Sporting Essays http://howtoflyfish.orvis.com/how-to-articles/sporting-essays-articles/feed/atom 2017-11-20T23:44:05-05:00 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management Pawlet Duck Club 2012-01-25T10:29:59-05:00 2012-01-25T10:29:59-05:00 http://howtoflyfish.orvis.com/how-to-articles/sporting-essays-articles/pawlet-duck-club Paul Fersen matt1@simple101.com <div class="feed-description"><p>Most of you probably know that ducks migrate. In the fall they head south and in the spring they come north. There are a few of you who might not know this, but I'm sure you're the ones whose primary reason for visiting Vermont is to get an Armani suit at half off. You can stop reading about here. The rest of you may proceed.</p> <p>Ducks have their own highways – they're called flyways and they correlate basically to large bodies of water that lie in a north-south path. These lakes and rivers have to do with the amount of available water for the ducks to land, feed and sleep during the course of the southward and northward migration. It is to them as Interstate 81, Motel 6 and Stuckey's are to the great homo-sapien mini-van migration. There is the Atlantic coast flyway for obvious reasons, and the Mississippi flyway that follows the great river southward. These are the great interstates of the duck world. There are other lesser flyways such as the Champlain-Hudson flyway and the Connecticut River flyway that feed into these majors, and then there is the Mettowee Valley flyway. This is the blue highway of the duck world. In our experience these roads are adorned with small motels with individual cabins, souvenir stands that sell moccasins and maple syrup, or further south, boiled peanuts and stuffed baby gators. It is the forgotten path taken by those ducks that wish to discover the heartland.</p> <p>There are two opinions as to the nature of the intelligence of the ducks that take this path. One, this is the intelligent duck route, as they avoid the high traffic, heavily hunted routes such as the Atlantic, the Hudson and the Mississippi flyways where the gauntlet of gunfire is significant. Under this opinion mallards and blacks fly the big routes, Anas platyrhynchos and Anas rubripes fly the Pawlet Valley. There is the other opinion, that these ducks are obviously stupid and therefore lost. Unfortunately in either case, there seems to be a dearth of adventurous and intelligent, or stupid and wandering members of the duck family and therefore a mere smattering of duck traffic up the Mettowee.</p> <p>But, it's down this path in the late days of autumn that our few, selective feathered brethren encounter the Pawlet Duck and Retriever Club. A small (very small) group of overly optimistic duck hunters, we believe the fact that you might even see a duck is impetus enough to climb out of bed on a frozen November morning and go sit and watch the sun come up.</p> <p>The PDRC is located squarely in the heart of the Mettowee flyway. To put this in perspective for those of you unfamiliar with the madness that is duck hunting, ducks on the Mettowee is equivalent to residents in Manchester on Columbus Day. There is a chance, perhaps through divine intervention that you might see one.</p> <p>Perhaps the most telling statistic of the duck traffic in this little valley is the PDRC membership. There are six of us, give or take the occasional guest - myself, Murph, Tom, and the three dogs (this means that one of the dogs has to hold office under the normal President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer hierarchy), but this where we live and this is what we love.</p> <p>Our clubhouse is Tom's house, located directly on the shores of the Mettowee. Nearly every morning of the duck season we gather before work around 5:00 a.m. for coffee. Tramping into Tom's kitchen in waders and boots, we stand in one area to avoid tracking mud and debris into the rest of the house and maintaining the good graces of Tom's lovely and extremely tolerant wife. The dogs meet and greet with raised hackles and noses shoved in disgusting places until they discover they're best friends, at which time they race relentlessly through the house in search of bones and toys. Our cars are loaded with decoys and camo, hunting stools, kennels and guns. Were one to do a per duck expense report, each duck harvested would be worth a small engagement ring. Perhaps that's the beauty of it. There are of course economic advantages to hunting ducks in southern Vermont, one being we don't spend much on ammunition.</p> <p>Tom's deck overlooks a substantial run of the river and this time of year, the fire of autumn foliage is nothing but embers and ash. The mornings are sharp and the coffee that much more comforting. This isn't exactly Stuttgart. If not familiar with Stuttgart, Arkansas, it's the duck hunting capital of the world. It's here that the world championship duck calling event is held and thousands upon thousands of ducks (and hunters) risk their lives each year to pass their way south. It is to duck hunting as Broadway is to the theater. Pawlet, to continue the analogy is street theater.</p> <p>We members of the PDRC work together at Orvis, which allows us a bit of leeway to pursue the elusive duck, as it is in fact part of our business. Essentially we hunt two areas. On mornings when duty calls and we need to make an early meeting, we simply walk down the hill from Tom's deck, put our decoys in the river and kick back in the bushes. I think we actually shot three ducks the entire season here, but the coffee was good and the conversation better.</p> <p>On those mornings when time permits, we head for the "Lease", a secret section of the river, kept private by the fact that nobody else gives a damn. Here the river opens up and the ducks can see a big stretch of water and slow, wide pools in which to set their wings and drop. When the weather gets cold and the still waters of the valley freeze over, these pools suddenly become an attractive option for open water.</p> <p>Accompanying the three of us is the trio of Labradors – a frenzied, whirling dance troupe of otter tails and enthusiasm. Once out of the car, they scream across the pastures in pursuit of nothing but freedom. Flo is the matriarchal ten-year old that belongs to Murph. She has seen the great duck wars on the West Coast when Murph worked for Bauer and her heroic retrieves are legion.</p> <p>Trilly is Tom's driven adolescent whose decoy retrieves far outnumber her duck retrieves. This is partially our fault as she has seen far more decoys than actual dead ducks, but whose desire and willingness to hurl herself into freezing rivers is legendary and whose focus on the sky and its denizens is truly uncanny. Trilly is also famous for her games of keep away, and is often seen headed upriver, duck (or decoy) in mouth with Tom in hot pursuit screaming NO! Perhaps the ultimate dog/owner moment came when Tom literally dove through the air to tackle his dog and the two wrestled in the mud like bimbos in a beer commercial. I had a near death experience swallowing my chewing tobacco in uncontrollable laughter.</p> <p>My dog Pickett is the infant, a young chocolate who made his first appearance in the blind at four months and promptly curled up on a decoy bag and went to sleep. As the season progressed and he grew stronger, he watched Flo and Trilly until that day toward the end of the season when he strained at the lead and implored me to let him have his turn. Flo led Trilly into the water as a pup and imbued her with her incredible desire to retrieve. Trilly has since done the same for Pickett. His first tentative steps in the water are now Herculean leaps thanks to Trilly's example. To watch them together crashing headlong into the current is a retriever owner's great joy.</p> <p>In truth there were in fact great days, "great" being a relative term. Fact is, there are no bad days duck hunting, only unsuccessful ones. Most of the time we walked out of the field with a bag full of decoys and some disappointed dogs, but every once in a while we would get lucky.</p> <p>When we hunt the lease, we put out the decoys and then spread out in the hedgerow to wait. We separate partially to cover more of the river, but more importantly to keep the dogs separated and quiet. This is generally fruitless as all three love to warn us of impending ducks (or duck as it were) by barking as loudly as possible.</p> <p>Murph is the veteran duck hunter and as such the resident caller. When Murph cuts loose with a hail call or feeding chuckle, most of the time the ducks turn and take a look. As for my calling, instead of "Hey over here, the food's great!" I somehow get the impression I'm saying, "Get the @#%$%^ outta here you m+_&amp;*$@^%* er!" I've never been able to prove it, but the fact that the ducks seem to fly much faster when I call gives that impression. I'm not allowed to call when there are ducks around. Generally when ducks are spotted we rely on Murph to call them in. The problem is Murph is a bit hard of hearing and as such between the dogs barking and us screaming at Murph to call, we generally scare away the few lost souls that do happen by our hunting ground. Tom's shotgun is legendary for jamming at just the right moment. I remember wondering during one instance when ducks were actually coming in, why he wasn't shooting only to look over and see him banging his shotgun against a fence post.</p> <p>Taking all our foibles into consideration, we do though, occasionally harvest a duck or two and there are those remarkable days when we walk out with our limit and the office is, later in the morning, regaled with stories of incredible shots and heroic retrieves.</p> <p>I remember an e-mail from one of our colleagues recounting a trip to Arkansas where he and his guides saw thousands of ducks and had their limit in minutes. I think this would be intriguing once or twice, to say I'd done it, perhaps more importantly just to see that many ducks, but I don't think I would trade my valley in Vermont and my hunting companions for any of it. I've huddled by the river, hands wrapped around a warm cup and watched a cloud paint a mountainside with ice. I've witnessed blood red skies and fields touched by the first sunlight suddenly shimmer as if covered with scattered diamonds. I've shared time and laughter with two great friends and three remarkable dogs. What few duck breasts I have are savored over the course of the year and the memory of each successful hunt vivid in its rarity. Stuttgart may be a great place to hunt, but it depends on what you're hunting. Me, I'm hunting more than just ducks.</p></div> <div class="feed-description"><p>Most of you probably know that ducks migrate. In the fall they head south and in the spring they come north. There are a few of you who might not know this, but I'm sure you're the ones whose primary reason for visiting Vermont is to get an Armani suit at half off. You can stop reading about here. The rest of you may proceed.</p> <p>Ducks have their own highways – they're called flyways and they correlate basically to large bodies of water that lie in a north-south path. These lakes and rivers have to do with the amount of available water for the ducks to land, feed and sleep during the course of the southward and northward migration. It is to them as Interstate 81, Motel 6 and Stuckey's are to the great homo-sapien mini-van migration. There is the Atlantic coast flyway for obvious reasons, and the Mississippi flyway that follows the great river southward. These are the great interstates of the duck world. There are other lesser flyways such as the Champlain-Hudson flyway and the Connecticut River flyway that feed into these majors, and then there is the Mettowee Valley flyway. This is the blue highway of the duck world. In our experience these roads are adorned with small motels with individual cabins, souvenir stands that sell moccasins and maple syrup, or further south, boiled peanuts and stuffed baby gators. It is the forgotten path taken by those ducks that wish to discover the heartland.</p> <p>There are two opinions as to the nature of the intelligence of the ducks that take this path. One, this is the intelligent duck route, as they avoid the high traffic, heavily hunted routes such as the Atlantic, the Hudson and the Mississippi flyways where the gauntlet of gunfire is significant. Under this opinion mallards and blacks fly the big routes, Anas platyrhynchos and Anas rubripes fly the Pawlet Valley. There is the other opinion, that these ducks are obviously stupid and therefore lost. Unfortunately in either case, there seems to be a dearth of adventurous and intelligent, or stupid and wandering members of the duck family and therefore a mere smattering of duck traffic up the Mettowee.</p> <p>But, it's down this path in the late days of autumn that our few, selective feathered brethren encounter the Pawlet Duck and Retriever Club. A small (very small) group of overly optimistic duck hunters, we believe the fact that you might even see a duck is impetus enough to climb out of bed on a frozen November morning and go sit and watch the sun come up.</p> <p>The PDRC is located squarely in the heart of the Mettowee flyway. To put this in perspective for those of you unfamiliar with the madness that is duck hunting, ducks on the Mettowee is equivalent to residents in Manchester on Columbus Day. There is a chance, perhaps through divine intervention that you might see one.</p> <p>Perhaps the most telling statistic of the duck traffic in this little valley is the PDRC membership. There are six of us, give or take the occasional guest - myself, Murph, Tom, and the three dogs (this means that one of the dogs has to hold office under the normal President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer hierarchy), but this where we live and this is what we love.</p> <p>Our clubhouse is Tom's house, located directly on the shores of the Mettowee. Nearly every morning of the duck season we gather before work around 5:00 a.m. for coffee. Tramping into Tom's kitchen in waders and boots, we stand in one area to avoid tracking mud and debris into the rest of the house and maintaining the good graces of Tom's lovely and extremely tolerant wife. The dogs meet and greet with raised hackles and noses shoved in disgusting places until they discover they're best friends, at which time they race relentlessly through the house in search of bones and toys. Our cars are loaded with decoys and camo, hunting stools, kennels and guns. Were one to do a per duck expense report, each duck harvested would be worth a small engagement ring. Perhaps that's the beauty of it. There are of course economic advantages to hunting ducks in southern Vermont, one being we don't spend much on ammunition.</p> <p>Tom's deck overlooks a substantial run of the river and this time of year, the fire of autumn foliage is nothing but embers and ash. The mornings are sharp and the coffee that much more comforting. This isn't exactly Stuttgart. If not familiar with Stuttgart, Arkansas, it's the duck hunting capital of the world. It's here that the world championship duck calling event is held and thousands upon thousands of ducks (and hunters) risk their lives each year to pass their way south. It is to duck hunting as Broadway is to the theater. Pawlet, to continue the analogy is street theater.</p> <p>We members of the PDRC work together at Orvis, which allows us a bit of leeway to pursue the elusive duck, as it is in fact part of our business. Essentially we hunt two areas. On mornings when duty calls and we need to make an early meeting, we simply walk down the hill from Tom's deck, put our decoys in the river and kick back in the bushes. I think we actually shot three ducks the entire season here, but the coffee was good and the conversation better.</p> <p>On those mornings when time permits, we head for the "Lease", a secret section of the river, kept private by the fact that nobody else gives a damn. Here the river opens up and the ducks can see a big stretch of water and slow, wide pools in which to set their wings and drop. When the weather gets cold and the still waters of the valley freeze over, these pools suddenly become an attractive option for open water.</p> <p>Accompanying the three of us is the trio of Labradors – a frenzied, whirling dance troupe of otter tails and enthusiasm. Once out of the car, they scream across the pastures in pursuit of nothing but freedom. Flo is the matriarchal ten-year old that belongs to Murph. She has seen the great duck wars on the West Coast when Murph worked for Bauer and her heroic retrieves are legion.