‘ONE DAMN FINE MONTH’

MAY IS A GOOD MONTH TO TAKE A DAY OFF AND FISH YOUR BRAINS OUT

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By Stephen Sautner Photos by Jim Lee­dom

The author took a day off last May and went on an 11-hour, 120-mile, three-stream fish­ing marathon. By STEPHEN SAUTNER

Some­times you should just take the day off. May 12, 2017, was one of those days.

If I had not, if I had let that May 12 slip away, if it had be­come just an­other work­day where I woke up, fought traf­fic, sat in meet­ings, and an­swered emails and phone calls be­fore fight­ing some more traf­fic, get­ting home, eat­ing din­ner, watch­ing TV and go­ing to bed, well, let’s just say it would have been a mis­take.

I took the day off af­ter I saw an ap­proach­ing high-pres­sure sys­tem set­tling in with tem­per­a­tures ris­ing into the low 70s. As Mor­gan Free­man’s char­ac­ter Red said in The Shaw­shank Re­demp­tion, “May is one damn fine month to be work­ing out­doors.” The same can be said of fish­ing — par­tic­u­larly in the North­east, where op­tions can over­flow like an all-you-caneat ban­quet. Where I live in New Jersey, stripers are hot on the tails of ar­riv­ing schools of men­haden, while blue­fish have in­vaded the shal­low bays, ready to blast any­thing that chugs, pops or skips their way.

But it was the call of fresh­wa­ter streams and rivers that had me load­ing the car. Mayfly hatches neared their sea­sonal peak on lo­cal trout wa­ters, and Amer­i­can shad were reach­ing pres­pawn crit­i­cal mass in the Delaware River. I planned for a long day, pack­ing sev­eral rods along with as­sorted tackle bags, fly boxes and waders; a cooler with lunch, snacks and drinks; and my cam­era for fish self­ies. I told my wife not to ex­pect me for din­ner, then hit the road at 9 a.m., af­ter rush hour sub­sided.

Ta­ble Fare

My first stop was a small trout stream that tum­bles past a state road. I hit it once or twice a sea­son and then save it for the next year like a prized thicket of black­ber­ries.

This was the har­vest part of May 12, and my quarry was stocked trout that, hope­fully, would wind up in my smoker. I pulled into a dirt turnout, grabbed my ul­tra­light tackle bag No. 1 and my can­vas creel. No fly rod or waders here; this would be drive-by fish­ing. A 50-foot walk down a funky trail leads to the

stream. Though the road is only yards away, once I reached the first pool, I en­tered a lit­tle world unto it­self. The sound of rush­ing wa­ter, punc­tu­ated by a few scat­tered song­birds — yel­low war­blers, wa­terthrushes and vireos — re­placed the noise of traf­fic. A green canopy shaded the stream and blocked the high­way. And it smelled like spring, earthy and dewy and pep­pered with new growth.

The pool was just how it al­ways has been at this time of year: clear and flow­ing, and with a lit­tle knot of stock­ers hold­ing at the tai­lout. And, true to form, they grabbed (or at least fol­lowed) my spin­ner on nearly ev­ery cast. A limit could have come eas­ily from here if that’s what I’d wanted, but I chose in­stead to take just three rain­bows, clean­ing the fish stream­side and leav­ing.

Af­ter a stop at a nearby con­ve­nience store to ice my catch, I con­tin­ued west­ward, where more wa­ter beck­oned. At noon, I stood in a grassy park­ing area along the Delaware River, eat­ing lunch while lean­ing against my car with the hatch­back up. I had al­ready rigged my 7-weight, and my stripping bas­ket and waders stood at the ready. A yel­low-billed cuckoo called above me as war­blers chat­ted in an ad­ja­cent thicket. The sun felt good on my face. Two cars al­ready were parked there, but I felt no need to rush on this leisurely day.

Found­ing Fish

When I even­tu­ally made my way to the river, I came upon three re­tired guys stand­ing knee-deep, 30 feet apart, all fly-fish­ing and all hook­ing shad on ev­ery third or fourth cast. I gave them a wide berth and walked 100 yards up­stream. I waded out and stripped a bunch of line into the bas­ket. Then I roll-casted the shoot­ing head past the rod tip. A quick dou­ble haul, and the char­treuse shad fly shot out and touched down on the edge of the cur­rent. I let it set­tle for a few sec­onds be­fore stripping it back quickly with sharp pulls.

Al­most im­me­di­ately, a fish bumped the fly but missed. On my next cast, some­thing took solidly. It turned out to be a good-size buck that jumped twice and took some line be­fore a quick re­lease. The next fish stayed deep and turned out to be a large roe — prob­a­bly 5 pounds and as deep as my out­stretched hand. A few casts later, I caught its twin sis­ter. Back they went, too, along with an­other buck.

By 2 p.m., the wind be­gan pick­ing up, and I walked back to my car to swap the 7-weight for an 8-foot light spin­ning rod. But de­spite an­other half-hour of cast­ing, I couldn’t get an­other hit. Mean­while, the re­tired guys con­tin­ued to pick at shad with their fly rods. One was clearly in the zone and landed at least a dozen. On an­other day, this might have made me slightly jeal­ous. But on this May 12, I was gen­uinely happy for him.

You see, I had plenty more fish­ing to do. I walked back to the car and stowed my tackle be­fore eat­ing an ap­ple and drink­ing some wa­ter. It was time for my next stop: a wild trout stream that flows into the Delaware from the Penn­syl­va­nia side of the river.

