Matt Dickerson: A fisherman gets a birthday surprise
I walked out on the dock, set down my fly rod and my blue canvas boat bag with my boxes of flies and fly-fishing gear, and went back inside for a canoe paddle and seat cushion. When I returned to the dock, I found sitting on my bag a beautiful two-tailed mayfly. Though its wings were tan with just a hint of honey coloring, its head, legs, and underside sported patches of brighter yellow that stood out against my blue bag. It was at least the third species of mayfly I’d seen in the past day, rising off the water, fluttering past our porch, or landing on our outside windows and walls. Most of the mayflies catching my attention were a larger dun-colored variety that rose all day long all across the lake, even in the deeper water, and which were so large they were visible from 200 yards away. The day before, a long gray mayfly with three tails had also made an appearance on the screen of our dining room window.
This yellowish mayfly on my bag was smaller and more delicate than the other two. It also happened I had a single fly in my collection that was a good match in size and wing color, though it didn’t have quite the same bright yellow spots on the underbody. Maine has more than 160 species of mayflies. With the exception of one or two famous varieties — like the hexagenia that often hatch on the lake later in June — I haven’t made a huge attempt to learn even their common names or scientific classification. This one looked to me like a yellow drake, but more important to me than knowing its name was observing its size and color and trying to match that in my flies.
I’d spent the past four days with family on a small lake in western Maine. Though Maine had just announced that it was opening up to visitors from certain New England counties with low rates of COVID-19 (including Vermont’s Addison County), we went with the plan of staying primarily in isolation. My isolation plan had two parts. The first was sitting by a window looking over the lake, and making use of several hours each day to write while listening to the voices of the loons and watching mayflies. The second was to get out in the canoe as often as possible, either paddling around with my wife looking for turtles on logs and watching the loons from water levels, or paddling around with my fly rod chasing the fish that were being chased by those loons while themselves chasing those various species of rising mayflies.
And I’d done that. Except there were very few fish rising to the surface for mayflies, and so far I had caught none. This was unusual for me, and somewhat disappointing. I’ve been going to that lake in June for several decades. We even honeymooned there. And I’ve nearly always had great success casting dry flies to the lake’s population of brook trout, and the occasional landlocked salmon. I had no clue why this year was turning out so differently. The mayflies were still coming off the water, but the trout just weren’t rising consistently to chase them. I kept visiting and revisiting all my favorite gravel-bar hot spots around the lake without success.
On my birthday, my older brother Ted joined me. We had an hour and a half after dinner and before dusk. As he made his way out to the dock to join me, I lifted the yellow drake off my bag and held it in my hand for a few seconds before it flew off. Then got into the canoe with our fly rods and headed to our favorite spot on the lake.
There were a few fish rising when we arrived, though not in any of the usual spots: the three gravel bars extending from the island’s three sides. The most consistent rises were coming across the channel from the island, against the shore at the bottom of the cliff. We paddled over and made some casts. A pair of loons was visible off to our right. One was hunting and the other sat on a nest. We kept our distance. From somewhere in the trees near the base of the cliff, a bald eagle started peeping. That disturbed the loon, who started to complain. It was an enjoyable enough moment that I didn’t mind too much that the fishing hadn’t been very good that week.
And then, in a promising sign, we both had strikes on our flies. We also both missed them. Then the fish stopped rising. We left the shore and paddled around the island to one of the gravel bars. Still nothing rising. Twenty minutes later, we were back at the base of the cliffs, giving the spot one more chance. As we neared, we saw some dimples on the surface of the water, close to the shore.
Big hard splashes on the surface usually mean trout are chasing mayflies as they hatch, trying to get to them in the brief vulnerable moment before they can dry their wings and fly off. Fishing for trout feeding on these “emergers” can be excited but also frustrating, since the trout tend to ignore insects landing on the surface (which is what my imitation flies do), in favor of those rising up from the bottom. Tonight, though, the little dimples and more subtle behavior of the fish suggested they were feeding on mayflies coming back down to the water to lay eggs after mating. And, sure enough, we both starting getting little taps on our flies. We missed several of these taps, but eventually Ted landed a small landlocked salmon.
I caught sight of a fish rising quite close to the shore almost under a big oak tree. The subtlety of the rise made it difficult to gauge the size of the fish. I expected a little brook trout under a foot long when I made the cast. When the fish hit my fly, and I set my hook, and then the fish leapt two feet out of the water in its first powerful attempt to break free, I knew I was wrong. This was a big landlocked salmon.
The salmon and I danced for some time. When I made my first attempt to bring it close enough to net it from the canoe, it took off again, this time going down deep and putting a significant bend in my fly rod. A couple more minutes passed before I made a second attempt, also unsuccessful. Finally I was able to bring it to net, and discover that my one lone fish of my birthday, who took my fly with the subtlest of kisses, was also the largest I’d ever caught on that lake on a dry fly: a landlocked salmon that, when I set the net down in the canoe, measured at 19 inches. And my little artificial mayfly was only slightly worse for the wear.
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