</p> <p>Trilly is Tom's driven adolescent whose decoy retrieves far outnumber her duck retrieves. This is partially our fault as she has seen far more decoys than actual dead ducks, but whose desire and willingness to hurl herself into freezing rivers is legendary and whose focus on the sky and its denizens is truly uncanny. Trilly is also famous for her games of keep away, and is often seen headed upriver, duck (or decoy) in mouth with Tom in hot pursuit screaming NO! Perhaps the ultimate dog/owner moment came when Tom literally dove through the air to tackle his dog and the two wrestled in the mud like bimbos in a beer commercial. I had a near death experience swallowing my chewing tobacco in uncontrollable laughter.</p> <p>My dog Pickett is the infant, a young chocolate who made his first appearance in the blind at four months and promptly curled up on a decoy bag and went to sleep. As the season progressed and he grew stronger, he watched Flo and Trilly until that day toward the end of the season when he strained at the lead and implored me to let him have his turn. Flo led Trilly into the water as a pup and imbued her with her incredible desire to retrieve. Trilly has since done the same for Pickett. His first tentative steps in the water are now Herculean leaps thanks to Trilly's example. To watch them together crashing headlong into the current is a retriever owner's great joy.</p> <p>In truth there were in fact great days, "great" being a relative term. Fact is, there are no bad days duck hunting, only unsuccessful ones. Most of the time we walked out of the field with a bag full of decoys and some disappointed dogs, but every once in a while we would get lucky.</p> <p>When we hunt the lease, we put out the decoys and then spread out in the hedgerow to wait. We separate partially to cover more of the river, but more importantly to keep the dogs separated and quiet. This is generally fruitless as all three love to warn us of impending ducks (or duck as it were) by barking as loudly as possible.</p> <p>Murph is the veteran duck hunter and as such the resident caller. When Murph cuts loose with a hail call or feeding chuckle, most of the time the ducks turn and take a look. As for my calling, instead of "Hey over here, the food's great!" I somehow get the impression I'm saying, "Get the @#%$%^ outta here you m+_&amp;*$@^%* er!" I've never been able to prove it, but the fact that the ducks seem to fly much faster when I call gives that impression. I'm not allowed to call when there are ducks around. Generally when ducks are spotted we rely on Murph to call them in. The problem is Murph is a bit hard of hearing and as such between the dogs barking and us screaming at Murph to call, we generally scare away the few lost souls that do happen by our hunting ground. Tom's shotgun is legendary for jamming at just the right moment. I remember wondering during one instance when ducks were actually coming in, why he wasn't shooting only to look over and see him banging his shotgun against a fence post.</p> <p>Taking all our foibles into consideration, we do though, occasionally harvest a duck or two and there are those remarkable days when we walk out with our limit and the office is, later in the morning, regaled with stories of incredible shots and heroic retrieves.</p> <p>I remember an e-mail from one of our colleagues recounting a trip to Arkansas where he and his guides saw thousands of ducks and had their limit in minutes. I think this would be intriguing once or twice, to say I'd done it, perhaps more importantly just to see that many ducks, but I don't think I would trade my valley in Vermont and my hunting companions for any of it. I've huddled by the river, hands wrapped around a warm cup and watched a cloud paint a mountainside with ice. I've witnessed blood red skies and fields touched by the first sunlight suddenly shimmer as if covered with scattered diamonds. I've shared time and laughter with two great friends and three remarkable dogs. What few duck breasts I have are savored over the course of the year and the memory of each successful hunt vivid in its rarity. Stuttgart may be a great place to hunt, but it depends on what you're hunting. Me, I'm hunting more than just ducks.</p></div> Coop's Fish 2012-01-25T10:29:28-05:00 2012-01-25T10:29:28-05:00 http://howtoflyfish.orvis.com/how-to-articles/sporting-essays-articles/coop-s-fish Paul Fersen matt1@simple101.com <div class="feed-description"><p>There are times he seems like a father, though only a few years older than me. Perhaps it's the knowledge, at least when it comes to fish and the ocean. I always feel like a child next to him, learning, more importantly wanting to please. It's been that way since the first night on a black and sqaullish Atlantic beach where he seemed so sure and comfortable, and me so disoriented, trying to cast in the dark.</p> <p>When it comes to the business we share, the roles reverse and I look on him as someone to be protected as I would my own. As confident as he is on the water, he is naïve in business – honest to a fault. A rare man indeed. It's why my youngest bears his name – Cooper.</p> <p>The pilgrimage to his island comes with all its inherent freedoms. One becomes feckless when the ferry leaves the dock and the bonds of accountability are severed by the channel. Once ensconced in the beach house, rods and waders scattered along the porch rail, the release is complete. Beyond the Elizabeth Islands, the mainland remains at bay, unable now to burden me with the grinding weight of responsibility.</p> <p>This year was different. His heart was struggling. Too many years of blue-collar cuisine. The smile and the warmth were there as always and little Coop didn't notice the gray pallor where sun-burnished leather once glowed. He only knew those thick and weathered arms encircling him loved him and were taking him fishing.</p> <p>I noticed. He shrugged as if it were nothing, but the worry in Lela and Tina's eyes spoke volumes. I spoke with them quietly while Coop took the boy to see the eel tank.</p> <p>"Apparently there is a significant blockage," she said, moving quickly around the room. Stopping too long allowed too much time to think. The worst always creeps in. Tina watched her mother and then looked at me with a flicker of a smile.</p> <p>"We're so glad you're here," she said wrapping her arms around my waist and burying her head in my chest. As if I could somehow solve this problem as I had solved a few minor business problems for them in the past.</p> <p>The house was up-island near Gay Head. A small cluster of houses gathered together overlooking Lobsterville Beach. There was nothing here, the nearest resemblance of a store some five miles distant. Even on the busiest weekends, this long stretch of beach remains unpopulated, the tourists concentrated like lemmings down-island where the ferries land. Somehow some dim tribal instinct offers comfort in numbers and they seem to be content with what they can find close by. Thank God for my genetic deficiency.</p> <p>Lobsterville is a fishing beach, stretching from Menemsha Pond up to the cliffs of Gay Head. Across the sound, the Elizabeth Islands stretch westward. The bloody sunsets over Cutty Hunk are familiar to anglers just stepping on the beach for a night's fishing and in June the stripers gather here fresh from the northward migration, covered in seal lice and voracious. Menemsha Pond offers billions of sand eel fry spewing out with the tide and the striped bass feast here for weeks. At night as the outgoing sweeps the eels west along the beach, the big fish hang by the tidal conveyor gulping big holes in the dark sea.</p> <p>The house was perfectly situated overlooking a huge stretch of beach and we could watch the birds and the bait without leaving the deck. In the evenings as the sea darkened and the sky went blood red, we watch the surf line for swirls and the nervous water of trembling baitfish. This year we were treated to a phenomenon never seen in our previous years there – a nightly fluke blitz. Normally fluke are content to lay in wait, darting up to snatch their prey while posing as the bottom. For some reason Mother Nature had encouraged them to become school feeders and attack this line of sand eels in the Lobsterville surf. It was something none of us ever before witnessed, but was delightful in its rarity.</p> <p>Looking down the beach, the water was churning with small swirls and round flat fluke popping up in the air like pancakes on a diner griddle. Little Cooper was beside himself wanting to catch some fish.</p> <p>Big Coop was not allowed to fish – doctor's orders, and Tina and Lela were as solid as the rocks at Devil's Bridge in their refusal to let Coop sneak out for few hours, but little Coop's arrival brought a softening and a "maybe" when he begged to go fishing.</p> <p>"Just for an hour."</p> <p>"No more."</p> <p>"We'll be down at sunset," Coop said, as he began searching through the turmoil that is his garage in pursuit of a little rod for the four-year old. I watched him for a few moments and smiled thinking he was as purposeful as if he were preparing for one of our offshore tuna trips.</p> <p>"You're sure this is all right?" I questioned Lela.</p> <p>"This is the only exception I'd make," she said. "Fishing with Coopie will do him more good than anything I can think of - but only for a bit. Tina and I will both be there to make sure he doesn't overdo it." Together we watched him rig the little rod.</p> <p>We were all on the beach that evening. Joey, Matt and I were outfitted for the duration of the night - waders, chest packs, fly rods and wading jackets. We resembled an assault team. Everyone else, Coop, Lela, Tina, little Coop, Mimi and Lizzie were dressed lightly as they would depart the beach when the sun finally disappeared behind the islands.</p> <p>Coop rigged the rod with a white Sluggo and a bobber. He cast the tiny rod, flipping the rig into the sea, set the drag and handed it to my little boy who stood expectantly by his side in bare feet and an oversized sweatshirt. The night air and expectation caused him to tremble visibly.</p> <p>For near an hour the child reveled and laughed at the tug of the fluke as he and Coop moved back and forth toward the water, big Coop casting and removing fish, while little Coop reeled and squealed with delight as each fish appeared in the wash. The little rod doubled over with the slightest tug and for the boy, each fish was an epic struggle.</p> <p>The striper hit just as the sun dropped below Cutty Hunk. Crimson streaks raced across the sky, and we all marveled at the sunset when we noticed a change in the boy's demeanor. The squeals of joy turned just enough in their timbre that his mother and I instantly looked over, recognizing the subtle change in pitch from joy to helplessness. The line was peeling off the reel despite the child's best efforts to reel. This was obviously no fluke. I grabbed him as he stumbled toward the water reeling furiously, his little hands trying to keep up a relentless pace. The spindle began to reveal itself and suddenly the knot appeared. I held on to little Coop and grimaced, waiting for the inevitable sound of snapping mono. The fish stopped.</p> <p>Little Coop was in a four-year-old frenzy, trying to reel against the big fish. He was getting nowhere, the drag on the tiny spinning reel allowing no gain. Big Coop kneeled next to him and gently held the child around the waist. I stepped away. He began to whisper to the child. Immediately the boy calmed and began steadfastly reeling while the rod bent toward the sand.</p> <p>"Christ Coop, how much line is on that thing."</p> <p>Coop looked at me with a grin.</p> <p>"25 yards of six pound."</p> <p>"No way." I fish striper with 200 yards of backing and 16 pound tippet. My son was fighting this fish with six pound mono.</p> <p>For twenty minutes we stood transfixed by the struggle between big fish and little boy. Though my son, I stepped back and left him in the hands of Coop, watching the two of them, Coop kneeling and the little boy wrapped tightly in his arms reeling, reeling, constantly reeling, while Coop whispered encouragement to him. There could be no better way for my son to catch his first striper.</p> <p>At a certain point the battle seemed to be too much for the child and the tears welled up in his eyes. His tiny arms were failing and the fish seemed no closer now than before. He kept looking at Coop who tightened his grip on the boy and again whispered something to him. The calming effect was immediate. The two Coops gained on occasion, but then the big fish moved easily away, stripping line from the tiny reel – but each time, as the knot appeared – the fish stopped, turned and allowed the boy to pull her back toward the beach. I looked around at the group who loved these two Coops so much and noticed the remnants of salty tracks glistening on more than a few cheeks as we watched our old friend and his namesake do exactly what Nature intended – catch a great fish together.</p> <p>The fourth time the fish came to heel, she stayed. Coop gently pulled the boy back up the beach, and slid the fish on the sand until it was clear of the wash. Cheers erupted, cameras flashed and Coop reached for the fish. Little Coop's eyes widened as the scope of what he'd done revealed itself and a 35 plus inch striped bass lay staring at him, its gills moving heavily from its exertions. Coop pulled the fish up and held it for the little boy urging him to get closer for a picture. The sheer size of the fish frightened the child, but he stepped closer reaching out to Coop for reassurance while eyeing the fish carefully.</p> <p>The cameras flashed again and I took the fish from Coop and walked out into the surf to release her. I slid her into the water and moved her back and forth giving her time to recover. As she began to move, I held only her tail, waiting for that powerful shake that would assure me of her revival. Waiting, I looked closely at her. She could have snapped the line with one half - hearted shake of her head, but she didn't. Her tail could have easily propelled her out of danger, but it didn't. I pulled her back one more time. She looked at me with her bottomless black eye, shook her tail and moved off into the dark water.</p> <p>Perhaps every little boy has a fish out there. One would hope that was the order of things. My son was fortunate to meet his - even more so wrapped in the arms of one who loved both him and the fish so much. Ever so rarely, fate offers up a moment of such perfection that one struggles later to relate it without crushing sentimentality. I grinned to myself as I walked slowly back toward the beach. This one will be the hardest tale to tell.</p></div> <div class="feed-description"><p>There are times he seems like a father, though only a few years older than me. Perhaps it's the knowledge, at least when it comes to fish and the ocean. I always feel like a child next to him, learning, more importantly wanting to please. It's been that way since the first night on a black and sqaullish Atlantic beach where he seemed so sure and comfortable, and me so disoriented, trying to cast in the dark.</p> <p>When it comes to the business we share, the roles reverse and I look on him as someone to be protected as I would my own. As confident as he is on the water, he is naïve in business – honest to a fault. A rare man indeed. It's why my youngest bears his name – Cooper.</p> <p>The pilgrimage to his island comes with all its inherent freedoms. One becomes feckless when the ferry leaves the dock and the bonds of accountability are severed by the channel. Once ensconced in the beach house, rods and waders scattered along the porch rail, the release is complete. Beyond the Elizabeth Islands, the mainland remains at bay, unable now to burden me with the grinding weight of responsibility.</p> <p>This year was different. His heart was struggling. Too many years of blue-collar cuisine. The smile and the warmth were there as always and little Coop didn't notice the gray pallor where sun-burnished leather once glowed. He only knew those thick and weathered arms encircling him loved him and were taking him fishing.</p> <p>I noticed. He shrugged as if it were nothing, but the worry in Lela and Tina's eyes spoke volumes. I spoke with them quietly while Coop took the boy to see the eel tank.</p> <p>"Apparently there is a significant blockage," she said, moving quickly around the room. Stopping too long allowed too much time to think. The worst always creeps in. Tina watched her mother and then looked at me with a flicker of a smile.</p> <p>"We're so glad you're here," she said wrapping her arms around my waist and burying her head in my chest. As if I could somehow solve this problem as I had solved a few minor business problems for them in the past.</p> <p>The house was up-island near Gay Head. A small cluster of houses gathered together overlooking Lobsterville Beach. There was nothing here, the nearest resemblance of a store some five miles distant. Even on the busiest weekends, this long stretch of beach remains unpopulated, the tourists concentrated like lemmings down-island where the ferries land. Somehow some dim tribal instinct offers comfort in numbers and they seem to be content with what they can find close by. Thank God for my genetic deficiency.