Wild Rain­bow

Half an hour later, I parked along a quiet, wooded road. I put on my vest and grabbed my 5-weight. Af­ter a 10-minute walk, I reached the river, which looked per­fect: clear and with a good head of wa­ter thanks to rains ear­lier in the week. I skipped the first large pool and headed up­stream to reach my fa­vorite spot, a long run that starts swiftly and slows grad­u­ally — but never too much — as it deep­ens. Lots of sub­merged boul­ders and grot­toes make it look like a place to hook a truly large trout.

There was a warm sun and blue skies, but it was still too early to ex­pect much by way of hatch­ing bugs and ris­ing fish, so I tried a nymph un­der an in­di­ca­tor. I am no fan of the tech­nique, but it beats sit­ting on the bank, wait­ing for some­thing to hap­pen.

On my first drift — one I made to pay out a lit­tle more line — the in­di­ca­tor jerked un­der. I

lifted, think­ing the fly was hung on a boul­der, and a foot­ball of a brown trout grey­hounded out of the wa­ter and threw the fly. That fish could have been 20 inches or larger. I wish

I’d got­ten more than a half-sec­ond glimpse. And de­spite my best sub­se­quent drifts with the nymph, fol­lowed by a streamer, then a big at­trac­tor dry, I could not buy an­other strike.

I de­cided to rest the spot and sat on a stream­side boul­der. The sounds of run­ning wa­ter com­bined with the sweet calls of more war­blers, cat­birds and thrushes. I may have dozed.

Then, splash — a fish rose maybe 30 feet down­stream. I waited, and it rose again. I couldn’t see any bugs on the wa­ter ex­cept for a few black cad­dis buzzing around.

An­other rise. I tried a Hen­drick­son.

Though the hatch was long over, I fig­ured the trout would still mis­take it for food. It did; it crushed the fly on the first drift, flash­ing pink and sil­ver be­fore tear­ing off down­stream. A nice rain­bow.

The trout stopped, then held in heavy wa­ter for what felt like a long time be­fore tear­ing off more line. It never jumped, but it did an ad­mirable job of beat­ing me up as best it could. Fi­nally, it yielded to rod pres­sure and turned on its side, and I slid it to­ward me. It was a lovely wild rain­bow trout, 16 inches and thick, with an elec­tric steel­head-like blush on its cheeks, a bril­liant pink stripe run­ning down mus­cu­lar flanks and flashes of white on the tips of its fins. I twisted the fly free, held the fish in the cur­rent, be­hold­ing its per­fec­tion for an­other mo­ment, and let it go.

Even­ing Rise

I basked in a fishy af­ter­glow for a while, but then a long time went by with vir­tu­ally no ac­tion. A cou­ple of fish rose just once, and be­fore I knew it, it was well af­ter 6 o’clock. When I got back to my car, two other an­glers were pre­par­ing to fish a se­ries of pools down­stream from the road. Sweaty and spent, I be­gan tak­ing off my waders. I chat­ted with one of the guys, who was just fin­ish­ing rig­ging his fly rod. He told me the fish­ing had been very good the night be­fore: a late bite with sul­furs hatch­ing just around dark.

On any other day, I may have said “next time,” thrown my gear in the car and driven home. But by God, this was May 12. I had taken the day off to fish, and fish I would un­til the day was done.

So back on went the waders. I wolfed down a gra­nola bar and guz­zled the last of my wa­ter. I clipped my head­lamp to my hat and headed back to the creek. Ten min­utes later, I found my­self at the first pool. The creek looked even fishier in the soft even­ing light. And as if on cue, a trout rose, fol­lowed by an­other.

I stuck with the Hen­drick­son and cast it to a nar­row bub­ble line di­rectly across from me. A trout came up in a con­fi­dent rise. It turned out to be an even larger rain­bow at 17½ inches and just as beau­ti­ful as the first.

A few min­utes ticked by with no more rises, so I walked to the run up­river. A few cat­birds worked above the stream, pe­ri­od­i­cally fly­ing out and del­i­cately grab­bing mayflies on the wing.

There were no rises, so I sat on the same boul­der and waited again. A few min­utes later, a fish rose be­low me. It came up a sec­ond time. I cast to it, strain­ing to watch the fly track through the cur­rent in the sil­very glare

of the even­ing light. I made an­other cast. The Hen­drick­son drifted a few yards be­fore the trout slashed at it vi­o­lently but some­how missed the fly.

I waited a minute be­fore cast­ing again, hop­ing the fish would for­get what had just hap­pened. This time, it took the fly hard, throw­ing wa­ter. I set the hook solidly and felt the deeply sat­is­fy­ing weight of a very nice trout in swift wa­ter. It took line in one long, pow­er­ful surge, and for a sec­ond I thought it would blow out of the pool. It stopped and sulked in deep wa­ter for a few mo­ments be­fore it swam to­ward me, then screamed out a bunch of line for a sec­ond time. Fi­nally, it swam into slower wa­ter and al­lowed me to bring it closer, closer still and, fi­nally, into my hand.

An­other fine, wild fish: an 18-inch brown trout with scat­tered, dark, no-non­sense spot­ting. I re­leased it and was ab­so­lutely ready to leave. Though it was still be­fore dark and the sul­fur hatch, I had got­ten my fill.

And I did leave, but not be­fore en­joy­ing a fine fish­er­man’s feast at the near­est driv­ethrough. At 10 o’clock, some 11 hours, 120 round-trip miles and three streams later, I walked through my front door, tired, stiff, sun­burned and deeply sat­is­fied.

My ad­vice to fel­low an­glers is take a day off in May. Don’t let the sea­son slip away.

Wild rain­bows are part of what May is all about.

A dirt road holds prom­ise. A yel­low war­bler is a stream­side com­pan­ion in spring.

North­east woods and wa­ters burst with life as the new sea­son un­folds.

What’s not to like about May? Five­pound shad crush stream­ers and darts (above), and thick browns gulp mayflies.

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