Night School

After a month and a half of intense and diverse fly fishing it feels like a lifetime ago that I was sitting at my tying bench anxiously waiting for the rivers to open. But that doesn’t mean the anxiety is gone. Michigan Junes are so full of important hatches and active fish that I am terrified I’ll miss a critical week or evening or hatch or rise or fish because I managed my time wrong. I feel actual physical anxiety over this for the first part of the month.

So I continuously refresh my always-open browser tabs for weather and USGS streamflow data and try to guess which nights the variables will align: hot daytime temperatures, high but wadeable water, scattered thunderstorms or, at least, some cloud cover. Into this metric is factored the Up North rumors that whisper their way south in shorthand Latin-ish jargon and the non-fishing commitments that must be mentally rearranged.

Isonychias on the South Branch. Four over twenty on drakes last night. The lawn can grow another inch. Recurvata reported north of Wolverine. My wife will forgive me in July. Carp and smallies on the flats, bring an eight weight. I can get another few hundred miles before that oil change.

I will only hit the perfect cocktail of weather, bugs, fish a few times per year and on those nights I still have to bring good casting, the right fly, and the patience to wait for a rising fish. Those are perishable learned skills which are best taught on and by the river. Reading and studying during the non-June months can lay the foundation, but classroom time – river time – is mandatory. A weekend student does not do well in this class. It’s night school, then, for those of us who work and can’t attend full-time, and who don’t want to resort to nymph fishing. Night school: class meets after work, when conditions dictate, if you can, even if you shouldn’t.

Night school is hard, because it requires keeping a full kit in the car, camping in the rain, a gas station diet, and early morning deer-dodge drives to work, unshaved and unshowered, still repelling mosquitoes. Meanwhile, the lawn at home looks like a hayfield.

Jason Tucker coined the term “dirtbag trip” for these short-notice overnight jaunts, but in the heat of a Michigan June, night school sessions running back-to-back, the line between dirtbag and deadbeat gets a bit fuzzy. Two weeks ago I toed that line dangerously, but the education proved worth the risk.

Having driven two hours north after work and hastily set up camp nearby, I stepped into a favorite bend of the S. Branch Au Sable River, Mason Tract country, which was brimming at a wholesome 300 cubic feet per second. Class commenced. Isonychia bicolor spinners clouded the air in the valley and hatching duns dotted the water. They were like redcoats marching into musketfire – their collective success depending upon discipline in the face of likely individual death, which here came in the form of trout from below. The fish were predictably eating every third of fourth fly, and betraying to me their preferred tempo and drift.

After some re-tying I found that they would take my favorite fly, a Robert’s Yellow Drake, size 14, so long as it was tied gray or brown instead of yellow. The first fish to hand was a brook trout of ten inches. Familiar. A year earlier, almost to the day, I had started a night in this exact spot with a ten-inch brook trout on a Robert’s Yellow Drake, and had gone on to a can’t-miss night of solitary dry-fly success with a dozen fish up to seventeen inches, punctuated by one much bigger fish that screamed downstream before breaking off. This year I was hoping for another attempt – as if one can learn the secret to fighting big trout on a four weight by practicing five seconds per year – but catching the same ten-inch brookie in the first moments was an unsettling omen.

The next fish was rising rhythmically just upstream in an oily-black eddy with tiny dueling whirlpools. After a few bad casts and four short identical drifts, the fish ate the fly. (Lesson 1: drifts that look identical to me do not look identical to the fish. Cast again.) He rolled and thumped, dark gold in the stained water, one rod-length away and just enough for me to feel that he was bigger than I had expected. (Lesson 2: a prime holding location suggests a big fish even if the riseform doesn’t.) He turned and headed downstream in a sickening flashback run and the leader broke.

I cut off my 4X tippet, tied on three feet of 3X tippet, and tied on a new fly. The next few rising fish ate willingly (Lesson 3: use the heaviest tippet that fits through the hook eye) but the hook did not stay stuck. This continued until they stopped rising, just after dark. Three excellent river bends, four different flies, and at least ten different fish: stalked, watched, cast to, and hooked, only to have the fly come free moments later.

A timing issue, probably: striking before the fish had the completely taken fly into its mouth. (Lesson 4: a bony, toothy trout nose does not retain a light-wire size 14 hook very well. Wait a beat before striking) Too much practice, maybe. Hard to diagnose with rising fish all around, but the only explanation in hindsight.