</p> <p>Lobsterville is a fishing beach, stretching from Menemsha Pond up to the cliffs of Gay Head. Across the sound, the Elizabeth Islands stretch westward. The bloody sunsets over Cutty Hunk are familiar to anglers just stepping on the beach for a night's fishing and in June the stripers gather here fresh from the northward migration, covered in seal lice and voracious. Menemsha Pond offers billions of sand eel fry spewing out with the tide and the striped bass feast here for weeks. At night as the outgoing sweeps the eels west along the beach, the big fish hang by the tidal conveyor gulping big holes in the dark sea.</p> <p>The house was perfectly situated overlooking a huge stretch of beach and we could watch the birds and the bait without leaving the deck. In the evenings as the sea darkened and the sky went blood red, we watch the surf line for swirls and the nervous water of trembling baitfish. This year we were treated to a phenomenon never seen in our previous years there – a nightly fluke blitz. Normally fluke are content to lay in wait, darting up to snatch their prey while posing as the bottom. For some reason Mother Nature had encouraged them to become school feeders and attack this line of sand eels in the Lobsterville surf. It was something none of us ever before witnessed, but was delightful in its rarity.</p> <p>Looking down the beach, the water was churning with small swirls and round flat fluke popping up in the air like pancakes on a diner griddle. Little Cooper was beside himself wanting to catch some fish.</p> <p>Big Coop was not allowed to fish – doctor's orders, and Tina and Lela were as solid as the rocks at Devil's Bridge in their refusal to let Coop sneak out for few hours, but little Coop's arrival brought a softening and a "maybe" when he begged to go fishing.</p> <p>"Just for an hour."</p> <p>"No more."</p> <p>"We'll be down at sunset," Coop said, as he began searching through the turmoil that is his garage in pursuit of a little rod for the four-year old. I watched him for a few moments and smiled thinking he was as purposeful as if he were preparing for one of our offshore tuna trips.</p> <p>"You're sure this is all right?" I questioned Lela.</p> <p>"This is the only exception I'd make," she said. "Fishing with Coopie will do him more good than anything I can think of - but only for a bit. Tina and I will both be there to make sure he doesn't overdo it." Together we watched him rig the little rod.</p> <p>We were all on the beach that evening. Joey, Matt and I were outfitted for the duration of the night - waders, chest packs, fly rods and wading jackets. We resembled an assault team. Everyone else, Coop, Lela, Tina, little Coop, Mimi and Lizzie were dressed lightly as they would depart the beach when the sun finally disappeared behind the islands.</p> <p>Coop rigged the rod with a white Sluggo and a bobber. He cast the tiny rod, flipping the rig into the sea, set the drag and handed it to my little boy who stood expectantly by his side in bare feet and an oversized sweatshirt. The night air and expectation caused him to tremble visibly.</p> <p>For near an hour the child reveled and laughed at the tug of the fluke as he and Coop moved back and forth toward the water, big Coop casting and removing fish, while little Coop reeled and squealed with delight as each fish appeared in the wash. The little rod doubled over with the slightest tug and for the boy, each fish was an epic struggle.</p> <p>The striper hit just as the sun dropped below Cutty Hunk. Crimson streaks raced across the sky, and we all marveled at the sunset when we noticed a change in the boy's demeanor. The squeals of joy turned just enough in their timbre that his mother and I instantly looked over, recognizing the subtle change in pitch from joy to helplessness. The line was peeling off the reel despite the child's best efforts to reel. This was obviously no fluke. I grabbed him as he stumbled toward the water reeling furiously, his little hands trying to keep up a relentless pace. The spindle began to reveal itself and suddenly the knot appeared. I held on to little Coop and grimaced, waiting for the inevitable sound of snapping mono. The fish stopped.</p> <p>Little Coop was in a four-year-old frenzy, trying to reel against the big fish. He was getting nowhere, the drag on the tiny spinning reel allowing no gain. Big Coop kneeled next to him and gently held the child around the waist. I stepped away. He began to whisper to the child. Immediately the boy calmed and began steadfastly reeling while the rod bent toward the sand.</p> <p>"Christ Coop, how much line is on that thing."</p> <p>Coop looked at me with a grin.</p> <p>"25 yards of six pound."</p> <p>"No way." I fish striper with 200 yards of backing and 16 pound tippet. My son was fighting this fish with six pound mono.</p> <p>For twenty minutes we stood transfixed by the struggle between big fish and little boy. Though my son, I stepped back and left him in the hands of Coop, watching the two of them, Coop kneeling and the little boy wrapped tightly in his arms reeling, reeling, constantly reeling, while Coop whispered encouragement to him. There could be no better way for my son to catch his first striper.</p> <p>At a certain point the battle seemed to be too much for the child and the tears welled up in his eyes. His tiny arms were failing and the fish seemed no closer now than before. He kept looking at Coop who tightened his grip on the boy and again whispered something to him. The calming effect was immediate. The two Coops gained on occasion, but then the big fish moved easily away, stripping line from the tiny reel – but each time, as the knot appeared – the fish stopped, turned and allowed the boy to pull her back toward the beach. I looked around at the group who loved these two Coops so much and noticed the remnants of salty tracks glistening on more than a few cheeks as we watched our old friend and his namesake do exactly what Nature intended – catch a great fish together.</p> <p>The fourth time the fish came to heel, she stayed. Coop gently pulled the boy back up the beach, and slid the fish on the sand until it was clear of the wash. Cheers erupted, cameras flashed and Coop reached for the fish. Little Coop's eyes widened as the scope of what he'd done revealed itself and a 35 plus inch striped bass lay staring at him, its gills moving heavily from its exertions. Coop pulled the fish up and held it for the little boy urging him to get closer for a picture. The sheer size of the fish frightened the child, but he stepped closer reaching out to Coop for reassurance while eyeing the fish carefully.</p> <p>The cameras flashed again and I took the fish from Coop and walked out into the surf to release her. I slid her into the water and moved her back and forth giving her time to recover. As she began to move, I held only her tail, waiting for that powerful shake that would assure me of her revival. Waiting, I looked closely at her. She could have snapped the line with one half - hearted shake of her head, but she didn't. Her tail could have easily propelled her out of danger, but it didn't. I pulled her back one more time. She looked at me with her bottomless black eye, shook her tail and moved off into the dark water.</p> <p>Perhaps every little boy has a fish out there. One would hope that was the order of things. My son was fortunate to meet his - even more so wrapped in the arms of one who loved both him and the fish so much. Ever so rarely, fate offers up a moment of such perfection that one struggles later to relate it without crushing sentimentality. I grinned to myself as I walked slowly back toward the beach. This one will be the hardest tale to tell.</p></div> Full Circle 2012-01-25T10:28:57-05:00 2012-01-25T10:28:57-05:00 http://howtoflyfish.orvis.com/how-to-articles/sporting-essays-articles/full-circle Paul Fersen matt1@simple101.com <div class="feed-description"><p>There are times he seems like a father, though only a few years older than me. Perhaps it's the knowledge, at least when it comes to fish and the ocean. I always feel like a child next to him, learning, more importantly wanting to please. It's been that way since the first night on a black and sqaullish Atlantic beach where he seemed so sure and comfortable, and me so disoriented, trying to cast in the dark.</p> <p>When it comes to the business we share, the roles reverse and I look on him as someone to be protected as I would my own. As confident as he is on the water, he is naïve in business – honest to a fault. A rare man indeed. It's why my youngest bears his name – Cooper.</p> <p>The pilgrimage to his island comes with all its inherent freedoms. One becomes feckless when the ferry leaves the dock and the bonds of accountability are severed by the channel. Once ensconced in the beach house, rods and waders scattered along the porch rail, the release is complete. Beyond the Elizabeth Islands, the mainland remains at bay, unable now to burden me with the grinding weight of responsibility.</p> <p>This year was different. His heart was struggling. Too many years of blue-collar cuisine. The smile and the warmth were there as always and little Coop didn't notice the gray pallor where sun-burnished leather once glowed. He only knew those thick and weathered arms encircling him loved him and were taking him fishing.</p> <p>I noticed. He shrugged as if it were nothing, but the worry in Lela and Tina's eyes spoke volumes. I spoke with them quietly while Coop took the boy to see the eel tank.</p> <p>"Apparently there is a significant blockage," she said, moving quickly around the room. Stopping too long allowed too much time to think. The worst always creeps in. Tina watched her mother and then looked at me with a flicker of a smile.</p> <p>"We're so glad you're here," she said wrapping her arms around my waist and burying her head in my chest. As if I could somehow solve this problem as I had solved a few minor business problems for them in the past.</p> <p>The house was up-island near Gay Head. A small cluster of houses gathered together overlooking Lobsterville Beach. There was nothing here, the nearest resemblance of a store some five miles distant. Even on the busiest weekends, this long stretch of beach remains unpopulated, the tourists concentrated like lemmings down-island where the ferries land. Somehow some dim tribal instinct offers comfort in numbers and they seem to be content with what they can find close by. Thank God for my genetic deficiency.</p> <p>Lobsterville is a fishing beach, stretching from Menemsha Pond up to the cliffs of Gay Head. Across the sound, the Elizabeth Islands stretch westward. The bloody sunsets over Cutty Hunk are familiar to anglers just stepping on the beach for a night's fishing and in June the stripers gather here fresh from the northward migration, covered in seal lice and voracious. Menemsha Pond offers billions of sand eel fry spewing out with the tide and the striped bass feast here for weeks. At night as the outgoing sweeps the eels west along the beach, the big fish hang by the tidal conveyor gulping big holes in the dark sea.</p> <p>The house was perfectly situated overlooking a huge stretch of beach and we could watch the birds and the bait without leaving the deck. In the evenings as the sea darkened and the sky went blood red, we watch the surf line for swirls and the nervous water of trembling baitfish. This year we were treated to a phenomenon never seen in our previous years there – a nightly fluke blitz. Normally fluke are content to lay in wait, darting up to snatch their prey while posing as the bottom. For some reason Mother Nature had encouraged them to become school feeders and attack this line of sand eels in the Lobsterville surf. It was something none of us ever before witnessed, but was delightful in its rarity.</p> <p>Looking down the beach, the water was churning with small swirls and round flat fluke popping up in the air like pancakes on a diner griddle. Little Cooper was beside himself wanting to catch some fish.</p> <p>Big Coop was not allowed to fish – doctor's orders, and Tina and Lela were as solid as the rocks at Devil's Bridge in their refusal to let Coop sneak out for few hours, but little Coop's arrival brought a softening and a "maybe" when he begged to go fishing.</p> <p>"Just for an hour."</p> <p>"No more."</p> <p>"We'll be down at sunset," Coop said, as he began searching through the turmoil that is his garage in pursuit of a little rod for the four-year old. I watched him for a few moments and smiled thinking he was as purposeful as if he were preparing for one of our offshore tuna trips.</p> <p>"You're sure this is all right?" I questioned Lela.</p> <p>"This is the only exception I'd make," she said. "Fishing with Coopie will do him more good than anything I can think of - but only for a bit. Tina and I will both be there to make sure he doesn't overdo it." Together we watched him rig the little rod.</p> <p>We were all on the beach that evening. Joey, Matt and I were outfitted for the duration of the night - waders, chest packs, fly rods and wading jackets. We resembled an assault team. Everyone else, Coop, Lela, Tina, little Coop, Mimi and Lizzie were dressed lightly as they would depart the beach when the sun finally disappeared behind the islands.</p> <p>Coop rigged the rod with a white Sluggo and a bobber. He cast the tiny rod, flipping the rig into the sea, set the drag and handed it to my little boy who stood expectantly by his side in bare feet and an oversized sweatshirt. The night air and expectation caused him to tremble visibly.</p> <p>For near an hour the child reveled and laughed at the tug of the fluke as he and Coop moved back and forth toward the water, big Coop casting and removing fish, while little Coop reeled and squealed with delight as each fish appeared in the wash. The little rod doubled over with the slightest tug and for the boy, each fish was an epic struggle.</p> <p>The striper hit just as the sun dropped below Cutty Hunk. Crimson streaks raced across the sky, and we all marveled at the sunset when we noticed a change in the boy's demeanor. The squeals of joy turned just enough in their timbre that his mother and I instantly looked over, recognizing the subtle change in pitch from joy to helplessness. The line was peeling off the reel despite the child's best efforts to reel. This was obviously no fluke. I grabbed him as he stumbled toward the water reeling furiously, his little hands trying to keep up a relentless pace. The spindle began to reveal itself and suddenly the knot appeared. I held on to little Coop and grimaced, waiting for the inevitable sound of snapping mono. The fish stopped.</p> <p>Little Coop was in a four-year-old frenzy, trying to reel against the big fish. He was getting nowhere, the drag on the tiny spinning reel allowing no gain. Big Coop kneeled next to him and gently held the child around the waist. I stepped away. He began to whisper to the child. Immediately the boy calmed and began steadfastly reeling while the rod bent toward the sand.</p> <p>"Christ Coop, how much line is on that thing."</p> <p>Coop looked at me with a grin.</p> <p>"25 yards of six pound."</p> <p>"No way." I fish striper with 200 yards of backing and 16 pound tippet. My son was fighting this fish with six pound mono.</p> <p>For twenty minutes we stood transfixed by the struggle between big fish and little boy. Though my son, I stepped back and left him in the hands of Coop, watching the two of them, Coop kneeling and the little boy wrapped tightly in his arms reeling, reeling, constantly reeling, while Coop whispered encouragement to him. There could be no better way for my son to catch his first striper.</p> <p>At a certain point the battle seemed to be too much for the child and the tears welled up in his eyes. His tiny arms were failing and the fish seemed no closer now than before. He kept looking at Coop who tightened his grip on the boy and again whispered something to him. The calming effect was immediate. The two Coops gained on occasion, but then the big fish moved easily away, stripping line from the tiny reel – but each time, as the knot appeared – the fish stopped, turned and allowed the boy to pull her back toward the beach. I looked around at the group who loved these two Coops so much and noticed the remnants of salty tracks glistening on more than a few cheeks as we watched our old friend and his namesake do exactly what Nature intended – catch a great fish together.