It started in Indiana in February. Friday afternoon speaking at one university, and Monday morning at another. It made little sense to come home in between, so I spent Saturday trying to get caught up on work and writing. And on Sunday I found a guide to take me steelhead fishing on a small tributary to Lake Michigan.
Fishing conditions were not great. We bumped into maybe 20 other anglers over the day, and not one had caught a fish. But late in the morning, on a hunch, my guide brought me back to where we had started the day several hours earlier. On the fourth or fifth swing of my nymph I felt the line stop. Half expecting another snag, I nonetheless lifted the rod and set the hook. And the river exploded. Several minutes later we were netting a 10-pound steelhead. Though I fished the rest of the afternoon, that one fish would be the only one I saw.
Oklahoma was next. It was April. Once again I was speaking at a small university on a Friday afternoon, followed by a Sunday morning gig at a nearby church. Sunday afternoon and Monday morning were reserved for fishing before a midday flight home. We had a two-hour drive to the nearest trout stream, and the entire way we were racing a thunderstorm.
We lost the race. As we neared the river, lightning touched down on the hills ahead, and then the skies opened up and started dumping cats and dogs. We sat out the storm in a parking lot by the hydro dam overlooking the river. I think it was 6 p.m. before I wet a line, and 6:30 when I landed my first Oklahoma trout. At 6:45 p.m., the alarm signaled that the dam was about to release. I hustled back across the knee-deep river to the shore where the car was parked. Before long the river was raging, full of foam, completely unfishable. Monday morning the alarm sounded before first light and we never even wet the line. One trout would be all.
Colorado was next. I was there with two students to spend a day video-interviewing Colorado State University trout biologist Kurt Fausch about the importance of wild cutthroat, and efforts to protect and restore them in the Rockies. We drove into the mountains together, and the interview took place in a lovely alpine meadow alongside a small stream where native cutthroat were protected from invasive fish by a concrete barrier downstream. The interview ended mid-afternoon. We had about an hour and a half left before we needed to departed. Those 90 minutes proved just barely enough time for me to catch and release — yes, good guess — one small wild native Colorado River cutthroat on a little nymph.
And then, two weekends ago, it was Pennsylvania. I was guest lecturing on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning. The professor who invited me noticed I had also written two books on trout, fly fishing and ecology. Though not the subjects I had been invited to speak on, he assigned some students to do a video-interview term-project on me, based on my books “Downstream” and “Trout in the Desert.”
We did the interview on a famous Pennsylvania limestone creek. We were done by 10 a.m. because the students had to get back to classes. I didn’t have to be on campus until 5 p.m. That left me five hours to fish and still have time to shower. The water was simultaneously murky from a recent rain, and low from the same drought we’ve had in Vermont. Five hours produced two very small trout, both on small hopper invitations.
That’s right! Two. I failed to mention another trip I took to a college in Iowa in early April. After a Friday afternoon talk, I drove several hours to visit my nephew, a recent Middlebury College graduate studying music at Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. He had a long Saturday morning exam. Afterward, we spent the last afternoon and evening, and then most of the day on Sunday, fishing a pair of local streams in state parks about an hour away. It was a lot of hours fishing on a pair of cold April days in very small streams — without either or us landing a single fish. I think that must have been why I caught two in Pennsylvania. It all averages out.
And so, finally, came Vermont. Not that I hadn’t caught a fish in my own home state this year. I’d caught a few. But the season was winding down. September and October flew by with few opportunities to get on the water. Just a few days until open trout season was over. Cabin fever season was bearing down.
Fall is the time when big browns and landlocked salmon spawn out of lakes and big rivers up into smaller rivers and streams. Hooking into a hefty brown or salmon is a pretty good way to end the season. But the water had been so low. The few times I had been out, nothing was moving.
When rain rolled in last weekend, I smelled my chance. After a day and a night of steady — and at times heavy — precipitation, I was out in the water Saturday morning standing in a light mist, looking through polarized lenses trying to spot big fish in water darkened from rotting leaves. But despite all the rain, the river was still low. Too low for a big salmon to torpedo up, at least in daylight.
What I spotted, in one of the few knee-deep stretches of current, was not a salmon or a big brown. It was a big brook trout. Though in the dark water I didn’t recognize it at first. It took 40 of 50 casts to get my nymph to drift past it just right. And then I saw the subtle movement of its head, two or three inches to the left. And it was on. The biggest brook trout I’d landed in Vermont in at least five years. I netted it, took a few photos underwater, and released it.
Not what I had come for that day. But well worth the effort, I thought.
And then, 75 yards downriver, I caught another one just like it.
Author’s note: the first video in a new series on Wyoming’s wild cutthroat trout — the series that also brought me to Colorado, and which I wrote about earlier in the summer — is now available online at https://youtu.be/K10WjURTSKo.