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THE LAST HATCH
It had been a hard year in trout country. The winter snows had been thin and the spring runoff never really developed. By early summer the streams were low and warm, and the trout were lethargic and spooky in the warm shallow water. The prospects of having any quality fly fishing this season were quickly fading with the last days of summer. I had given up hope of any fall fishing and was preparing to store away my gear for the season when my wife called me to the phone.
"Hey, what are you doing?" The voice resounding from my phone was my old fishing buddy from back east. We traditionally planned a fishing trip each year, usually during the fall. Normally we could count on getting some fall spawning browns to chase our streamers, and we were always hoping to have a few days of Baetis fishing.
"Well, I was just getting ready to put my fishing gear away. It's been so hot and dry here that I doubt there will be any fly fishing until next spring."
There was a long silence on the other end of the line.
"There's got to be a chance that we can get in at least one day of fall Baetis fishing."
"I doubt it. The long range weather forecast calls for a continuation of this dry weather until early next spring. The streams are too low and warm to fish. I think we should forget it for this year."
"You're certain that we can't find a hatch somewhere? It's kinda of important to me."
His comment about it being 'important to him' struck me as strange, but I brushed it off. He lived in a big city and our yearly fly fishing trip was a high light of his year. I knew that the bad economy had been hard on his business and maybe he just needed to get away.
"Well, we can try but don't be disappointed if we just get in a lot of casting practice."
The plans were made and I began to pray even harder that the weather forecast was wrong and that we would get some rain. Unfortunately as the days passed the drought continued without any signs of abating. It was looking increasingly grim and I was tempted to call my friend and tell him to cancel, but the idea that, for some reason, this trip was very important to him kept me from making the call. Just a week before he arrived the weather suddenly took an unexpected change.
From the Gulf of Alaska an early season cold front plunged south. Temperatures tumbled and a cold rain began to fall. A big high pressure system in the east kept the cold front from moving out and it stalled right over us. After months without any significant moisture the rain began to fall and in the mountains the snow began to build the snow pack. For the next several days the rain and snow continued to fall, and streams that only days before had been flowing at record low levels began to rise. Suddenly we had too much water. Streams were bank full of cold dirty water and although we now had plenty of water the fly fishing prospects could hardly be considered much better than before. Once more I was tempted to reach for the phone but I refrained.
I drove to the airport under a sullen sky that was still spitting intermittent rain mixed with snow. The forecast was for a slow warming trend but with continued prospects of more rain. While I was heartened to see the streams full of water I knew that it would not translate to good fishing in the next few days.
Despite the weather my friend was full of optimism, unusually so I thought. While he always had been a fanatical fly fisher he seemed especially driven this year. Notwithstanding the high cold discolored water we fished from morning to night, throwing streamers, and pitching big ugly nymphs into anyplace that looked like it might hold a trout. By persistence more than skill we did manage to hook a few trout, but mostly it was just casting practice. The weather continued to be fickle with cold north winds one day and low scudding clouds covering the mountains, and then a warm sunny day with dark blue skies and warm winds.
Although we did catch a few trout on streamers and nymphs we kept looking for a hatch of Baetis. We covered ever stream within a day's driving distance, but we could not find any Baetis. I was afraid that the low warm water during the preceding months had decimated the nymphs and it was unlikely that we would find any hatching flies this fall.
Although the conditions were less than ideal in retrospect we did have a great time. One day after we had fished a large pool with streamers and large nymphs with only a couple small trout and a couple whitefish for our efforts we built a fire from the driftwood that was deposited by the river during periods of high water. With our backs against the bleached trunk of a large Cottonwood tree, its root ball still intact from where it had been wrenched from the bank by the raging river, we warmed our hands and reminisced about all the great times we had shared in the years past.
Finally we came down to the last day of his trip. It was a warm and sunny day, hardly the type of day that would produce a hatch of fall Baetis even under the best of conditions, and we did not have the best conditions. We decided to try a stream where, in past years, we could usually find hatching flies, but this was not like other years. When we arrived at the stream it was still running nearly bank full. While it was not as off color as many of the streams that we had fishing in the last few days it was far from clear and a quick check of the water temperature was far from encouraging.
"Not much hope for any hatching flies today," I said. "It seems that we are going to strike out this year."
"The day isn't over yet," he said. "Perhaps they will come yet."
I appreciated his optimism but I was not as hopeful. We spent the morning tossing streamers and nymphs with no success. The early afternoon was a duplicate of the morning and I was ready to call it a day. We had to pack up his gear so that he could catch the red eye home that night, but he did not seem to be ready to leave.
"There's a fly," he said pointing to a spot on the water. "I think it's a Baetis."
I stared at the water where he was pointing and as I watched a single mayfly fluttered off the surface. Then, as if by magic there was another one and then another. Quickly I started fumbling in my fly box for a Baetis nymph imitation and within minutes we had both switched our heavy streamer rods for lighter models with finer tippets and suitable imitations. By the time we were rigged up the hatch had increased in intensity, and as unlikely as it seemed it appeared that the trout had been waiting for the Baetis hatch with as much anticipation as we had. My friend connected with an acrobatic rainbow on his first cast and a couple cast later I hooked a lively brown. The hatch increased and the trout switched from nymphs to the hatching flies and we switched with them. The late fall sun was hanging on the western horizon when the hatch sputtered to a halt and the last rings made by the rising trout faded away.
He had seemed pleased but strangely quiet as we stowed our gear and his handshake before he boarded the plane seemed a bit firmer than usual. As I watched the lights of his plane disappear in the night sky I felt a strange satisfaction that we had found a hatch in the last few hours of the last day of his trip.
The next day the weather turned colder and snow began to fall in the valley. We had fished the first and only fall Baetis hatch of the year.
A few weeks later in the early morning hours the ringing of the phone woke me from a sound sleep. The voice on the other end of the line apologized for such an early phone call but they thought that I would want to know that my old fishing buddy had died.
"What? There must be some mistake. He was just here and he seemed fine. How? What happened? An accident?"
"No there was no accident," said the voice on the phone. "Didn't he tell you when he was fishing with you?"
"Tell me – tell me what?"
"The brain cancer. The inoperable tumor."
"No, he never said a word."
The voice went on to explain that he had been diagnosed early in the summer and spent the last few months putting his affairs in order. His last wish was to spend a few days fishing with me. They presumed that he had told me about his cancer.
"By the way," the caller told me, "he did ask me to tell you that he really did enjoy fishing his last hatch with you. He said you would understand."
Later that day I drove out the stream where we had spent those last few hours of a dying fall day fishing to rising trout feeding on fall Baetis. The banks of the stream were wrapped in winter snow and the water flowed passed unbroken. There would be no more Baetis this season; indeed, in more ways than one, we had fished the last hatch.