</p> <p>The fourth time the fish came to heel, she stayed. Coop gently pulled the boy back up the beach, and slid the fish on the sand until it was clear of the wash. Cheers erupted, cameras flashed and Coop reached for the fish. Little Coop's eyes widened as the scope of what he'd done revealed itself and a 35 plus inch striped bass lay staring at him, its gills moving heavily from its exertions. Coop pulled the fish up and held it for the little boy urging him to get closer for a picture. The sheer size of the fish frightened the child, but he stepped closer reaching out to Coop for reassurance while eyeing the fish carefully.</p> <p>The cameras flashed again and I took the fish from Coop and walked out into the surf to release her. I slid her into the water and moved her back and forth giving her time to recover. As she began to move, I held only her tail, waiting for that powerful shake that would assure me of her revival. Waiting, I looked closely at her. She could have snapped the line with one half - hearted shake of her head, but she didn't. Her tail could have easily propelled her out of danger, but it didn't. I pulled her back one more time. She looked at me with her bottomless black eye, shook her tail and moved off into the dark water.</p> <p>Perhaps every little boy has a fish out there. One would hope that was the order of things. My son was fortunate to meet his - even more so wrapped in the arms of one who loved both him and the fish so much. Ever so rarely, fate offers up a moment of such perfection that one struggles later to relate it without crushing sentimentality. I grinned to myself as I walked slowly back toward the beach. This one will be the hardest tale to tell.</p></div> <div class="feed-description"><p>There are times he seems like a father, though only a few years older than me. Perhaps it's the knowledge, at least when it comes to fish and the ocean. I always feel like a child next to him, learning, more importantly wanting to please. It's been that way since the first night on a black and sqaullish Atlantic beach where he seemed so sure and comfortable, and me so disoriented, trying to cast in the dark.</p> <p>When it comes to the business we share, the roles reverse and I look on him as someone to be protected as I would my own. As confident as he is on the water, he is naïve in business – honest to a fault. A rare man indeed. It's why my youngest bears his name – Cooper.</p> <p>The pilgrimage to his island comes with all its inherent freedoms. One becomes feckless when the ferry leaves the dock and the bonds of accountability are severed by the channel. Once ensconced in the beach house, rods and waders scattered along the porch rail, the release is complete. Beyond the Elizabeth Islands, the mainland remains at bay, unable now to burden me with the grinding weight of responsibility.</p> <p>This year was different. His heart was struggling. Too many years of blue-collar cuisine. The smile and the warmth were there as always and little Coop didn't notice the gray pallor where sun-burnished leather once glowed. He only knew those thick and weathered arms encircling him loved him and were taking him fishing.</p> <p>I noticed. He shrugged as if it were nothing, but the worry in Lela and Tina's eyes spoke volumes. I spoke with them quietly while Coop took the boy to see the eel tank.</p> <p>"Apparently there is a significant blockage," she said, moving quickly around the room. Stopping too long allowed too much time to think. The worst always creeps in. Tina watched her mother and then looked at me with a flicker of a smile.</p> <p>"We're so glad you're here," she said wrapping her arms around my waist and burying her head in my chest. As if I could somehow solve this problem as I had solved a few minor business problems for them in the past.</p> <p>The house was up-island near Gay Head. A small cluster of houses gathered together overlooking Lobsterville Beach. There was nothing here, the nearest resemblance of a store some five miles distant. Even on the busiest weekends, this long stretch of beach remains unpopulated, the tourists concentrated like lemmings down-island where the ferries land. Somehow some dim tribal instinct offers comfort in numbers and they seem to be content with what they can find close by. Thank God for my genetic deficiency.</p> <p>Lobsterville is a fishing beach, stretching from Menemsha Pond up to the cliffs of Gay Head. Across the sound, the Elizabeth Islands stretch westward. The bloody sunsets over Cutty Hunk are familiar to anglers just stepping on the beach for a night's fishing and in June the stripers gather here fresh from the northward migration, covered in seal lice and voracious. Menemsha Pond offers billions of sand eel fry spewing out with the tide and the striped bass feast here for weeks. At night as the outgoing sweeps the eels west along the beach, the big fish hang by the tidal conveyor gulping big holes in the dark sea.</p> <p>The house was perfectly situated overlooking a huge stretch of beach and we could watch the birds and the bait without leaving the deck. In the evenings as the sea darkened and the sky went blood red, we watch the surf line for swirls and the nervous water of trembling baitfish. This year we were treated to a phenomenon never seen in our previous years there – a nightly fluke blitz. Normally fluke are content to lay in wait, darting up to snatch their prey while posing as the bottom. For some reason Mother Nature had encouraged them to become school feeders and attack this line of sand eels in the Lobsterville surf. It was something none of us ever before witnessed, but was delightful in its rarity.</p> <p>Looking down the beach, the water was churning with small swirls and round flat fluke popping up in the air like pancakes on a diner griddle. Little Cooper was beside himself wanting to catch some fish.</p> <p>Big Coop was not allowed to fish – doctor's orders, and Tina and Lela were as solid as the rocks at Devil's Bridge in their refusal to let Coop sneak out for few hours, but little Coop's arrival brought a softening and a "maybe" when he begged to go fishing.</p> <p>"Just for an hour."</p> <p>"No more."</p> <p>"We'll be down at sunset," Coop said, as he began searching through the turmoil that is his garage in pursuit of a little rod for the four-year old. I watched him for a few moments and smiled thinking he was as purposeful as if he were preparing for one of our offshore tuna trips.</p> <p>"You're sure this is all right?" I questioned Lela.</p> <p>"This is the only exception I'd make," she said. "Fishing with Coopie will do him more good than anything I can think of - but only for a bit. Tina and I will both be there to make sure he doesn't overdo it." Together we watched him rig the little rod.</p> <p>We were all on the beach that evening. Joey, Matt and I were outfitted for the duration of the night - waders, chest packs, fly rods and wading jackets. We resembled an assault team. Everyone else, Coop, Lela, Tina, little Coop, Mimi and Lizzie were dressed lightly as they would depart the beach when the sun finally disappeared behind the islands.</p> <p>Coop rigged the rod with a white Sluggo and a bobber. He cast the tiny rod, flipping the rig into the sea, set the drag and handed it to my little boy who stood expectantly by his side in bare feet and an oversized sweatshirt. The night air and expectation caused him to tremble visibly.</p> <p>For near an hour the child reveled and laughed at the tug of the fluke as he and Coop moved back and forth toward the water, big Coop casting and removing fish, while little Coop reeled and squealed with delight as each fish appeared in the wash. The little rod doubled over with the slightest tug and for the boy, each fish was an epic struggle.</p> <p>The striper hit just as the sun dropped below Cutty Hunk. Crimson streaks raced across the sky, and we all marveled at the sunset when we noticed a change in the boy's demeanor. The squeals of joy turned just enough in their timbre that his mother and I instantly looked over, recognizing the subtle change in pitch from joy to helplessness. The line was peeling off the reel despite the child's best efforts to reel. This was obviously no fluke. I grabbed him as he stumbled toward the water reeling furiously, his little hands trying to keep up a relentless pace. The spindle began to reveal itself and suddenly the knot appeared. I held on to little Coop and grimaced, waiting for the inevitable sound of snapping mono. The fish stopped.</p> <p>Little Coop was in a four-year-old frenzy, trying to reel against the big fish. He was getting nowhere, the drag on the tiny spinning reel allowing no gain. Big Coop kneeled next to him and gently held the child around the waist. I stepped away. He began to whisper to the child. Immediately the boy calmed and began steadfastly reeling while the rod bent toward the sand.</p> <p>"Christ Coop, how much line is on that thing."</p> <p>Coop looked at me with a grin.</p> <p>"25 yards of six pound."</p> <p>"No way." I fish striper with 200 yards of backing and 16 pound tippet. My son was fighting this fish with six pound mono.</p> <p>For twenty minutes we stood transfixed by the struggle between big fish and little boy. Though my son, I stepped back and left him in the hands of Coop, watching the two of them, Coop kneeling and the little boy wrapped tightly in his arms reeling, reeling, constantly reeling, while Coop whispered encouragement to him. There could be no better way for my son to catch his first striper.</p> <p>At a certain point the battle seemed to be too much for the child and the tears welled up in his eyes. His tiny arms were failing and the fish seemed no closer now than before. He kept looking at Coop who tightened his grip on the boy and again whispered something to him. The calming effect was immediate. The two Coops gained on occasion, but then the big fish moved easily away, stripping line from the tiny reel – but each time, as the knot appeared – the fish stopped, turned and allowed the boy to pull her back toward the beach. I looked around at the group who loved these two Coops so much and noticed the remnants of salty tracks glistening on more than a few cheeks as we watched our old friend and his namesake do exactly what Nature intended – catch a great fish together.</p> <p>The fourth time the fish came to heel, she stayed. Coop gently pulled the boy back up the beach, and slid the fish on the sand until it was clear of the wash. Cheers erupted, cameras flashed and Coop reached for the fish. Little Coop's eyes widened as the scope of what he'd done revealed itself and a 35 plus inch striped bass lay staring at him, its gills moving heavily from its exertions. Coop pulled the fish up and held it for the little boy urging him to get closer for a picture. The sheer size of the fish frightened the child, but he stepped closer reaching out to Coop for reassurance while eyeing the fish carefully.</p> <p>The cameras flashed again and I took the fish from Coop and walked out into the surf to release her. I slid her into the water and moved her back and forth giving her time to recover. As she began to move, I held only her tail, waiting for that powerful shake that would assure me of her revival. Waiting, I looked closely at her. She could have snapped the line with one half - hearted shake of her head, but she didn't. Her tail could have easily propelled her out of danger, but it didn't. I pulled her back one more time. She looked at me with her bottomless black eye, shook her tail and moved off into the dark water.</p> <p>Perhaps every little boy has a fish out there. One would hope that was the order of things. My son was fortunate to meet his - even more so wrapped in the arms of one who loved both him and the fish so much. Ever so rarely, fate offers up a moment of such perfection that one struggles later to relate it without crushing sentimentality. I grinned to myself as I walked slowly back toward the beach. This one will be the hardest tale to tell.</p></div> Sea Change 2012-01-25T10:28:29-05:00 2012-01-25T10:28:29-05:00 http://howtoflyfish.orvis.com/how-to-articles/sporting-essays-articles/sea-change Paul Fersen matt1@simple101.com <div class="feed-description"><p>What fascinates me about the sea is the unending capacity to surprise. Perhaps this emotional offering is not always pleasant, but always generous and it breeds in me an unabashed greed for time on the water. This day was mine. Cell phones and computers lay forgotten. In the words of an old Vermont dairyman, "Don't call me unless the barn burns down and don't call me then, 'cause there's nothing I can do about it."</p> <p>I backed the Montauk away from the landing. The ancient Mercury sputtered and gasped, fidgeting uncomfortably at idle as old two strokes do, begging me to push the throttle forward. Easing out of Menemsha basin the Merc's flattened, tin-can profile shook unmercifully and I tinkered with the fine line between too much speed and a grumpy two stroke. It was new moon dark and socked in. What ambient light there was came from the harbor across the channel, the dock lights blunted by the fog.</p> <p>I pushed the nose of the Whaler into the channel and noticed the channel buoy was shoved hard over to the outgoing and struggled to stay on the surface. The tide was running hard and it sucked us forward and shoved us down the channel. The sensation always reminds me of the effortless joy of sledding. The jetties slipped by quickly and we spilled into the darkness of Vineyard Sound.</p> <p>I'm a visual navigator. My inshore pursuits rarely take me out of sight of land, poking around the rocks and flats of the northeast in pursuit of striped bass. My eyes and a compass are the only navigational aids I carry. This morning there was no visibility. Though early June, the sky and the sea were a wall of dark gray and the wind scattered foam across the chop. Matt and I stood shoulder to shoulder against the leaning post shrinking deeper into our raingear, turning our heads to avoid spray. He flipped the cover on his watch.</p> <p>"It should be getting light"</p> <p>"It will be late in this mess," I said looking back to the east. The sun would work hard to pierce this blanket. I headed west/northwest toward Gay Head and Devil's Bridge at a pace fast enough to smooth the engine, but slow enough to kill time waiting for light.</p> <p>Devil's Bridge is not a place to take lightly. Two great tidal flows, hammering for eons at the great promontory, litter the sandy floor with thousands of boulders. One wonders just how majestically this cliff rose from the sea in its infancy. Even hundreds of yards offshore in 30 feet of water, many of these giants lurk just below the surface waiting to dismember an outboard. There is little room for error here, but in the right conditions it is home to some very large striped bass.</p> <p>Dawn struggled in late, but the emerging light revealed the Devil in full display. The guardian rip was running as hard as I've ever seen with three standing waves breaking well above our head. Behind was a thrashing sea slamming into itself over the rocks. Whipped by the wind and now with rain slashing across our faces, the gray wall of sky and water were as cold and forbidding as winter steel.</p> <p>"Bassy kind of morning ain't it," Matt grinned. I grinned back knowing this was striped bass country. Perhaps the thing I love most about striped bass is they are the junkyard dogs of the fish world. The storied haunts of these great fish are a boatman's nightmare.</p> <p>The only way to fish here is one at a time. Walking away from the helm here is not an option. An anchor would simply suck the bow under in this current. I held the boat in the slick just under the front wall of the rip. Matt stripped out his fly line and with three false casts hurled a big squid pattern into the slick and with a wet fly swing, let the current suck the fly into the turbulence. On the second cast a flash of silver knifed through the standing wall of water and tore into the fly, ripping a hole in the vertical face of the wave.</p> <p>Matt bellowed his delight in the wind. His line snapped taunt and the rod tip dove toward the fish. The slack fly line at his feet leapt up and danced around Matt as he cleared it to the reel. Once connected directly to the fish, the reel accelerated to a blur as the striper turned with the current and headed for the rocks.</p> <p>We fished this way for two hours, yelling like schoolboys at each thrashing take. We caught and released a number of 30-inch class striped bass – not huge, but powerful, beautiful and voracious from their long migration. We just released one of the larger fish when the Merc decided it had suffered enough at idle, and quit.</p> <p>Matt turned from releasing the bass just in time to see me furiously turning the ignition key and working the throttle back and forth. We sailed up and over the first wave sideways, dropping into the trough and raced up the face of the next wave, Matt hanging on to the bow rails and me cursing outboards in general. The engine sputtered to life and I shoved it to the red line to clear the plugs and slammed it into gear just as we hit the third wall stern first. The wave broke over the stern, the bow rose and settled and I found myself calf deep in water.