A ragged fly on a flooded river

I don’t usually get excited about catching a nine-inch trout. At least not when the trout was almost certainly a stocked fish, and I’m fishing a favorite stretch of my home river where I’ve already caught 1,000 trout in my lifetime.
But this was different for two reasons.
The first is that my fishing opportunities have been rare this spring. Thanks to an unusually full writing and speaking schedule on top of my regular teaching job, I had busy months of April and May. And on those few occasions when I might have been able to make time to take a few casts, it was either raining, just about to rain, or just finished raining.
I should be clear here. Fishing in light rain doesn’t bother me. And fishing just before a rain when the barometer is dropping, or just after a rain when the water is a bit off-color and a bunch of food has just washed into the stream, are often fantastic times to fish.
But, as we all know, the rains of May 2011 have been anything but light; it’s been one impressive thunderstorm after another, with even a tornado warning thrown in as a bonus. And “a bit off-color” does not come close to describing the condition of Vermont’s rivers this past month.
So when Sunday afternoon came along, and I realized that more than 20 hours had passed since the last rain had fallen — how often has that happened in the past two weeks? — and the sun was poking through the clouds in a few spots, with no new rain forecast for another six or so hours, I figured I’d better take whatever little window of opportunity was open. Though I did not really expect the fishing conditions to be good, I grabbed my rod and headed down to the New Haven River.
However, one good thing had come out of the heavy rains of May. In those opportunities when I might have been free to fish, but couldn’t because of the weather and water conditions, I tied some flies.
Now, I don’t really consider myself a fly tier. Prior to this year, I’d tied only a half-dozen flies in my life, always with a skilled tier looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do. But this spring, to go with the new fly-tying tool kit I’d won in a raffle, I finally purchased the materials needed for a couple of my favorite patterns of flies: an imitation golden stonefly nymph and a Copper John.
After my friend Wes Butler guided me through tying my first double-beaded stonefly, I went home and tied up ten more, all on No. 8 hooks. As I gained confidence, I started adding my own variations to the pattern based on flies I’d used successfully in the past. I varied the style of legs, the number of beads, the wing casing, and the amount of shimmer in the dubbing.
Finally satisfied with my collection, I went on to the Copper John. This time my nephew Michael helped me tie my first one. It was a tougher pattern, and I was less satisfied with my results and thus less adventurous in my variations. Still, I ended with about a half dozen standard ones on No. 12, No. 14, and No. 16 hooks, plus two variations of my own creation.
Thus it was armed with my own flies that I went out onto the New Haven River on Sunday evening, in between thunderstorms. And that, also indirectly inspired by the rain, was the second reason I was feeling a bit of excitement.
As I drove to the river, I couldn’t help notice that despite the sunshine, water stood in most of the cornfields. It was not a good sign. Still, I was not prepared for just how high the New Haven River was running.
Gravel banks that in late May are normally two feet above the river were now two feet under water. It was a non-trivial task to find a place to wade across (though I eventually succeeded). When I saw the conditions, my expectations of catching anything fell — and not because of my flies’ amateur quality.
The only thing encouraging was the tint of the water. It was something like the color of weak tea: cloudy enough to make my line invisible to the fish, but clear enough that my hand-tied double-beaded stonefly would be visible through the water to any hungry trout up to four or so feet away. Still, my expectations remained low.
And so it was that when I caught that one lone trout of the outing — a pale-looking rainbow about the size of this year’s stocking, but one that made an aggressive hit on a fly that I had tied — I felt a certain thrill. And why, 10 minutes later when I hooked that fly on a half-submerged log on the far side of the stream, I was willing to spend far more time than the actual material value of the fly merited in order to retrieve it.
Having gotten the hang of a couple of my favorite flies, I’m now looking forward to moving on to some new patterns. I’m looking forward to a day going fishing with noting in my vest but flies that I have tied. But just for the record, in the future I’m quite to content to do some tying while the sun is shining.

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