It took the walk back out to the campsite to shake the frustration and disappointment at a wasted night of rising fish, and then it took a beer and a sandwich to shake the guilt I felt for being frustrated and disappointed after a night full of rising fish. I knew that the night was full of success: firstly, being there; secondly, stalking a rising trout, choosing the right fly, placing it correctly, and fooling him into eating. Those are the hard parts. But that final consummation of touching the fish for a moment before letting it slip back into the river is, ultimately, the goal. To count coup. Without that, the success is academic only.

I had all night in the blackened tent to work on it, encouraged by the white noise of rain on canvas and a pair of vocal barred owls. The disappointment and frustration of failure are human and critical. The passion to pursue fish and game comes from somewhere ancient, and not from physical hunger but instead from a need to figure it out. To do better next time. It is why we talk, read, and dream about fishing when we are not on the water and is exactly why those acts in themselves are fulfilling. This insatiable learning – and teaching of the lessons to others – has made our species successful. It is why family traditions centered around hunting and fishing are among the strongest of any. There will always be learning to do, always another fish to teach us a bitter lesson, another puzzle of insects and weather and water to put together, and another person to share it with. Without these things, if fish were easy to catch, we would not fish.

This is where the true passion lies, though on nights when the lessons are harshly taught we question our motivation. But eventually the investment in failure and frustration matures, if we keep trying.

A week or so later Friday night I was knee-deep in another Michigan river fishing and waiting with friend Erick for the brown drakes that were supposed to appear at dark. Fish began rising sporadically before we saw any bugs, and my Robert’s Drakes were not fooling any of them. We were working our way up toward water Erick knew to be good and he stopped me to suggest that we sit on the bank and watch and think for a few minutes.

This is something that is almost always a good idea when fly fishing and something that I do not do enough. It is while seated and watching that you see the river change from a moving part of a complex system into a static element within which fish live. Seated, watching, you can begin to notice trout rising in a particular seam, just off of the same cedar branch, every ten seconds. It helps to look away for a few moments, to clear the mind and the eyes and to break the spell of the moving water. For this reason smokers (especially pipe-smokers and hand-rollers) are often better fishermen than non-smokers. Ex-smokers have it particularly hard.

Erick and I fall into the latter category and so have to force it a bit. After a few minutes we noticed some small rises in a deep run along the cedars (see Lesson 2). Still, no drakes. I scooped a tiny reddish-brown spent-wing spinner from the surface film – not a brown drake – and suddenly noticed that the water was covered in the tiny not-brown-drakes. Blanketed. The rising fish had become quieter but more consistent. I selected the only fly in my box that was the right size, a number 16 Borcher’s Parachute, and tied it to a fresh section of 4X tippet (see Lesson 3). I worked my way into position across the current from the fish, who was now coming up every few seconds, silently, nose only, leaving bubbles in the film. My first cast was short a few inches; the second cast was right on, and the fish rose, but took a natural just next to my fly. (see Lesson 1.)

Patience is everything. Discipline. Let him eat another natural before casting again. Take a breath. When his nose came up this time, it came down on my fly. Half a breath (see Lesson 4). I lifted the rod, and he was there, heavy, solid, deep into the graphite. Downstream he went, my reel buzzing, but I had room so I let him go, pulling sideways and slowly working him back up, twice, until Erick slipped the net under him. A big brown, not twenty inches but more than seventeen. Redemption, hard-won. We fumbled for a photo but I don’t have much practice holding big trout and he slipped back into the water and was gone.

The very next cast was to another riser who was smaller but more photogenic. Erick hooked and landed another pair of fish immediately after on the same fly, and then it was dark, and over, the brown drakes never appearing, although we waited on a cedar log for another hour.

We approached the lesson plan that night as a team project. It took the combined river learning of two of us to figure it out, and that magnifies the victory. Images of that night, with its learned and calculated success, its nosing trout and bank-to-bank spinner fall, will be burned into our ancient hunter psyche for a very long time.

The rest of the weekend was a mixture of fishing success, with plenty of lessons learned, taught by backcountry brookies, trout of the Pigeon River Country, and Great Lakes open-water smallmouth bass and carp. The Lake Michigan carp lessons carry an extra sting, because I have yet to count coup on one. And so I have homework.

And I am glad for it. Glad there are no degrees or final exams in this school, and that I can study and practice for the rest of my life both on and off the water, on my own and with others who also want to learn. Glad that I can withstand the failures and that the rest of my life can withstand my seasonal neglect.

Glad that there are another eleven days of June, and that Hexagenia limbata class hasn’t started yet, although it is on the schedule.


2 thoughts on “Night School

  1. Wendy Berrell

    A top read, thanks for it. What spots on the BNT. And nice shot at the nymphers!

  2. voyageur pursuits

    Thank you sir. I hoped someone would catch that. And also, thank you for the nice package the other day.

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