</p> <p>There are two ways to empty a Montauk, bilge pump and momentum. I jammed the throttle forward and headed back up the backside of the second wave. The water in the boat surged to the rear, over the stern and the Whaler, suddenly free of her liquid burden, shot over the wave, dove into the trough and climbed over the fist wave to freedom. We burst out of the rip and I pulled back the throttle, easing toward shore and calmer water to take stock. Matt's face was ashen and I smiled weakly and shook my head. The pump finished the job of clearing the bilge and we cut the engine and drifted quietly in protected water. By the time we squared the gear we were laughing like kids barely escaping the principal's office, but inwardly I shuddered.</p> <p>The sun broke through, the wind kicked up its heels and the clouds scattered before it. When it swept the last cloud from the sky, the wind ceased its labor and lay down. Where a few hours before we struggled in a dark and angry sea, we found ourselves becalmed on flat, deep-blue water. The sun scattered a million diamonds across the surface and rising from the blue water was the near tropical white of Dogfish bar.</p> <p>We were barefoot and stripped to shorts, drifting time and again with the tide over the bar, every detail passing beneath us starkly visible. Large ghostly bass moved on and off the flat searching for crustaceans and burrowing sand eels. Easily spooked, it is apparent they are more comfortable in the angry waters of a rip than cruising a bright flat in two feet of water. Still, with the right fly and presentation, they could be taken. We drifted, we fished, we ate, we napped and we reveled in our freedom.</p> <p>By sunset we'd been in the boat 15 hours. We drifted near the long stretch of beach known as "the bowl". Our experience fishing from this beach gave us reason to wait. This time of year there is always a chance for the evening blitz. The birds were congregated – a good sign. The sun hovered beside Cutty Hunk and the sky and sea were amber.</p> <p>The water rippled as if pushed by the wind, but there was no wind. Schools of herring skittered just under the surface as predators pushed them from beneath. The first breaks came sporadically, then increased. The birds rose and circled the boat. Within minutes the sea boiled angrily, the gulls screeching encouragement to the stripers tearing through bait. The hapless herring leapt from the sea only to be hammered from above by the gulls and terns. It is a rather marvelous exercise in cooperative carnage. Matt and I cast into the fray, hooking an occasional bass, but we marveled more at drifting in the midst of this bloody opera than catching fish. When the sun slid into the sea, the carnage ceased</p> <p>I leaned against the truck and listened to water dripping from the trailer. The last bit of light shimmered on the water. I love the sea, though it could care one whit, whether in its ebb and flow it swallows me in my gnat's breath insignificance. Its beauty lies in its vastness and in my inability to affect it. I'd been rebuked, rewarded, fascinated and the sea grew dark. Reluctantly I turned away.</p></div> <div class="feed-description"><p>What fascinates me about the sea is the unending capacity to surprise. Perhaps this emotional offering is not always pleasant, but always generous and it breeds in me an unabashed greed for time on the water. This day was mine. Cell phones and computers lay forgotten. In the words of an old Vermont dairyman, "Don't call me unless the barn burns down and don't call me then, 'cause there's nothing I can do about it."</p> <p>I backed the Montauk away from the landing. The ancient Mercury sputtered and gasped, fidgeting uncomfortably at idle as old two strokes do, begging me to push the throttle forward. Easing out of Menemsha basin the Merc's flattened, tin-can profile shook unmercifully and I tinkered with the fine line between too much speed and a grumpy two stroke. It was new moon dark and socked in. What ambient light there was came from the harbor across the channel, the dock lights blunted by the fog.</p> <p>I pushed the nose of the Whaler into the channel and noticed the channel buoy was shoved hard over to the outgoing and struggled to stay on the surface. The tide was running hard and it sucked us forward and shoved us down the channel. The sensation always reminds me of the effortless joy of sledding. The jetties slipped by quickly and we spilled into the darkness of Vineyard Sound.</p> <p>I'm a visual navigator. My inshore pursuits rarely take me out of sight of land, poking around the rocks and flats of the northeast in pursuit of striped bass. My eyes and a compass are the only navigational aids I carry. This morning there was no visibility. Though early June, the sky and the sea were a wall of dark gray and the wind scattered foam across the chop. Matt and I stood shoulder to shoulder against the leaning post shrinking deeper into our raingear, turning our heads to avoid spray. He flipped the cover on his watch.</p> <p>"It should be getting light"</p> <p>"It will be late in this mess," I said looking back to the east. The sun would work hard to pierce this blanket. I headed west/northwest toward Gay Head and Devil's Bridge at a pace fast enough to smooth the engine, but slow enough to kill time waiting for light.</p> <p>Devil's Bridge is not a place to take lightly. Two great tidal flows, hammering for eons at the great promontory, litter the sandy floor with thousands of boulders. One wonders just how majestically this cliff rose from the sea in its infancy. Even hundreds of yards offshore in 30 feet of water, many of these giants lurk just below the surface waiting to dismember an outboard. There is little room for error here, but in the right conditions it is home to some very large striped bass.</p> <p>Dawn struggled in late, but the emerging light revealed the Devil in full display. The guardian rip was running as hard as I've ever seen with three standing waves breaking well above our head. Behind was a thrashing sea slamming into itself over the rocks. Whipped by the wind and now with rain slashing across our faces, the gray wall of sky and water were as cold and forbidding as winter steel.</p> <p>"Bassy kind of morning ain't it," Matt grinned. I grinned back knowing this was striped bass country. Perhaps the thing I love most about striped bass is they are the junkyard dogs of the fish world. The storied haunts of these great fish are a boatman's nightmare.</p> <p>The only way to fish here is one at a time. Walking away from the helm here is not an option. An anchor would simply suck the bow under in this current. I held the boat in the slick just under the front wall of the rip. Matt stripped out his fly line and with three false casts hurled a big squid pattern into the slick and with a wet fly swing, let the current suck the fly into the turbulence. On the second cast a flash of silver knifed through the standing wall of water and tore into the fly, ripping a hole in the vertical face of the wave.</p> <p>Matt bellowed his delight in the wind. His line snapped taunt and the rod tip dove toward the fish. The slack fly line at his feet leapt up and danced around Matt as he cleared it to the reel. Once connected directly to the fish, the reel accelerated to a blur as the striper turned with the current and headed for the rocks.</p> <p>We fished this way for two hours, yelling like schoolboys at each thrashing take. We caught and released a number of 30-inch class striped bass – not huge, but powerful, beautiful and voracious from their long migration. We just released one of the larger fish when the Merc decided it had suffered enough at idle, and quit.</p> <p>Matt turned from releasing the bass just in time to see me furiously turning the ignition key and working the throttle back and forth. We sailed up and over the first wave sideways, dropping into the trough and raced up the face of the next wave, Matt hanging on to the bow rails and me cursing outboards in general. The engine sputtered to life and I shoved it to the red line to clear the plugs and slammed it into gear just as we hit the third wall stern first. The wave broke over the stern, the bow rose and settled and I found myself calf deep in water.</p> <p>There are two ways to empty a Montauk, bilge pump and momentum. I jammed the throttle forward and headed back up the backside of the second wave. The water in the boat surged to the rear, over the stern and the Whaler, suddenly free of her liquid burden, shot over the wave, dove into the trough and climbed over the fist wave to freedom. We burst out of the rip and I pulled back the throttle, easing toward shore and calmer water to take stock. Matt's face was ashen and I smiled weakly and shook my head. The pump finished the job of clearing the bilge and we cut the engine and drifted quietly in protected water. By the time we squared the gear we were laughing like kids barely escaping the principal's office, but inwardly I shuddered.</p> <p>The sun broke through, the wind kicked up its heels and the clouds scattered before it. When it swept the last cloud from the sky, the wind ceased its labor and lay down. Where a few hours before we struggled in a dark and angry sea, we found ourselves becalmed on flat, deep-blue water. The sun scattered a million diamonds across the surface and rising from the blue water was the near tropical white of Dogfish bar.</p> <p>We were barefoot and stripped to shorts, drifting time and again with the tide over the bar, every detail passing beneath us starkly visible. Large ghostly bass moved on and off the flat searching for crustaceans and burrowing sand eels. Easily spooked, it is apparent they are more comfortable in the angry waters of a rip than cruising a bright flat in two feet of water. Still, with the right fly and presentation, they could be taken. We drifted, we fished, we ate, we napped and we reveled in our freedom.</p> <p>By sunset we'd been in the boat 15 hours. We drifted near the long stretch of beach known as "the bowl". Our experience fishing from this beach gave us reason to wait. This time of year there is always a chance for the evening blitz. The birds were congregated – a good sign. The sun hovered beside Cutty Hunk and the sky and sea were amber.</p> <p>The water rippled as if pushed by the wind, but there was no wind. Schools of herring skittered just under the surface as predators pushed them from beneath. The first breaks came sporadically, then increased. The birds rose and circled the boat. Within minutes the sea boiled angrily, the gulls screeching encouragement to the stripers tearing through bait. The hapless herring leapt from the sea only to be hammered from above by the gulls and terns. It is a rather marvelous exercise in cooperative carnage. Matt and I cast into the fray, hooking an occasional bass, but we marveled more at drifting in the midst of this bloody opera than catching fish. When the sun slid into the sea, the carnage ceased</p> <p>I leaned against the truck and listened to water dripping from the trailer. The last bit of light shimmered on the water. I love the sea, though it could care one whit, whether in its ebb and flow it swallows me in my gnat's breath insignificance. Its beauty lies in its vastness and in my inability to affect it. I'd been rebuked, rewarded, fascinated and the sea grew dark. Reluctantly I turned away.</p></div> The Swamp Haint 2012-01-25T10:27:21-05:00 2012-01-25T10:27:21-05:00 http://howtoflyfish.orvis.com/how-to-articles/sporting-essays-articles/the-swamp-haint Paul Fersen matt1@simple101.com <div class="feed-description"><p>He owns this swamp. Ain't no doubt about that, his morning roll call moving the moss like a hot August zephyr. He's tucked himself into 3,000 acres of hardwood ridges tumbling into river-bottom swamps in an ox-bow of the Alabama River. Not but one way to get in and out of his kingdom less you want a pre-dawn swim in the Alabama.</p> <p>It's the finest turkey ground I've ever seen. These ridges have never been logged. Thick, old hardwoods shade the open floor. I've been in a few cathedrals. I've been in these woods a few times. The similarity ain't lost on me. Both places are quiet, the kind of quiet that instills reverence in even the most feckless heathen. In one you hear footsteps on marble as clear as the tapping of a woodpecker in the other. Both of 'em confirm your insignificance.</p> <p>These ridges come in through the neck of the oxbow and drop steeply into the palmetto bottoms. There's ravines that could swallow buildings and a misstep in the dark morning would be your end. The top branches of the biggest of these old bucks, rooted in the bottom of the ravines, don't even reach the top edge.</p> <p>Where the ridges die out, the bottoms begin. The bottoms are swept and purged every year by thick, reddish Alabama water. What's left is a dark forest of old bearded oaks and cypress reaching out over dunes and sloughs cut and carved by the old sculptress. That she is old is evidenced by the sand dollars embedded high in her bluffs some 100 miles from the nearest salt water. Cypress swamps and palmetto thickets push endlessly under the canopy offering a thousand hog wallers, deer beds and turkey roosts. This is the kingdom of the Swamp Haint, the biggest bird I've ever seen, with prehistoric tracks and a beard of Gandolphian proportions.</p> <p>This land once belonged to Red Eagle, though true to his culture he would never claim ownership of the land. That is a peculiarity of the white man. He was perhaps better known as William Weatherford, half-breed chief of the Creeks, son of an English speaking trapper who married a great-granddaughter of the first Sehoy, Princess of the Wind Clan. He lead the bloodiest Indian massacre on American soil at Ft. Mims on the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, fought Jackson at Horseshoe Bend, was captured and ultimately pardoned for his great bravery. He spent the rest of his life on this ground.</p> <p>Not much has changed here since then. Only the dark creosote hunting camp, tucked in the far reach of the oxbow suggests a difference. Once a year, Jimbo and I retreat here to elude the 21 st century and to hunt turkeys – big turkeys, in particular the Swamp Haint. Jimbo saw him first.</p> <p>We'd come in from the morning's hunt. At dawn the air is crisp and the senses are sharpened by the cold. By late morning, the hot sun and six hours of hunting have relegated us to the front porch for shade, coffee and chewing tobacco. I'd been up on Jasey's field hunting birds in the big hardwoods. Jimbo had been in the swamp. He sat there tinkering with a slate call looking for the sweet spot. The air hummed with the sound of the bees that nested in the porch roof, they're switch suddenly flipped by the sun's heat. They were huge bees that raced around bumping in to each other and flying right up to your face where they would hover in some kind of bizarre staring contest. Slater Hanks called 'em "study bees", "cause they come up and study ya."</p> <p>"He was as big as I've ever seen. Big ol' beard draggin' the ground. He was up on a big dune on the other side of a slough. I called and he strutted and stomped and drummed and spit for an hour, but he just wouldn't come over the slough. Man he was somthin'."</p> <p>"How far?"</p> <p>"Bout 40yards, but I wasn't gonna chance that shot with a 20 gauge."</p> <p>Jimbo's not into firepower. Hunting skill is the attraction, the killing secondary. He hunts ducks to great success with a 20.</p> <p>"No chance to move?"</p> <p>"No cover, nowhere to go. I was sitting behind one scrawny palmetto. Man he was big. How bout you?"</p> <p>"Tar baby he don't say nothin'." Code words for a silent morning. "You gonna try and roost him tonight?" After dinner we'd go out and roost birds before coming back for a last cup of coffee and a chew before bed. We'd sit on the porch listening to the night and every so often flick on the big handheld spotlight. Inevitably a dozen pairs of devil eyes would peer back from the treeline.</p> <p>"Nope"</p> <p>"How come?"</p> <p>"You are."</p> <p>Jimbo is nothing if not generous. He'd had his chance at the Haint and now he wanted me to have mine. I protested, knowing full well Jimbo would never recant. He never does on matters of principle. Offering a friend a shot at a trophy gobbler was a matter of pure principle.