Matt Dickerson: Fishing for trout at mosquito hour
Less than an hour remained until sunset. I had one stretch of river to fish before calling it a day.
Earlier in the evening, fish had been rising on the Middlebury River, but as dusk approached the action had come to a complete stop. Nothing was moving above the water, except an occasional straggler mayfly or yellow stonefly left around from the earlier hatch. And mosquitos. Lots of them. An abundance of standing water and soggy ground remaining from the wet spring, coupled with the first day of the year with the thermometer reaching 80, seemed to have triggered a particularly thick hatch of them. Still, the hour around dusk is mosquito hour, so I couldn’t really act surprised by the incessant torment.
Unfortunately, the warm weather that had apparently triggered the mosquitos had also prompted me to wet wade for the first time in Vermont this year. Though I had on a long-sleeved “No Fly Zone” shirt — a permethrin-treated insect-repellent fabric that usually works fairly well for me — I was out in shorts and wading sandals instead of waders. I had a lot of exposed skin. And the mosquitos were finding it.
Fortunately, the Middlebury River is narrow enough that I can often cast with one hand. While my right hand kept flicking my fly 30 feet up and across the river, my left stayed busy slapping mosquitos off my casting hand. And I was not going to quit yet. I was approaching my favorite stretch of the river.
My favorite stretch is not my favorite because it’s consistently good fishing. Though I have had a few really good days there, and landed a couple memorable trout, I’ve also had plenty of outings when nothing was happening. Rather, it’s my favorite stretch because it was the first place in Vermont where I saw a black bear. Though I can’t remember the year — it happened some 25 years ago or so — the encounter itself is still fresh in my memory. I stood ankle-deep where the current swept over a shallow gravel riff, into a deep pool, around a right-angle turn below some bushes and an undercut bank, and along another riffle of larger rocks and boulders. The bear came lumbering down a steep hill, almost directly toward me. For a split second, out of the corner of my eye, I thought it was a big black dog.
When I realized it was a bear, two thoughts flashed through my mind. “This is really cool.” And “I hope it doesn’t kill me.” I’m not sure which came first, but the bear didn’t seem to notice me, so the “this is really cool” thought took slight precedent. The bear, which was not especially big — maybe just under 200 pounds and a year and a half old — reached the bottom of the hill almost directly across the river from me. It waded toward my side, angling downstream of where I stood, emerged and shook itself off.
It was still upwind of me, and hadn’t noticed me. It took a few more steps. Though it was only 10 yards away, it disappeared behind the big pile of gravel built up at the edge of the pool. I took one step to gain a little height so I could keep watching it. I rolled a stone and made a slight noise.
Zoom! The bear bolted in a flash, not evening bothering to look back until it was almost in the woods.
So it became a favorite stretch. Every time I’m there, I look up the slope hoping to see a bear lumbering down. Which has never happened in the quarter century since that encounter.
Now, with mosquitos and not a bear being my chief threat, I worked my way upstream toward that hole, stopping a couple times to change flies. It was a challenge, since tying on a new fly left no free hand to slap mosquitos. I tied quick and hasty knots, willing to sacrifice a fly or two rather than blood. I didn’t lose any flies. I also didn’t see any fish, though I fished my way through at least a dozen likely looking spots.
Finally I reached the famous bear hole. Still no fish. No bear, either. I worked up one more corner to the next hole, which hadn’t existed 25 years earlier: a beautiful, long, deep stretch of water with great cover from overhanging canopy and a bunch of trees fallen in the water. Surely it held some fish. With no particular hatch to imitate except the mosquitos, I tied on a generic attractor fly: a Royal Wulff, which is one of the few dry flies I attempt to tie on my own. I waxed it up to help it float high and not get waterlogged and worked the seam of the current, the log jam, the far bank. At the head of the pool, I let my fly drift down several different lines in the current. Finally I let it settle in a little patch of calm water between the main flows.
From deep down in the pool, a fat and bright red rainbow trout caught sight of the meal. It slowly rose to take a late night snack. Just at the last second, however, it turned away. I pulled the fly up, then let it drift in again. A second time the fish came up, this time swirling the water just inches from my fly like a batter swinging and missing at a breaking ball. A third time I cast, and a third time it sauntered up for a look.
Finally, on the fourth cast, I must have made the fly look just right in its drift, because the trout finally took it. Except by then I had grown too eager. Seeing the fish approach, I lifted my rod just a fraction of a second too soon. The fish hit the fly, I felt the give for just an instant as I pulled the fly right out of its mouth. That was the last I saw of the trout. I tried another fly — one that looked more like a mosquito — but couldn’t elicit another strike.
Admitting defeat, I slapped my way back down the river to the car with nothing to show for my efforts except mosquito bites. As I said, it was a favorite stretch, not a good stretch.
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