Whip Finish


Ralph Long - Aug 27, 2012

Slipping quietly out the cabin door, I was careful not to wake the family as they slept. I pulled my waders from the hook where they had hung overnight. Cold against my legs, they seemed stiff and cumbersome as I bent to tie my boots. Though it sounds uncomfortable, it's a feeling I relish that takes me back to cold waders with my dad as a kid every time. Standing straight I adjusted my vest, checked for my forceps, floatant and nippers. All were in place. With all being ready I grabbed my rod and strolled down the lane to the bottom of the property. The sound of the limestone gravel crunching underfoot seemed foreign in the quiet of morning. I reached the end of the lane and stepped over the split rail fence to cross the last section of grass along the creek. There was a long slow glide upstream and to my right, and the property sat on a point where the glide tailed into a 100 yard riffle and then straight into a hole at the bottom of the bend. The head of the hole was formed by a limestone shelf that went up the far bank and pushed a channel downstream and into a 50 yard long hole, but also rotated the water back against itself, forming a swirling eddy above and on the far side of the hole. I stood watching the water for about 10 minutes taking in the stream. A pair of teal were paddling and feeding in the eddy at the head of the hole. You could see that they were working against the current, but were sitting almost stationary as they searched the water rushing toward them. To my right, along the bank, was a gaunt looking spring groundhog munching on the dew covered grass. He seemed oblivious to my intrusion on his breakfast.

There was no surface activity to speak of except for one light rise at the tail of the hole. But as slight as it was it could have just as well been a chub. So, with rod under my arm, I decided to tie on a size 14 Elk hair caddis pattern and do a little prospecting. It's my usual search pattern on the northern streams. I eased into the water to about knee deep, and positioned myself for a 45degree upstream cast to the point of the limestone shelf. It seemed the entire hole was mine, and from that position I would be able to cover 75% of it without so much as moving my feet. The first cast was simply to get the line off the reel and loosen the shoulder, but I was pleasantly surprised at a short-rise just off the rock shelf. I was awake now, and dialed in to the fish I had just discovered. Two casts later a 9 inch brown gulped in my caddis fly just as it left the swirls of the eddy and swung along the rocks. A short fight later and I was admiring him as he left my hand with a defiant tail slap.

A light fog was forming just above the water with the day beginning to brighten and warm, yet there was still no rise activity to be seen. Then out of the corner of my eye I caught a rise form at the very end of the tail-out. Watching motionless I smiled as 30 seconds later another rise form and then another. I slowly moved down to check things out. What I found was a handful of fish feeding on what looked to be Blue Quills. I quickly clipped off the caddis and tied on a Blue Quill thorax pattern. My first three casts brought fish to hand, and all of them were nice fat browns about 14 inches in length, however, as quickly as they appeared the hatch stopped and they disappeared. I cast blindly for a few more minutes, and then turned to look elsewhere. I found one fish feeding methodically along the quick little seam that skirted the rock ledge. A couple casts proved to do nothing but pull under my thorax pattern in the broken water. I clipped off the thorax and tied on a size 16 Blue Quill haystack pattern and heavily greased the wing. It took me one more cast to find the perfect drift, and on the second cast he took it with a splashy rise. Not real big in size, but from the reaction to the hook-set it was obvious that this fish was different. As I brought it downstream of me in preparation to net it in the slower water I saw the distinct vermillion markings of a native brookie. A lively and colorful addition to the morning for sure, and it was nice to see the signs of a healthy stream. I was rinsing my hand after releasing the brookie, when I noticed a mayfly sitting on my rod just above the cork. I glanced around noticed that as the sun was beginning to hit the head of the hole, a decent march brown hatch was in the makings. I quickly clipped off the Blue Quill and tied on a size 14 May Haystack. I saw several fish feeding along the seam that fed the beginning of the rock ledge. They appeared stacked up in their feeding lies like ducks in a row. As hungry as they were I was able to pick up four more fat brown trout until the hatch stopped. The forth fish was memorable in every way. As the fly swung along the seam at the edge of the eddy he rose bringing his entire head out of the water as the fly simply disappeared. It was a textbook take, and I knew the instant I raised the rod that it was a nice fish. After an intense headshaking fight that took me to the back of the far eddy, he came to hand with surprising heft and settled quickly as I was able to cleanly slip the hook out. It was a beautiful 18 inch, butter colored fish with brilliant orange markings. As I released him he seemed to profile in the water at my fingertips for a split second in a perfect display of how nature is painted. I was amazed how with a turn of his head those colors transformed into perfect camouflage as it disappeared against the streams bottom.

Lost in the moment of complete satisfaction, I stood there in the stream aware only of the waters pressure against my legs and the smile, that if not displayed was certainly felt. As I looked up over the water I could see rise forms again in the tail-out. I knew instantly that I could move back down and with a pattern like the May Haystack or a floating emerger I could drift them as cripples and pick up a few more fish. But I couldn't have asked for a better closing for a morning on the water. Besides, coffee was sounding good at the moment. I waded out to the gravel bank, and walked through the grass toward the end of the gravel lane. Pausing to inspect the fly I had on the tippet for damage, the rise was audible over the sound of the stream. So much so that my head instantly froze to listen, and before I turned around I heard it again! Looking back down at the water I watched as two large heads rose in a steady cadence as they took in mayflies riding the seam I had just left. I could catch them I thought - tomorrow.

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