</p> <p>Jimbo's tailights disappeared in the field and I stood on the path into the river bottoms. The southern sun was flickering through the palmetto leaves like green shutters in a low country courtyard. I moved quickly down the road, wanting to get to the strut ground so I could check out positions for the morning hunt. I found the dune and the tracks – big tracks – T-Rex tracks. Jimbo was right. This is one big-ass bird. I snapped off a few palmetto fans, sat down under a tree on the end of the dune and stuck the fans in front of me. I was there to roost him, but if he showed himself in the right place I had no compunctions about ambush.</p> <p>The bugs came in a fury. Gnats and mosquitos flew right through the DEET, biting through my sleeves, banging into my eyes. I decided to practice my Zen meditation to ignore the itch and aggravation. It soon occurred to me there are no gnats in Nepal. I reverted to my southern heritage, simply grittin' my teeth, cussin' and trying not to move.</p> <p>A hen came in from behind and landed in my tree. I learned more about cackling and purring than all the Knight and Hale tapes could ever offer, but I was pinned. A few minutes later, I heard the Haint. The wingbeats recalled Grandma Moon whacking carpets with a broom, limbs cracked and men trembled as the Haint found his way up to his perch. Once seated, he thrust his head skyward and poured forth a Brobdingnagian gobble that shook the swamp and informed its denizens that he was home for the night.</p> <p>For two hours I sat motionless, joints seizing like a junkyard motor. By the time it was dark enough to belly crawl into the slough and away from the roosted birds, the pain from old age and new bites was agonizing. Great things come only from great sacrifice and this bastard was mine.</p> <p>Light river sand in the grass track was my GPS back to the edge of the swamp. It would be my guide in the black of the morning. I could feel the truck before I reached it.</p> <p>"Find him?" Jimbo's question emanated from the darkness.</p> <p>"Damn straight. He's everything you said."</p> <p>"You gonna get him?"</p> <p>Turkey wisdom and superstition bid caution here, but I succumbed.</p> <p>"I got him locked in."</p> <p>Even though I couldn't see Jimbo, I knew he was grinnin'.</p> <p>The trail turned to pure river sand and even in the blackness, I knew the slough was in front of me, and the dune to my right. I eased into the slough, reaching out to the right to feel the side of the dune, keeping it between me and the Haint. I reached the end of the dune where it dropped off into the palmetto flats. I crawled up in the mercifully quiet sand and set up. The plateau of the dune spread before me and yesterday's strut zone was now a kill zone.</p> <p>Straight up five brought forth a booming reveille. Then another – another. Full-throated gobbles rocked the surrounding woods as the Haint called to his harem. I offered one three-note tree yelp that was cut-off with a heavy-handed response. I waited for two minutes and then clucked twice. That was it. No way was I blowing this. I slid the mouth call into my cheek and let it sit like a wad of good Carolina leaf.</p> <p>For an hour the Haint rang forth. Hunched under my tree like Quasimoto in the bell tower, I knew he was coming. Each thunderous pronouncement broadened my smile. He was mine. Wingbeats brought my gun into position covering the zone.</p> <p>The gobble changed – fainter? Cause he's on the ground? The next, even less. He was walking away. Damn! I thrust the mouth call back in the roof of my mouth and pleaded my case like a starving hooker. The last gobble was contemptuous, the swamp silent. My final entreaty answered only by the gnats.</p> <p>Jimbo was leaning on the bumper spittin' juice on the ground when I stepped into the field. He saw the empty hands and offered a smile of shared experience.</p> <p>"Dya see him?"</p> <p>"Yep."</p> <p>"Smart, ain't he?"</p> <p>I grinned back and reached for my own tobacco. We leaned against the truck and listened to the swamp.</p> <p>Epilogue</p> <p>Jimbo's nephew Bill, a noted turkey hunter in his own right, went down two weeks later to hunt the Haint. From what I understand he got even closer than me, but the Haint treated him with the same merciless contempt.</p> <p>Say what you please, I take solace in my belief that the tormented chief of the Creeks, William Weatherford, stills walks this ground – now the tormentor.</p></div> <div class="feed-description"><p>He owns this swamp. Ain't no doubt about that, his morning roll call moving the moss like a hot August zephyr. He's tucked himself into 3,000 acres of hardwood ridges tumbling into river-bottom swamps in an ox-bow of the Alabama River. Not but one way to get in and out of his kingdom less you want a pre-dawn swim in the Alabama.</p> <p>It's the finest turkey ground I've ever seen. These ridges have never been logged. Thick, old hardwoods shade the open floor. I've been in a few cathedrals. I've been in these woods a few times. The similarity ain't lost on me. Both places are quiet, the kind of quiet that instills reverence in even the most feckless heathen. In one you hear footsteps on marble as clear as the tapping of a woodpecker in the other. Both of 'em confirm your insignificance.</p> <p>These ridges come in through the neck of the oxbow and drop steeply into the palmetto bottoms. There's ravines that could swallow buildings and a misstep in the dark morning would be your end. The top branches of the biggest of these old bucks, rooted in the bottom of the ravines, don't even reach the top edge.</p> <p>Where the ridges die out, the bottoms begin. The bottoms are swept and purged every year by thick, reddish Alabama water. What's left is a dark forest of old bearded oaks and cypress reaching out over dunes and sloughs cut and carved by the old sculptress. That she is old is evidenced by the sand dollars embedded high in her bluffs some 100 miles from the nearest salt water. Cypress swamps and palmetto thickets push endlessly under the canopy offering a thousand hog wallers, deer beds and turkey roosts. This is the kingdom of the Swamp Haint, the biggest bird I've ever seen, with prehistoric tracks and a beard of Gandolphian proportions.</p> <p>This land once belonged to Red Eagle, though true to his culture he would never claim ownership of the land. That is a peculiarity of the white man. He was perhaps better known as William Weatherford, half-breed chief of the Creeks, son of an English speaking trapper who married a great-granddaughter of the first Sehoy, Princess of the Wind Clan. He lead the bloodiest Indian massacre on American soil at Ft. Mims on the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, fought Jackson at Horseshoe Bend, was captured and ultimately pardoned for his great bravery. He spent the rest of his life on this ground.</p> <p>Not much has changed here since then. Only the dark creosote hunting camp, tucked in the far reach of the oxbow suggests a difference. Once a year, Jimbo and I retreat here to elude the 21 st century and to hunt turkeys – big turkeys, in particular the Swamp Haint. Jimbo saw him first.</p> <p>We'd come in from the morning's hunt. At dawn the air is crisp and the senses are sharpened by the cold. By late morning, the hot sun and six hours of hunting have relegated us to the front porch for shade, coffee and chewing tobacco. I'd been up on Jasey's field hunting birds in the big hardwoods. Jimbo had been in the swamp. He sat there tinkering with a slate call looking for the sweet spot. The air hummed with the sound of the bees that nested in the porch roof, they're switch suddenly flipped by the sun's heat. They were huge bees that raced around bumping in to each other and flying right up to your face where they would hover in some kind of bizarre staring contest. Slater Hanks called 'em "study bees", "cause they come up and study ya."</p> <p>"He was as big as I've ever seen. Big ol' beard draggin' the ground. He was up on a big dune on the other side of a slough. I called and he strutted and stomped and drummed and spit for an hour, but he just wouldn't come over the slough. Man he was somthin'."</p> <p>"How far?"</p> <p>"Bout 40yards, but I wasn't gonna chance that shot with a 20 gauge."</p> <p>Jimbo's not into firepower. Hunting skill is the attraction, the killing secondary. He hunts ducks to great success with a 20.</p> <p>"No chance to move?"</p> <p>"No cover, nowhere to go. I was sitting behind one scrawny palmetto. Man he was big. How bout you?"</p> <p>"Tar baby he don't say nothin'." Code words for a silent morning. "You gonna try and roost him tonight?" After dinner we'd go out and roost birds before coming back for a last cup of coffee and a chew before bed. We'd sit on the porch listening to the night and every so often flick on the big handheld spotlight. Inevitably a dozen pairs of devil eyes would peer back from the treeline.</p> <p>"Nope"</p> <p>"How come?"</p> <p>"You are."</p> <p>Jimbo is nothing if not generous. He'd had his chance at the Haint and now he wanted me to have mine. I protested, knowing full well Jimbo would never recant. He never does on matters of principle. Offering a friend a shot at a trophy gobbler was a matter of pure principle.</p> <p>Jimbo's tailights disappeared in the field and I stood on the path into the river bottoms. The southern sun was flickering through the palmetto leaves like green shutters in a low country courtyard. I moved quickly down the road, wanting to get to the strut ground so I could check out positions for the morning hunt. I found the dune and the tracks – big tracks – T-Rex tracks. Jimbo was right. This is one big-ass bird. I snapped off a few palmetto fans, sat down under a tree on the end of the dune and stuck the fans in front of me. I was there to roost him, but if he showed himself in the right place I had no compunctions about ambush.</p> <p>The bugs came in a fury. Gnats and mosquitos flew right through the DEET, biting through my sleeves, banging into my eyes. I decided to practice my Zen meditation to ignore the itch and aggravation. It soon occurred to me there are no gnats in Nepal. I reverted to my southern heritage, simply grittin' my teeth, cussin' and trying not to move.</p> <p>A hen came in from behind and landed in my tree. I learned more about cackling and purring than all the Knight and Hale tapes could ever offer, but I was pinned. A few minutes later, I heard the Haint. The wingbeats recalled Grandma Moon whacking carpets with a broom, limbs cracked and men trembled as the Haint found his way up to his perch. Once seated, he thrust his head skyward and poured forth a Brobdingnagian gobble that shook the swamp and informed its denizens that he was home for the night.</p> <p>For two hours I sat motionless, joints seizing like a junkyard motor. By the time it was dark enough to belly crawl into the slough and away from the roosted birds, the pain from old age and new bites was agonizing. Great things come only from great sacrifice and this bastard was mine.</p> <p>Light river sand in the grass track was my GPS back to the edge of the swamp. It would be my guide in the black of the morning. I could feel the truck before I reached it.</p> <p>"Find him?" Jimbo's question emanated from the darkness.</p> <p>"Damn straight. He's everything you said."</p> <p>"You gonna get him?"</p> <p>Turkey wisdom and superstition bid caution here, but I succumbed.</p> <p>"I got him locked in."</p> <p>Even though I couldn't see Jimbo, I knew he was grinnin'.</p> <p>The trail turned to pure river sand and even in the blackness, I knew the slough was in front of me, and the dune to my right. I eased into the slough, reaching out to the right to feel the side of the dune, keeping it between me and the Haint. I reached the end of the dune where it dropped off into the palmetto flats. I crawled up in the mercifully quiet sand and set up. The plateau of the dune spread before me and yesterday's strut zone was now a kill zone.</p> <p>Straight up five brought forth a booming reveille. Then another – another. Full-throated gobbles rocked the surrounding woods as the Haint called to his harem. I offered one three-note tree yelp that was cut-off with a heavy-handed response. I waited for two minutes and then clucked twice. That was it. No way was I blowing this. I slid the mouth call into my cheek and let it sit like a wad of good Carolina leaf.</p> <p>For an hour the Haint rang forth. Hunched under my tree like Quasimoto in the bell tower, I knew he was coming. Each thunderous pronouncement broadened my smile. He was mine. Wingbeats brought my gun into position covering the zone.</p> <p>The gobble changed – fainter? Cause he's on the ground? The next, even less. He was walking away. Damn! I thrust the mouth call back in the roof of my mouth and pleaded my case like a starving hooker. The last gobble was contemptuous, the swamp silent. My final entreaty answered only by the gnats.</p> <p>Jimbo was leaning on the bumper spittin' juice on the ground when I stepped into the field. He saw the empty hands and offered a smile of shared experience.</p> <p>"Dya see him?"</p> <p>"Yep."</p> <p>"Smart, ain't he?"</p> <p>I grinned back and reached for my own tobacco. We leaned against the truck and listened to the swamp.</p> <p>Epilogue</p> <p>Jimbo's nephew Bill, a noted turkey hunter in his own right, went down two weeks later to hunt the Haint. From what I understand he got even closer than me, but the Haint treated him with the same merciless contempt.</p> <p>Say what you please, I take solace in my belief that the tormented chief of the Creeks, William Weatherford, stills walks this ground – now the tormentor.</p></div> The Seven Cigar Trout 2012-01-25T10:07:08-05:00 2012-01-25T10:07:08-05:00 http://howtoflyfish.orvis.com/how-to-articles/sporting-essays-articles/the-seven-cigar-trout Tom Rosenbauer matt1@simple101.com <div class="feed-description"><p>This is a true story. It's a tale of unusually large brown trout, sewage, weird mayflies, floods and droughts. If you choose to doubt any part of my tale, question the size of the trout because that part comes from the lips of a lifelong fly fisher. But the other stuff comes from careful observation and scientific literature. I could footnote this if you wish but I am afraid I would lose most of my readers, including my editor, and thus the check would not come and I would be forced to buy cheaper cigars.</p> <p>A population crash of the Battenkill's brown had brought mixed blessings. In the years 1993 to 1997, trout from 10 to 14 inches long had gone from a density of 200 per mile to less than 50. Even worse, smaller fish had gone from 1400 per mile to less than 100 per mile. Fishing pressure declined over 80 percent. Although the future looked grim, this left me, with the Battenkill in my back yard, with only large, older fish and little competition from other fishermen.</p> <p>I have a spot on the upper river that belongs only to some local bait fishermen and me. In 23 years I have never actually seen them, only the mushy glow of their Coleman lanterns on foggy April nights as I drive by the river. One of them might be the guy who delivers my wood in the summer, another might be the father of one of the girls on my daughter's soccer team that I see every Saturday in October. Perhaps I've stood in line at the IGA behind the ringleader. But all I see is the morning-after evidence, fire rings, forked sticks marking their territory, and the odd empty can of Red Man, probably dropped in the dark in the excitement of a rod tip quivering at the edge of the lantern's glow. Those markers are important to me because I know where not to fish, where the old browns have been taken home to feed the family. I fish around them, in the spots where there is no easy place to sit on the bank, where brush covers both sides of the river and I can slip into place with my waders.</p> <p>There have never been many small trout in this piece of river because there is no riffle habitat, just dark, forbidding, snaggy water. It's tough to wade unless you know exactly where to enter the river and how to tiptoe along the sandbars. I have never seen another fisherman here during daylight hours except for the time I saw Jim poaching my water. Jim, Matt, and I work together, and both of them live on the river, Jim upstream and Matt downstream. Long ago we set up boundaries on our "beats" (even though this is private but unposted land) and Jim seldom wanders below the Dead Elm, while Matt never enters the Bull Field. Over the years, hundreds of hours sitting on the bank watching, the three of us know exactly where the bigger fish will feed in our particular stretches, and anyone stumbling into this water with a fly rod would likely leave the place cursing the lack of fish and the water that had seeped over the top of their waders.