Whip Finish


Ralph Long - Oct 20, 2014

Driving past the lake I could see the parking area near the water about half full with visiting day-trippers. Inner-tubes bobbed with folks cooling off, and little ones were in the roped off wading area. From appearances they all looked to be having a great time escaping the August heat. Me on the other hand, I was heading upstream. I was going another half mile upstream of the impound where the small stream that fed those day-trippers with their cold water wound its way down through hemlocks and meadows. It was upstream of that small county lake where the hemlocks shaded wild browns and native brook trout. A place where the creek, in some places, was small enough to cross with one large hop and the water remained cool and flowing. Today I would be "small box fishing".

Reaching the tree line I was looking for, I searched for a place to pull off the gravel road far enough to avoid losing a mirror to a log truck. On these roads you are a visitor, while those log trucks are running in a world where time is money and an outstretched mirror is no concern of theirs. Parking the truck I folded my driver's side mirror in and pulled my gear. Today I would be using a 7 foot 3-weight glass rod and a 3 weight double taper line, which was just the ticket where a 9 inch fish is considered to have "big shoulders". I did not need any waders or hip boots today; a pair of old cargo pants and sneakers would do. Rigging my rod I threw my lanyard around my neck. The lanyard would replace the hip bag or vest today. Just a nipper, forceps, floatant, some 6x tippet and a small 3" x 3" fly box would be needed. On these trips I tend to carry no more than 3 or 4 patterns at the most. Today it was three. My box included 4 size-16 Elk-hair Caddis, 4 size-18 Coast-to-Coast nymphs and 2 Briar Creek wets in size-16. Knowing this water well I figured I was prepared for 2-3 days fishing with those 10 flies.

Locating the intended tree line I followed it across the uphill edge of a small brushy meadow. At the far side of the meadow the woods opened up to a large oak flat until the dark green of the hemlocks came into view. As I approached the hemlocks everything began to change. The air became noticeably cooler and took on a rich dark earthy odor. The faint sound of the creek babbling along its way to the lake came to ear just as a large great horned owl took flight, with just the subtlest of sounds as his powerful wings moved air. Had he not taken off within my field of vision nobody would have been the wiser that he even existed. I got the sense he would have preferred it that way, since 2 minutes later the banter of a small flock of crows could be heard harassing him. "Sorry buddy," I said to myself out loud, knowing full well the feeling of being forced to interact with the world, which many times does not want to be your friend.

I was heading for the first pool on a small bend. I like to begin there for very selfish reasons. First, from the tail-out and on my knees, I was afforded a clear back cast. And secondly, the pool always held at least one hungry fish looking up, which tended to provide a good start for the day. Forcing myself to move slower than normal I eased up to the inside of the bend and knelt at the edge of the bank. My first cast was miraculously right on and before my fly had drifted 10 inches it was taken with a tail-slap. Leaning the little rod to the side to keep the fish away from the roots near the bank, the bright little fish fought valiantly before sliding onto the palm of my hand. It was a perfect little brown trout, with unblemished non-hatchery fins and the brightest orange flank spotting I had seen in quite a while. To me these fish are a treat. Though not the true native fish of the water, they are none-the-less century's old wild stock of German decent, which is akin to my family as well, so who am I to say they don't belong? I watched the fish swim away from my hand with good strength, and stood up to find the next likely pool.

I tend to fish little water in the same manner regardless of success at a pool. One fish, and move on, then fish my way back down fishing each one again either with a different fly or from a different approach. On this particular stream I fish dries upstream and skip all the deeper pools. I've found they fish better with nymphs. As a result, after fishing upstream with a dry I take the time at those larger pools and switch to the bead-head, and then dredge in Czech –nymphing fashion. After picking up a few more fish on the way to the top of the section I was targeting I turned around for my trip back down. On the first pool my nymph no sooner dropped over the ledge at the head of the pool when it was grabbed hard by a nice fish. As I brought the fish to the surface early on I saw the white and knew right-off that it was a nice brookie. Upon landing it I took a moment to appreciate the contrasting white-tipped fins against the blue haloed flanking spots and vermillion back which made the fish exceptionally beautiful. The native to these waters they are perfectly designed to live among the shadowed pools of these hemlock runs.

The rest of the trip back down was much of the same. A handful of smaller brook trout with a smattering of browns thrown in for good measure. When I arrived at my starting point at the top of the meadow, I switched flies once more and tied on the Briar Creek wet. My target was a long run of riffles just below the meadow where the creek straightened and began to descend toward the lake. It was a small stretch that could be fished completely in 20 minutes, but has become a tradition of sorts for my trips up here. I don't swing the little wet fly in this run; I cast upstream and just let the current carry it down through the rifles and small channels. I fished two-thirds of the way down through the run, and was beginning to think the water was going to beat me on this trip. Then suddenly, reminiscent of a mini steelhead strike, the line shot clothesline tight as a large fish hooked itself with heavy head shakes before I even had the chance to raise my rod tip. Then without hesitation the fish shot downstream about 20 feet, hit another run of riffles, left the water twice and spit that little wet fly right back at me. I had just lost a fine fish better than 14 inches, which for this water was quite a fish. He had caught me day-dreaming and beaten me hands down. I hung my head for a moment in self-pity, and then smiled. It was the chance of fish just like that one that brings me back here a couple of times each season.

I had come prepared for the day with three very specific patterns to fish this water in a very methodical manner, knowing that if I did my part there would be no need for carrying a multitude of patterns. And right down to the last fish of the day, the Briar Creek had done its job by enticing the largest fish. Walking back to the truck I was wandering in thought when I was startled by the flushing of 2 ruffed grouse. As I stopped suddenly to look and follow that familiar sound I was amazed at both the grace and violence in which a grouse flushes. I told myself that in another month a hackle gathering trip would be needed to revisit that covey as the leaves change and the mornings are bringing frost to this little meadow. And just maybe I would bring the rod along as well.

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