Monday, August 19, 2019

The Hour of the Mouse


"...this past weekend, Mark and I met to float the West Branch of the Delaware river, one of the only rivers around with consistent cold water and reliable hatches. Last August we had an excellent weekend of dry fly action in much higher flows. This weekend the water was very low. We planned to do a night float, our first, throwing streamers and mouse patterns for nocturnal browns.


Friday, we put in at Stilesville and had a car shuttled to Shehawken, essentially the entire west branch. We put in at 1pm under a sparse flock of cedar waxwings, barn and tree swallows gorging on sulfurs, olives and cahills. The waxwings seemed ill-suited to the pursuit compared to the graceful and unhalting cursive the swallows carved into the sky.

Trout were taking the mayflies from the surface as their wings dried, and we watched a few as they ascended only to be intercepted by the aerial predators. We saw a dragonfly catch and devour a sulfur while flying its zig-zag over a shallow riffle.

West branch trout see an awful lot of pressure from anglers that come here to test themselves. Consistently rising fish will be put down by a dead-drifted artificial that is off in ways known only to the fish.

We spent that whole day looking for risers and positioning the boat to make a presentation. It is challenging but one of our favorite ways to fish. The two eats we each had over the course of the entire day was only a little bit worse than I expected us to do.

As the sun set and we continued our float, our minds began to turn to something new.

We took off our sunglasses and replaced them with clear safeties as the five weights were stowed and a 7wt was readied with 4ft of 20lb and a mouse fly called a master splinter that Mark made some secret adjustments to.

The sky had gone from bluebird to stellar jay to lilac-breasted and then indigo bunting, all foregrounded by chunky grey clouds. Mark began to cast the mouse as the first stars began to shine through the gaps in the increasing cloud cover. Now it was dark and we heard the first sploosh from a fish missing the slowly twitched fly.

Beavers abounded and slapped their tails on the surface, making a sound like that of a bowling ball dropping into the water from a considerable height. There were far more of them than signs visible in the daylight would have had me predict.

Shortly, Mark connected with his first fish on the mouse, an 18" brown that tore his thumb up. I was up and proceeded to go 0/10 over the remaining miles of the river. So many takes, only a few momentary connections. One broke me off and at first I thought I'd snagged a beaver but beavers don't headshake, I think.

My eyes were playing tricks in the darkness and the intermittent light from the waxing gibbous cast one riverside into a darker shadow than the other, obliterating my ability to discern distance or depth of field. I could only imagine a murky visage of where my fly had landed and how it was swimming. 

We were both exhausted. Then it began to rain and lightning. We pulled over. I did not have a rain jacket and began to shiver. Mark's older safety glasses fogged, giving him the sight of a person wearing drunk goggles. Whoever was on the oars began to doze. We finally found the takeout at 1:45am. One fish landed all day. We were asleep at the campsite by 3:00am.

The next day found us riverside by 2:00pm and gearing up for another marathon float, in direct defiance of our sworn vow to not attempt a repeat. The tug really is a kind of drug.

Saturday was windier and there were fewer bugs and almost no birds feeding on the wing. We floated until we found some risers and made some attempts but nothing really began to awaken until the evening. The wind had died and a sulfur hatch materialized. In a long, meandering pool hundreds of fish were dimpling the surface, distorting the mirrored image of the coloring sky. We worked on two fish for an hour before putting them down in turn with missed eats then drifted through the pool casting at rise forms. This kind of proliferation of life and death and metamorphosis and transition is thrilling to see and participate in. We went something like 0/148 through that stretch but this is the west branch so it was alright.

As the sky darkened we pulled over to prepare for the night. I made a thermos of coffee as we split a hoagie and cracked a few beers. We made sure the rod was ready and the knots were strong. The fly already had some teeth marks and was ready to go for a swim again.

We resumed the float in full darkness and almost immediately entered into an incredible feeding window for an hour or so over only a few hundreds yards of water. Whatever causes fish to turn on was turning them on.

Mark had 7 missed explosions in the darkness before coming tight to number 8. "Big fish," he said, as the glint of the rod bowed out of the moonlight and into the darkness, canted over the bow as he hauled slack with his off hand. In a moment I'd netted his fish and dropped anchor. A 22" brown, thick and handsome. Mark was stoked, and it was my turn.

I missed a take on my 2nd cast but hooked and landed a slightly smaller fish, 21", on my fourth. A 17"er came to hand a few moments later, and then another a short while after that. Several fish were missed between them. And just like that, the fishing turned off for good with 7 more river miles ahead of us.

Nothing was splashing but upset beavers and we were satisfied and tired. We decided to row out the float and get some rest instead of letting the river carry us until the early morning.

The crisp multicolored arrangements of the stars were punctured by the glowing green wire of a shooting star. A vantablack mountainside loomed at a river bend bounded above by the satin of the sky and the high gloss of the riffled water. A lone Canada goose stood footed in the midriver current, like he'd been waiting for us to pass by. Browns revealed themselves in the sweep of my headlamp as pale yellow forms, ghosts of themselves, sidling in the flows among the swaying vegetation. An American eel, probing between the rocks, 400 miles from the mouth of this river and who knows how far from its saltwater spawning grounds, became illuminated by my searching headlight. A profound encounter, and brief, as our campsite beckoned. We took turns at the oars to stay warmed in the tailwater chilled air, and were asleep in our tent by 3:00am again."


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