</p> <p>I am not a particularly talented fly fisherman, only one who has obsessed over this silly distraction for over 30 years. When I am on the road I flit from one spot to the other, hardly studying the water, too intent on seeing what's around the bend. A friend who tried to keep up with me on the upper Colorado called me "The James Brown of Fly Fishing", which confused me until he translated it as "The Hardest Working Man in Fly Fishing". Around a campfire on the South Fork of the Snake in Idaho I overheard a couple of guides describing someone as "fishy", a high compliment that I'm sure I did not earn on that trip. But I'm fishy at home.</p> <p>I feel guilty living on a trout stream, being able to check for hatches before I brush my teeth in the morning, sneaking away at noon for a stolen hour, stopping to look for rises between work and dinner. I don't rub it in, though. A charter boat captain friend of mine delights in getting a big striper on the reel and calling magazine editors toiling in New York on August days so sultry you can't see the tops of buildings. Three miles out in Nantucket Sound, he holds the squealing reel up to his cell phone and hangs up. They know who it is without caller ID.</p> <p>It is this proximity that makes me fishy, gives me the patience to stalk old brown trout. Last spring I sat on the bank in one little slot in the brush that I usually passed on my way to several plots upstream. For the past three years, I had seen nothing but kamikaze brook trout here, but the far bank is lined with cobbles and mink hustle along the edge like dark brown Slinkies. I had hit one with a car the week before on the road opposite the river, and because I had enjoyed their company on many fishless nights, and because the mink in my headlights painfully reminded me of my pet ferret I had come to pay respects. Fully expecting not to see any trout feeding, I lit a big Macanudo and leaned back, mindful of the large patch of nettles I had grabbed in the dark one night.</p> <p>I read somewhere that our peripheral vision is more likely to catch movement. What is it about a trout rising that lets us pick out one spot amongst many swirls and bubbles, drawing our eyes to the spot, quickening the pulse? Some atavistic response tells us there is a movement that's out of place, that doesn't quite match the pattern of currents. Something along the far bank winked at me. I could not articulate what I saw, never can in times like this. But I have learned to trust that vague feeling that a trout rose.</p> <p>Predicting hatches on the Battenkill is a lot like pushing the buttons on a vending machine while blindfolded. You never know what you get, and it's almost guaranteed you will be underwhelmed. This night, there were a few Hendrickson and Paralep spinners, the odd caddis, and midges the fish invariably ignore on this river. I watched a Hendrickson spinner backlit against the fading light, twirling out in the main current until it was plucked into a side eddy and pushed up against a tangle of alders. It was taken not in a rise, but it was funneled into a beak that extended from the alders. Protected by the alders, the fish never made a swirl or a ring. It was betrayed by a solitary bubble so large it could have been made by one of those little plastic rings used by children. Had I been walking the bank or wading upstream or doing anything except spacing out puffing on a cigar, I would have missed that fish.</p> <p>I don't buy most of the platitudes whined by fly-fishing experts; one I do accept is that your first cast is your most important. The water in this run was still too deep for me to wade below the fish and the only way I could get to him was to wade down from above on a sandbar I hoped was still there from last season. But one tactic I never use on the Battenkill, at least for big trout, is the downstream approach. These old browns will slink back into muskrat holes the minute they notice anything that resembles the approach of a predator, and tactics that work on the civilized fish of the Bighorn don't cut it here. Rather than letting him know I was after him tonight, I decided to watch, get his number, and wait for another night. I never got my waders wet that evening.</p> <p>Fishing for large brown trout is a solitary pursuit. I will drive up and down the river prior to fishing, and if I see a car parked within a half-mile of a pool I will go elsewhere. Even a careful wader will put a brown trout off the feed for a whole evening just by his presence. I do like to "go fishing" with other people when it's just a casual day of fishing, with no preconceived plan, but I always laugh to myself about a non-fly-fisher's conception of going fishing with someone else. They have this vision, when I say I'm going fishing with Jim, that we will be side-by-side in the river, doing male-bonding stuff and talking about our feelings. The reality is that on the drive to the river we talk about fishing, once we get to the river we get out of sight of each other as quickly as possible, and meet after dark to talk about fishing on the ride home. Let them think we are bonding—anything to get out of the house on a soft May evening when the spinners are dancing above the gleam of the untouched lawnmower.</p> <p>On my second sighting I started well below his spot and caught a couple of small brook trout, got out of the water when I got about 80 feet from his position, and got back into the river well above him. The spinner fall was pretty sparse that evening and I didn't want to even look at him until he was feeding steadily. After the sun crawled below the alders I sat on the bank across from him and lit a cigar. He rose once or twice in the hour it took me to smoke it, with no steady rhythm. I don't know what they do underwater when they feed like this. They often slow down in their feeding pace after your first cast, I imagine because they have been alerted to your presence, but I am sure that fish could not have seen me on the far bank. When the fish get into a steady, regular rise pattern they get preoccupied and easier to fool; when they are unsteady they are nearly impossible to fool. I finished my cigar and left him alone once again.</p> <p>Cigar night number three was so windy my smoke only lasted a half-hour, the wind stealing half of the Connecticut Shade wrapper by itself. And I never saw a fish rise, not my friend nor any other. On nights when the fish are feeding everything is right with the world and I never worry about the state of the river. On nights I don't see anything panic sets in and I worry about everything. And with this old population and little sign of any small browns for future years I had plenty to agonize over.</p> <p>There is no doubt the Battenkill has not been the same since the town fathers in Manchester decided to heed the Clean Water Act and replace the old primary sewage treatment plant, which did little more than strain out the big pieces, with a state-of-the-art tertiary plant that also removes most of the nitrates and phosphates from the effluent. I now have no problem with my daughter swimming in the river but the bug life is a fraction of what it used to be. Although the lack of sewage fertilization in the river cut down the overall density of fish in the river, it was not responsible for the lack of small fish. Something else was to blame. So I worried about the three golf courses on the upper river and what pesticides and herbicides they might be using. I worried about the study that showed Chernobyl's effect on fish populations in northern Europe and wondered if it might have gotten this far. Development in Machester has lowered the water table in the valley. The resurgence of beavers in New England has blocked many small tributaries that are the primary spawning streams. Acid rain. The world is full of environmental nightmares when the fish don't rise.</p> <p>I wasn't about to let this nagging issue drop. I was lucky enough to study fisheries under Neil Ringler, one of the top experts in trout population dynamics in the country. He's also a sicko fly fisherman and would understand. When I described the situation to him through E-mail, he sent me a copy of a study he had done recently on a small stream in the Syracuse, New York area. He studied the density of slimy sculpins, longnose dace, brown trout, blacknose dace, white suckers, and creek chubs in relation to discharge conditions in the stream. What they found was an increasing pattern of drought in summer (particularly in 1991 and 1992) and floods in late spring (especially 1993 and 1994). The study concluded that young-of-the-year brown trout are particularly susceptible to drought because they are riffle-dwellers, and the first part of a stream that goes dry in drought is the riffle area. This reduces the habitat available to young trout and pushes them into pools, where they are eaten by larger fish of all species. And March and April floods happen when delicate brown trout fry are emerging from the gravel. So two dry summers followed by two nasty spring floods gave the brown trout in the northeastern states a double whammy.</p> <p>I prefer this explanation as it gives me hope that the Battenkill will arise from the ashes.</p> <p>Cigar night number four looked good. The water had dropped enough to let me wade the bar below the fish, the wind had dropped, the bugs were steady. My friend was feeding like a metronome. I waited to finish the cigar, but realized my mistake ten minutes later as I heard the soft thump of plastic paddles against aluminum. I hate canoes on moving water. A couple with a dense downstate accent, he apparently a seasoned outdoorsman, informed me with a weighty tone that "they were jumping upstream". "Thanks." Asshole.</p> <p>I finished the cigar without seeing another rise. Four cigars, four nights, and I hadn't even gotten into the water near this fish.</p> <p>The fifth cigar night started on an equally optimistic note. There was a Baetisca spinner fall. You have probably never seen this mayfly; I never have anywhere besides a five-mile stretch of the Battenkill. It is one of the strangest mayflies you'll ever see, one of those species whose dun stage is mysterious, like the Gray Quill. In fact I don't know anyone who has ever seen the duns. The spinner has a tubby size 18 body matched with size 12 wings, and looks more like a giant Trico than anything else. Despite its grotesque physique, trout love them, especially big trout, and when these spinners are on the river every, I repeat every trout comes to the surface. Even those normally caught only under the Coleman lanterns. My friend was eating but first I had to deal with the hot sour breath on my neck.</p> <p>Did I tell you about the bull?</p> <p>The unappealing (to a fly fisherman) character of this stretch of river is not the only thing that keeps it mine alone. The field bordering the river feeds a small herd of cattle. Keeping the cows happy is one of the largest bulls I have ever seen, a handsome fellow with a mean visage but an apparently gentle and curious nature. At least to me, as when I come down to the river he ambles over and sniffs me. I always stay close enough to the river for a quick slide into the water, and even though I'll go over the top of my waders a quick bath is preferable to playing matador with a 2-weight fly rod. If he's in a bad mood he will sometimes smash the alder bush next to me, I suppose to let me know who's boss, but he has never made a threatening move towards me. He's more of a backcast obstacle that a threat to life and limb and sometimes I have to turn around and growl at him to get him out of the way.</p> <p>I once sent a friend from New Jersey to this stretch of river, figuring since he was from out-of-town and didn't get up here very often he was not a threat to my solitude. I warned him about the bull but said he seemed to be harmless. The next day, safely back in Short Hills, he called me and I think he was still breathless from running and an adrenaline high. I never knew bulls could recognize individual humans.</p> <p>I took my time finishing the cigar, as there was still plenty of light and bugs and I knew he was not going to stop feeding. Way downstream I saw a rise that I recognized. Mr.Big. You see, the trout I was stalking was not the biggest one in the alley and I knew it. Last year, on a night when no other trout were feeding, I saw a huge rise right out in the middle of the river, a distinctive sideways rise that gave me the shivers. After nine fly changes I finally hooked this fish, and instead of diving for the shoreline tangles the trout ran straight down river and back up to me where I conveniently landed him. I must have been living right that night as this fish was the largest brown trout I have ever taken on a dry, inches bigger than anything I have taken in Montana or Wyoming or Idaho. I won't even tell you what he taped at because you'd call me a liar. Earlier this year I had seen his distinctive rise again, but every time I made a cast near him he would move upstream or sideways, not spooking right away but telling me he was there but was not going to put up with the foolishness of last year. It was like my fly was positively charged and he was the negative end and I finally gave up on him. Once was enough for both of us.</p> <p>I had planned this approach for hours, so I knew just where to get into the river, how my first cast would land, and what fly I would switch to if he refused my spinner. Still, it took me 15 minutes to get into position, as I knew I could not afford to send even the smallest wave upstream. I gauged my distance by false casting off to the side and fired my first cast so that it would land just upstream of the alder tangle. I missed by about two inches. The tippet caught a tiny branch, spun around and tied what looked like a Bimini twist around the alder. I pulled straight back to snap off the fly, the alder bent towards me and then shot back like a bowstring. The trout never rose again that night.</p> <p>The night of the sixth cigar just smelled right. Some nights when the air is heavy with moisture there is a point in the evening, just after the sun leaves the water, when everything stops moving. The wind drops, the wood thrushes and veeries shut up, and even the traffic on distant roads pauses as though the whole world is waiting to see a rise. This night, probably because the spinner fall was thick, my fish had moved out from his alder cave, drawn closer to the main current by an unusually generous evening.</p> <p>I knew I'd hook him. I could tell by his confident rises. I knew he'd take my Baetisca spinner. I knew how to approach him without spooking him. I didn't even finish my cigar, but kept it screwed into my teeth as I waded into place, and lengthened my tippet to five feet of 6X to make sure that drag would not tip him off. The first cast was short, the second was perfect and he sucked my fly down just as he had the last natural, turned towards the alder tangle on the shore and wrapped me around an underwater branch. I could still feel some pressure that seemed to pulse, but as I waded over to the tangle I could see my tippet just under the surface, wound around a branch that was vibrating in the current.</p> <p>The seventh cigar was lonely. No fish rose anywhere near the alder tangle and I had missed my window of opportunity as the Baetisca hatch had faded, and with it the likelihood of taking any large browns, especially one that had been pricked.</p> <p>Next spring I'll use 5X.</p></div> <div class="feed-description"><p>This is a true story. It's a tale of unusually large brown trout, sewage, weird mayflies, floods and droughts. If you choose to doubt any part of my tale, question the size of the trout because that part comes from the lips of a lifelong fly fisher. But the other stuff comes from careful observation and scientific literature. I could footnote this if you wish but I am afraid I would lose most of my readers, including my editor, and thus the check would not come and I would be forced to buy cheaper cigars.</p> <p>A population crash of the Battenkill's brown had brought mixed blessings. In the years 1993 to 1997, trout from 10 to 14 inches long had gone from a density of 200 per mile to less than 50. Even worse, smaller fish had gone from 1400 per mile to less than 100 per mile. Fishing pressure declined over 80 percent. Although the future looked grim, this left me, with the Battenkill in my back yard, with only large, older fish and little competition from other fishermen.</p> <p>I have a spot on the upper river that belongs only to some local bait fishermen and me. In 23 years I have never actually seen them, only the mushy glow of their Coleman lanterns on foggy April nights as I drive by the river. One of them might be the guy who delivers my wood in the summer, another might be the father of one of the girls on my daughter's soccer team that I see every Saturday in October. Perhaps I've stood in line at the IGA behind the ringleader. But all I see is the morning-after evidence, fire rings, forked sticks marking their territory, and the odd empty can of Red Man, probably dropped in the dark in the excitement of a rod tip quivering at the edge of the lantern's glow. Those markers are important to me because I know where not to fish, where the old browns have been taken home to feed the family. I fish around them, in the spots where there is no easy place to sit on the bank, where brush covers both sides of the river and I can slip into place with my waders.