Whip Finish


Ralph Long - Nov 5, 2012

Autumn in Pennsylvania is an event made for the senses. I sat along a quiet pool on upper Fishing Creek north of Benton, with my rod across my lap trying to take it all in. Not in an act of desperation or panic although I realized that all of what I saw would soon come to a frosted end of grey forests and the accompanying blanket of white. But rather, trying to soak as much of it in as possible in hopes of a moment of warmth later in the winter, when my mind was sure to drift back to this particular time in my piscatorial life. I had watched the weather reports and left for work conscious of how warm it seemed for a fall morning. A slight humidity hung in the air, which brought along with it a heavy morning fog. A fog that I actually enjoyed since it meant another morning delaying the cold that was surely on the horizon. By the time I had reached the office however, the morning had a firm grip on me with no hopes of letting go. I would be taking the afternoon off to spend some late season time on the water. Convinced by reports of the next day's rain and cooler air forecast to move in, this evening would be a Blue-winged Olive day on the water. So there I was, bitten by the trout bug as I sat watching the water and taking it all in.

Sitting on that bank, I took the time to rebuild my leader and tippet connection as I discussed the possibilities of the afternoon water with a Holstein cow that casually ripped up the meadow grass just a few feet behind me. Whether she agreed with me I cannot be 100% sure, but occasionally she would give a long heavy exhale and shift her weight as if acknowledging my thoughts. That in itself was enough for me, as it was far more polite than simply feeding away in the other direction in complete ambivalence. If nothing else we both seemed to be quite content with each other's company as we discussed quite a bit. The sun had warmed up the valley to a gracious temperature, peaking at about 70 degrees. Looking over my shoulder, the great heat-tab in the sky looked to be about an hour away from the western ridgeline. If my guess was on target, the pool should see a little blue-winged Olive hatch beginning to show itself soon. The sun was at an angle now that lit up the entire mountainside to my front. There was still some brilliance in the red of the maple leaves, with only a smattering of the yellow of the fall birch remaining among the oranges of the oaks. The fall colors painted a beautiful brush across the valley, all of which highlighted the greens of the white pine and spruce which would soon be the only remaining color among a sea of grey. The colors however, also lit up the stream. The fall foliage danced among the riffles in reflection, and brought out the natural emeralds and blues of the deeper pools. Nature has a way of pulling it all together, and in turn revealing to us the stroke of the painters brush.

Glancing towards the water, I caught a hint of flash along the near-side of the seam. The fish were feeding! A bit more study revealed my assumption as I watched the underwater dance take place. Trout were feeding and nymphs were on the run. I fought the initial urge to tie on a nymph and go after them, reminding myself that I was there to catch some fall trout on dry flies and would soon be rewarded for my patience. So, while observing the fish feeding below the surface, I selected a #16 Blue-winged Olive Comparadun pattern and stood to get a better look. Along the far side of the pool where the bank was piled high with rock I saw a rise and I smiled. Turning back to Bessy I asked, "You saw that too, right?" She stared ahead in the direction of the pool, then slowly turned with her mouth gripping a football sized hunk of grass and walked away. I think it was her acknowledgement that our time together was done, and I should move on to what I originally had come for. "My thoughts exactly" I responded on her departure, and headed for the water.

I had decided to fish this water in specific fashion this afternoon, and instead of working the entire stream by prospecting every inch of it, I planned on homesteading on this single pool and target any fish that decided to show. Stripping line out I warmed my shoulder up with a few false casts and watched for the fish along the far bank to show again. There it was, and again in the same station and in a recognizable cadence. I dropped along the seam and tried to time his rise. It took me a few tries to get the feel for the particular current, but on the third drift the nose came up and my fly disappeared in a swirl. Moments later I was admiring a healthy brown trout of a nominal 9 inch length. Its colors seemed to match the world around me, and I thought it amazing how even the fish seemed to take on an added brilliance among the autumn colors. By this time the hatch was beginning to come off quite well and I looked down to see a BWO dun resting gracefully on my right cuff. "Thanks for coming" I said out loud to it, and then that fast it was gone. But left behind were three or four fish staged at the head of the pool now, and feeding steadily. Yet these fish for some reason would not even look at the Comparadun, so I paused to snip off my fly and tie on a #18 Blue-winged Olive LTD. Glancing up I noticed the sun just disappearing over the ridgeline, lighting up the sky with every color present along the mountain and then bleeding into the darkening blue only to burst into the adjacent clouds like fireworks. I watched in awe as the colors shifted over the course of minutes in a fantastic display, and then that quickly began to subside and lose much of their brilliance. It had come and gone so quickly, much like so much in life does. I felt fortunate to have been present to witness that very moment.

Turning back to the water I watched again for the fish to show me a pattern in their rise. Yet try as I might to time it I could not. What I did notice however, was that the middle fish was a sizeable one, and that was all I needed. I dropped my fly with my next cast towards the very head of the pool and dumped a little extra slack in the leader to avoid any drag on its way. The fish rose perfectly as I watched its entire length come to the surface to intercept my offering. And then in a blink-and-a-swirl it was gone. Lifting my rod kicked everything into action as the serenity of the afternoon that I had so enjoyed was shattered by a hooked fish that tore back and forth across the pool, tail-slapped its way through the tail-out, and then went straight back down to the bottom to shake its head in stubbornness attempting to rid itself of that little bit of feather and hook. Yet in the end the 7x tippet won the day, and I was soon sliding the fish to hand and holding it up to gauge its heft. Paring it up to my rod it was an even 17 inches. Not the biggest fish in those waters, as many magazine covers have been graced by some heavy browns from that stretch, but a gorgeous fish for sure. Its colors took on a slightly bronze hue, shaded with a silvery tone that faded into buttery gold. It more resembled an Atlantic salmon in coloration than your average brown trout I thought. The sense of energy as it kicked free of my hand and disappeared was not only a fitting end to the day, but also a fitting exclamation point to my entire season.

I smiled and stepped out of the water. With enough light to make my way back downstream to the jeep, I could take my time. Looking back on the pool before I left I saw another rise of a single fish, and a handful of leaves as they drift by on their journey downstream. Tomorrow would bring a fall rain, along with forecast winds. And my expectations were that most of those wet leaves would succumb to those winds and leave the branches. What I had on this evenings outing would begin to fade, and with it another season would step into its place. Yet I had the pages of my journal bookmarked by a perfect rise and a perfect fish among the brilliance of those falling leaves.

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