Monday, January 2, 2012

Last Trout

The water was so cold it made my hands ache, but given the circumstances it was pain I was more than willing to endure. Nestling a twelve-inch, wild Brown Trout in my hands I unhooked the Zebra Midge and eased him back into the water. He swam slowly back to the depths of the far bank.

Reaching into cold water to cradle a trout is something for which I will make many sacrifices; half-frozen  hands seems a very modest cost. Fortunately, the early winter weather was mild and I didn't have to bundle up too much. I'm sure there will be days of sleet and snow to come but this day both the air and water temps were in the mid-40s and I was spared.

New Year's Eve day was quickly winding to a close and once I had picked up the shrimp, baguettes and the parsley I decided to give myself a treat of a hour or so on a small stream near the house. My expectations for the afternoon were low but I figured I could fish for the duration of one cigar, walk a stretch I hadn't seen in years and maybe get a last trout.

The recently closed year was a good one. Like most years it had highs and lows. Some memories stand out in brilliance and clarity -- cruising down the spine of the Blue Ridge, seeing Half Dome for the first time, drifting over countless Sockeye on their redds -- and others I'm trying to tuck away in that spot were sour memories go to die. Old questions were answered, new ones were discovered and some things remain disturbingly unknown. But overall, a good year and I enter the new one in a better place than the last and I'm hopeful the trend will continue.

I fished a familiar stream not too far from the house. It's an old friend. She's a minor tributary of a small river where I caught my first trout on a fly rod a couple of winters back. It's an old friend who is well known but with just enough mystery remaining that one can have a small adventure when walking her banks. She used to hold Brook Trout throughout though it seems Browns are now taking up residence. I decided to walk a bit upstream to see if maybe I could find Brookies lurking in her headwaters.

Anyone who follows Small Stream Reflections knows that the Ausable Bomber is a great small stream fly. I tie this one myself and fish it more than any other pattern on streams that are narrower than my leader is long. A couple of trips ago I was fishing this pattern in some turbulent water and couldn't keep it afloat. It didn't seem to matter. The pattern works just as well as a wet fly. That's how I fished it New Year's Eve, wet with a midge pattern below and a bit of strike putty above.

I worked quickly up the brook seeking good holding water. The plunge pools and small pockets are where the trout hold during warmer weather but with the water temps down in the mid-40s  I was looking for some slower seams. The first Brown came in water that was a bit faster than I would have guessed would be good holding water but I'm not one to complain when fortune turns my way. He took the Bomber.

Farther upstream I came upon a deep undercut bank that the receding water had left exposed. The water against the far bank still had some depth and a few casts brought to hand the second Brown of the day as well as a very small fish that shook itself off -- my guess is a Trout parr but it could just as well have been a Dace.

The final fish of the year came in a bend just downstream from an old bridge abutment. I was told that this land was once dairy farm and there are the remains of small bridges (and even a tunnel under the ridge by the railroad tracks) that farmers used to move equipment about the place. Today time and the river have reclaimed most of the remnants of this old farm though concrete and steel remain to remind us of its history.

The bend seemed to be in a new place. Over the years since my last visit to this spot the water moved into the ridge carving a steep bank and depositing the felled trees in a tangle at its tail. The structure of the pool was classic with a turbulent head, a smooth glide and then a drop off at the tail that remained deep right to the lip.

A few years ago I would have skipped right to the head of the pool and fished it aggressively but I've since learned that trout can hold through-out and my eye was on the tail and the glide. The first couple of casts were ill placed and either didn't drift correctly or landed in totally unproductive water. For the past hour I had been checking my back cast to avoid overhanging bushes but this spot lacked interfering flora so I gave it a full cast and put the fly right at the seam between the shadowed water and that illuminated by the last rays peaking over the ridge.

And the beauty that is the Brown Trout emerged from that shadow and waited for the fly, easily visible to me crouching on the gravel bar, to come into its mouth. Seeing the trout was one of those moments when you think your eyes are deceiving you; I saw a fish move but I couldn't quite make out its form. The reason was that I was looking for a twelve inch fish. This one was considerably larger.

The take, that little flash of the gills plates and the turn back to the shadows, seemed to take forever and when it was done the line came satisfyingly tight. A short, sluggish fight brought this sixteen-inch, small stream monster to hand.

It was very satisfying that the last trout of the year was a true small stream trophy though I would have preferred to catch a Brookie. That's not a complaint, just a fact. Doubly satisfying was that it came as the day waned; the valley was heavy in shadow and the air was rapidly cooling. Somehow, catching my last trout in the last light of the last day of the year had some poignancy. I will tuck this memory in safely next to those of the Blue Ridge and the West and the Last Frontier and savor them in the frigid, early days of the New Year.

Happy New Year to you all! May you collect great memories in the coming months.

Air temps drop and fog begins to fill the river valley


  1. That's awesome Steve. Congrats on a great fish. I hope 2012 brings many more.


  2. Honkin fine brown that Z. Or bonnie. Whatever.

    All ra best in 2012 chum.

  3. Meant to ask: is that the Panasonic you're shooting or your proper camera? Very nice regardless.

  4. EJ: Those are all taken with the Panasonic. (With a little help from Picasa or Photoshop). Definitely Bonnie.

  5. A sixteen inch brown from a small stream. That's great.
    It could be the reason the brook trout are dwindling.
    The best to you in 2012

  6. That last photo, of the valley...amazing. Great piece, and all the best to you in the new year. What will the first fish of 2012 be...I wonder...

  7. E: I almost didn't look up to see that fog settling in but once I saw it I stood there till dark watching the colors and shadows shift towards twilight.

  8. I thought that was the romantic plume from your Arturo Fuente - you just had to burst my bubble.

  9. Jeez, I didn't even think of that. I did have an cigar earlier and there was no wind.....

  10. ahh, yes, "satisfyingly tight..."
    a fly fisherman's refrain. Well told.
    The year is beginning well.

  11. Clif: Thx, it was a good trip. Maybe tomorrow I'll get out so I can tell a tale of First Trout.