</p> <p>There have never been many small trout in this piece of river because there is no riffle habitat, just dark, forbidding, snaggy water. It's tough to wade unless you know exactly where to enter the river and how to tiptoe along the sandbars. I have never seen another fisherman here during daylight hours except for the time I saw Jim poaching my water. Jim, Matt, and I work together, and both of them live on the river, Jim upstream and Matt downstream. Long ago we set up boundaries on our "beats" (even though this is private but unposted land) and Jim seldom wanders below the Dead Elm, while Matt never enters the Bull Field. Over the years, hundreds of hours sitting on the bank watching, the three of us know exactly where the bigger fish will feed in our particular stretches, and anyone stumbling into this water with a fly rod would likely leave the place cursing the lack of fish and the water that had seeped over the top of their waders.</p> <p>I am not a particularly talented fly fisherman, only one who has obsessed over this silly distraction for over 30 years. When I am on the road I flit from one spot to the other, hardly studying the water, too intent on seeing what's around the bend. A friend who tried to keep up with me on the upper Colorado called me "The James Brown of Fly Fishing", which confused me until he translated it as "The Hardest Working Man in Fly Fishing". Around a campfire on the South Fork of the Snake in Idaho I overheard a couple of guides describing someone as "fishy", a high compliment that I'm sure I did not earn on that trip. But I'm fishy at home.</p> <p>I feel guilty living on a trout stream, being able to check for hatches before I brush my teeth in the morning, sneaking away at noon for a stolen hour, stopping to look for rises between work and dinner. I don't rub it in, though. A charter boat captain friend of mine delights in getting a big striper on the reel and calling magazine editors toiling in New York on August days so sultry you can't see the tops of buildings. Three miles out in Nantucket Sound, he holds the squealing reel up to his cell phone and hangs up. They know who it is without caller ID.</p> <p>It is this proximity that makes me fishy, gives me the patience to stalk old brown trout. Last spring I sat on the bank in one little slot in the brush that I usually passed on my way to several plots upstream. For the past three years, I had seen nothing but kamikaze brook trout here, but the far bank is lined with cobbles and mink hustle along the edge like dark brown Slinkies. I had hit one with a car the week before on the road opposite the river, and because I had enjoyed their company on many fishless nights, and because the mink in my headlights painfully reminded me of my pet ferret I had come to pay respects. Fully expecting not to see any trout feeding, I lit a big Macanudo and leaned back, mindful of the large patch of nettles I had grabbed in the dark one night.</p> <p>I read somewhere that our peripheral vision is more likely to catch movement. What is it about a trout rising that lets us pick out one spot amongst many swirls and bubbles, drawing our eyes to the spot, quickening the pulse? Some atavistic response tells us there is a movement that's out of place, that doesn't quite match the pattern of currents. Something along the far bank winked at me. I could not articulate what I saw, never can in times like this. But I have learned to trust that vague feeling that a trout rose.</p> <p>Predicting hatches on the Battenkill is a lot like pushing the buttons on a vending machine while blindfolded. You never know what you get, and it's almost guaranteed you will be underwhelmed. This night, there were a few Hendrickson and Paralep spinners, the odd caddis, and midges the fish invariably ignore on this river. I watched a Hendrickson spinner backlit against the fading light, twirling out in the main current until it was plucked into a side eddy and pushed up against a tangle of alders. It was taken not in a rise, but it was funneled into a beak that extended from the alders. Protected by the alders, the fish never made a swirl or a ring. It was betrayed by a solitary bubble so large it could have been made by one of those little plastic rings used by children. Had I been walking the bank or wading upstream or doing anything except spacing out puffing on a cigar, I would have missed that fish.</p> <p>I don't buy most of the platitudes whined by fly-fishing experts; one I do accept is that your first cast is your most important. The water in this run was still too deep for me to wade below the fish and the only way I could get to him was to wade down from above on a sandbar I hoped was still there from last season. But one tactic I never use on the Battenkill, at least for big trout, is the downstream approach. These old browns will slink back into muskrat holes the minute they notice anything that resembles the approach of a predator, and tactics that work on the civilized fish of the Bighorn don't cut it here. Rather than letting him know I was after him tonight, I decided to watch, get his number, and wait for another night. I never got my waders wet that evening.</p> <p>Fishing for large brown trout is a solitary pursuit. I will drive up and down the river prior to fishing, and if I see a car parked within a half-mile of a pool I will go elsewhere. Even a careful wader will put a brown trout off the feed for a whole evening just by his presence. I do like to "go fishing" with other people when it's just a casual day of fishing, with no preconceived plan, but I always laugh to myself about a non-fly-fisher's conception of going fishing with someone else. They have this vision, when I say I'm going fishing with Jim, that we will be side-by-side in the river, doing male-bonding stuff and talking about our feelings. The reality is that on the drive to the river we talk about fishing, once we get to the river we get out of sight of each other as quickly as possible, and meet after dark to talk about fishing on the ride home. Let them think we are bonding—anything to get out of the house on a soft May evening when the spinners are dancing above the gleam of the untouched lawnmower.</p> <p>On my second sighting I started well below his spot and caught a couple of small brook trout, got out of the water when I got about 80 feet from his position, and got back into the river well above him. The spinner fall was pretty sparse that evening and I didn't want to even look at him until he was feeding steadily. After the sun crawled below the alders I sat on the bank across from him and lit a cigar. He rose once or twice in the hour it took me to smoke it, with no steady rhythm. I don't know what they do underwater when they feed like this. They often slow down in their feeding pace after your first cast, I imagine because they have been alerted to your presence, but I am sure that fish could not have seen me on the far bank. When the fish get into a steady, regular rise pattern they get preoccupied and easier to fool; when they are unsteady they are nearly impossible to fool. I finished my cigar and left him alone once again.</p> <p>Cigar night number three was so windy my smoke only lasted a half-hour, the wind stealing half of the Connecticut Shade wrapper by itself. And I never saw a fish rise, not my friend nor any other. On nights when the fish are feeding everything is right with the world and I never worry about the state of the river. On nights I don't see anything panic sets in and I worry about everything. And with this old population and little sign of any small browns for future years I had plenty to agonize over.</p> <p>There is no doubt the Battenkill has not been the same since the town fathers in Manchester decided to heed the Clean Water Act and replace the old primary sewage treatment plant, which did little more than strain out the big pieces, with a state-of-the-art tertiary plant that also removes most of the nitrates and phosphates from the effluent. I now have no problem with my daughter swimming in the river but the bug life is a fraction of what it used to be. Although the lack of sewage fertilization in the river cut down the overall density of fish in the river, it was not responsible for the lack of small fish. Something else was to blame. So I worried about the three golf courses on the upper river and what pesticides and herbicides they might be using. I worried about the study that showed Chernobyl's effect on fish populations in northern Europe and wondered if it might have gotten this far. Development in Machester has lowered the water table in the valley. The resurgence of beavers in New England has blocked many small tributaries that are the primary spawning streams. Acid rain. The world is full of environmental nightmares when the fish don't rise.</p> <p>I wasn't about to let this nagging issue drop. I was lucky enough to study fisheries under Neil Ringler, one of the top experts in trout population dynamics in the country. He's also a sicko fly fisherman and would understand. When I described the situation to him through E-mail, he sent me a copy of a study he had done recently on a small stream in the Syracuse, New York area. He studied the density of slimy sculpins, longnose dace, brown trout, blacknose dace, white suckers, and creek chubs in relation to discharge conditions in the stream. What they found was an increasing pattern of drought in summer (particularly in 1991 and 1992) and floods in late spring (especially 1993 and 1994). The study concluded that young-of-the-year brown trout are particularly susceptible to drought because they are riffle-dwellers, and the first part of a stream that goes dry in drought is the riffle area. This reduces the habitat available to young trout and pushes them into pools, where they are eaten by larger fish of all species. And March and April floods happen when delicate brown trout fry are emerging from the gravel. So two dry summers followed by two nasty spring floods gave the brown trout in the northeastern states a double whammy.</p> <p>I prefer this explanation as it gives me hope that the Battenkill will arise from the ashes.</p> <p>Cigar night number four looked good. The water had dropped enough to let me wade the bar below the fish, the wind had dropped, the bugs were steady. My friend was feeding like a metronome. I waited to finish the cigar, but realized my mistake ten minutes later as I heard the soft thump of plastic paddles against aluminum. I hate canoes on moving water. A couple with a dense downstate accent, he apparently a seasoned outdoorsman, informed me with a weighty tone that "they were jumping upstream". "Thanks." Asshole.</p> <p>I finished the cigar without seeing another rise. Four cigars, four nights, and I hadn't even gotten into the water near this fish.</p> <p>The fifth cigar night started on an equally optimistic note. There was a Baetisca spinner fall. You have probably never seen this mayfly; I never have anywhere besides a five-mile stretch of the Battenkill. It is one of the strangest mayflies you'll ever see, one of those species whose dun stage is mysterious, like the Gray Quill. In fact I don't know anyone who has ever seen the duns. The spinner has a tubby size 18 body matched with size 12 wings, and looks more like a giant Trico than anything else. Despite its grotesque physique, trout love them, especially big trout, and when these spinners are on the river every, I repeat every trout comes to the surface. Even those normally caught only under the Coleman lanterns. My friend was eating but first I had to deal with the hot sour breath on my neck.</p> <p>Did I tell you about the bull?</p> <p>The unappealing (to a fly fisherman) character of this stretch of river is not the only thing that keeps it mine alone. The field bordering the river feeds a small herd of cattle. Keeping the cows happy is one of the largest bulls I have ever seen, a handsome fellow with a mean visage but an apparently gentle and curious nature. At least to me, as when I come down to the river he ambles over and sniffs me. I always stay close enough to the river for a quick slide into the water, and even though I'll go over the top of my waders a quick bath is preferable to playing matador with a 2-weight fly rod. If he's in a bad mood he will sometimes smash the alder bush next to me, I suppose to let me know who's boss, but he has never made a threatening move towards me. He's more of a backcast obstacle that a threat to life and limb and sometimes I have to turn around and growl at him to get him out of the way.</p> <p>I once sent a friend from New Jersey to this stretch of river, figuring since he was from out-of-town and didn't get up here very often he was not a threat to my solitude. I warned him about the bull but said he seemed to be harmless. The next day, safely back in Short Hills, he called me and I think he was still breathless from running and an adrenaline high. I never knew bulls could recognize individual humans.</p> <p>I took my time finishing the cigar, as there was still plenty of light and bugs and I knew he was not going to stop feeding. Way downstream I saw a rise that I recognized. Mr.Big. You see, the trout I was stalking was not the biggest one in the alley and I knew it. Last year, on a night when no other trout were feeding, I saw a huge rise right out in the middle of the river, a distinctive sideways rise that gave me the shivers. After nine fly changes I finally hooked this fish, and instead of diving for the shoreline tangles the trout ran straight down river and back up to me where I conveniently landed him. I must have been living right that night as this fish was the largest brown trout I have ever taken on a dry, inches bigger than anything I have taken in Montana or Wyoming or Idaho. I won't even tell you what he taped at because you'd call me a liar. Earlier this year I had seen his distinctive rise again, but every time I made a cast near him he would move upstream or sideways, not spooking right away but telling me he was there but was not going to put up with the foolishness of last year. It was like my fly was positively charged and he was the negative end and I finally gave up on him. Once was enough for both of us.</p> <p>I had planned this approach for hours, so I knew just where to get into the river, how my first cast would land, and what fly I would switch to if he refused my spinner. Still, it took me 15 minutes to get into position, as I knew I could not afford to send even the smallest wave upstream. I gauged my distance by false casting off to the side and fired my first cast so that it would land just upstream of the alder tangle. I missed by about two inches. The tippet caught a tiny branch, spun around and tied what looked like a Bimini twist around the alder. I pulled straight back to snap off the fly, the alder bent towards me and then shot back like a bowstring. The trout never rose again that night.</p> <p>The night of the sixth cigar just smelled right. Some nights when the air is heavy with moisture there is a point in the evening, just after the sun leaves the water, when everything stops moving. The wind drops, the wood thrushes and veeries shut up, and even the traffic on distant roads pauses as though the whole world is waiting to see a rise. This night, probably because the spinner fall was thick, my fish had moved out from his alder cave, drawn closer to the main current by an unusually generous evening.</p> <p>I knew I'd hook him. I could tell by his confident rises. I knew he'd take my Baetisca spinner. I knew how to approach him without spooking him. I didn't even finish my cigar, but kept it screwed into my teeth as I waded into place, and lengthened my tippet to five feet of 6X to make sure that drag would not tip him off. The first cast was short, the second was perfect and he sucked my fly down just as he had the last natural, turned towards the alder tangle on the shore and wrapped me around an underwater branch. I could still feel some pressure that seemed to pulse, but as I waded over to the tangle I could see my tippet just under the surface, wound around a branch that was vibrating in the current.</p> <p>The seventh cigar was lonely. No fish rose anywhere near the alder tangle and I had missed my window of opportunity as the Baetisca hatch had faded, and with it the likelihood of taking any large browns, especially one that had been pricked.</p> <p>Next spring I'll use 5X.</p></div>