounted for more salmon on this river for me than all other flies combined. It’s amazing how fall salmon respond to small nymphs.
The first drift was interrupted by a taking fish and a short while later the salmon was brought to net. I’m not surprised to see that the fish took the fluorescent bead headed scud, and a picture of the salmon with the brightly beaded fly in his snout would have been a photo worthy of John Barr’s “Barr Flies”. That the salmon seem to like the bead headed scud is a tidbit of information that I tucked away for use in future fly tying sessions.
Several more fish are hooked on nymphs, a few took the scud, but most preferred the more subdued Pheasant Tail. Action finally slows, and I am surprised when my cell phone tells me it’s already close to noon.
I decide to head back upstream to the pool beneath the dam thinking perhaps the noontime crowd had thinned out. Finding a position a the tail of the pool, I know if I can get a streamer fly up into the soft spot between currents 90 feet up into the pool, I will find a taking fish because, in spite of the crowds, it’s a spot that is difficult to reach and the fish there probably haven’t seen a fly all morning.
Sure enough, I connect with a salmon my first cast up into the slack water. The salmon actually took the fly on the descent, because he was there on the first strip. The next cast also resulted in a fish, as did the next cast after that one.
I heard crumbling from a guy just downstream. He approached me and explained that he driven from New York and he had been on the river for two days without hooking a fish, and then you walk into the pool and immediately start hooking fish. I tried to be sympathetic when he told me his story and asked me for advice. I explained that fall landlocks can be very fickle and a tough game for the uninitiated.
“There’s really not a lot of rhyme or reason to fall landlocks.” I said. “Sometimes they respond to big streamers, sometimes they prefer small nymphs. Just keep trying different tactics ‘til you hit on something that works.”
“At least I can say I stood next to a guy who caught fish!” he adds sarcastically as he walked back tohis position.
The action to my streamer slows, as expected, but the occasional strike holds my attention for quite awhile. Hunger pains finally started to set in and it’s now approaching 3 PM. I left the water in hopes of finding some sustenance at the general store.
The store owner, Kathy, explains the shelves are pretty much bare because they’ll be closing the store soon.
‘Beggars, can’t be choosers, Kathy” I said. “Can you make a pizza?’
Kathy answered, “Sorry…I’ve only got rye bread and some wraps”.
“Perfect. Got any tuna?” I asked.
“That I do have!” She answers and then she proceeded to make me a tuna wrap, loaded with lettuce, pickles and tomatoes. It was a sandwich fit for a king.
I wolfed down sandwich, which tasted like a slice of heaven, in a few bites so not to cut too much into my now very limited fishing time. I then made my way back downstream to the pool in which I started the day.
I found only a few fisherman occupying the popular pool, so I set up with a nymphing rig and began drifting flies through the middle of the pool. Looking around at water around me, it’s clearly evident that the flow had the flow has been lowered since I arrived at 8 AM. The change in the water flow seems to have put the fish in a foul mood, and I land only fish in an hour of drifting nymphs.
It was now approaching 5 PM and I decided to spend the last hour of the day casting streamers in the slack water above the dam. This can be a tough game, but I’ve developed an addiction to the strike of a salmon from out of nowhere. Arriving at the lake, I found two other fisherman already in attenance. I greeted them, changed over to a Barnes Special streamer and took up a casting position to their left.
“You can put a fly in the water,” one of them said, “but you won’t catch anything!”
“5:30” I replied.
“You’re telling me we’ll hook a fish at 5:30?” he replied with a serious tone of doubt in his voice.
“No.” I answered. “I’m telling you there will be some fish moving to flies starting at 5:30. Whether you hook anything or not is between you and the salmon.”
These guys were self-admitted “newbies” from NH, who usually fished for bass or trolled. They decided to give fly fishing a try and, like my New York friend that I met earlier in the dam pool, they hadn’t hook a fish between them in two days on the river.
They admired and complemented me on my casting, actually stopping their own fishing to watch me. I was actually a little embarrassed. A short while later one of them had a huge boil on his fly and I knew that little excitement, the most action they had seen in two days, would be enough to keep them there until dark.
Sure enough, 5:30 came and after several “near misses”, I finally had a solid hook-up with the first fish of the night. The fish was strong and put up a good battle until it finally came unhooked. That fish definitely impressed upon my new friends that maybe I did know a little something about this place.
A short while later, one of the two other fishermen hooked up with a good salmon, which put on a very impressive aerial display. It was his first salmon caught fly-casting and I was genuinely happy for him. You could hear the excitement in his voice as he exclaimed, “At least I didn’t get skunked!”
A light rain was beginning to fall and with darkness growing around me and a long ride in front of me, I numbered my last casts to six, counting to myself after each cast…”One, two, three…” On the sixth and final cast, I got to the last 20 feet of line and began raising my rod tip from the water level to a 12 o’clock position, watching the belly of the line that was forming from my rod tip to the surface of the water. Suddenly, the line jumped, and a quick hook set was rewarded by the satisfying weight of a throbbing fish.
Quickly playing and releasing the fish, a chunky but small hen, I called it quits. It’s always nice to end a trip with a fish on the last cast anyway. I disassembled my rod, shimmied out of my waders, shouted a farewell to Ken, a friend who was fishing off the dock across the lake outlet, and began the long trip home.