You can find a new poem of mine, "Frozen Antlers," in the Fly Fishing Edition of Gray's Sporting Journal.
I had more time to explore on Sunday, so I decided to check out a new section of a larger limestone creek that I had fished a few times previously. This stream is often overlooked; though there is one particular spot that seems to get the most attention. I didn't see anyone else on the water.
Since this was new water to me and the levels were a bit up, I slowly worked my way out to a long mellow run tight line nymphing. On the set as I was lifting the rod to cast, I felt what I thought was a rock when it rolled over and shot downstream. I kept working him back over closer to the bank, trying to get upstream of him as we coasted down under a bridge. After about 50 yards, I finally, kind of, netted this beautiful rainbow. Though stocked, this dude had definitely been in the water for a few years. Beautiful colors. I've never hit the 20" mark this early in the year. I love the back and forth of a good right. There is a metaphor here that I'm going to keep working on.
After the rainbow and the adrenaline, I realized that my left boot was leaking. I kept fishing, but after another hour or so, my foot was completely numb so I got in the truck and drove upstream to warm up a bit. I fished one last section as rain starting gathering through the valley and landed a handful of wild browns. They all took big tungsten nymphs on the bottom. I'm ok if January freezes up again. I'll be waiting for the next thaw.
A couple of weeks ago I traced out a blue line into a state forest, took a drive, and fished for brookies and browns. It was nice not to have anyone around; so much so that I almost ignored the No Trespassing signs in order to hit one really deep hole under a hemlock. I reached the downstream border and knew I had to turn around. I did swing a bugger out, across, and down into the water a couple of times before I left. I doubt you could fine a fly caught in a current for trespassing. Especially after a few days of heavy rain.
I went back to the deep pool a bit past the bridge and quickly hooked into a pretty nice sized brown trout super low on a hare's ear. I lost him at the tail end of the pool, never getting the hook set well enough. Upstream, after the downed oak made for an interesting redirection - a plunge pool only about a foot long, seven feet long, into a quick run before hanging left again - a nice long slow pool and a dead raccoon. No fish rising.
I fished the whole afternoon, but only covered about 3/4 of a mile of water. It was one of those beautifully intricate mountain freestone streams - every few feet a new piece of water to be read. The trout were in their late fall colors. The brookies were getting bright and ready to spawn and the browns had the yellows melting off their red spots.
I don't fish for numbers. Once you start down that road the only places you have to go are down or up. I don't get it. Calculating my fishing experience based on how many caught or lost or missed or just didn't see seems archaic and too much like a competition. I'd rather catch one wild trout on a stream without anyone around than 20 stocked fished sharing the water with others. Anyway, I went antiquing with the wife last week and, tucked behind a small counter in a corner of a basement shop was an old fiberglass fly rod in great shape. It's a 7' 5 wt AFTMA (?) with 10 guides. 20 bucks. I figure it'll be a great small stream rod for throwing some streamers and heavier nymphs. I can't wait to take it out, not to see how many trout I can catch on it, but to see how the rod will change my approach, my cast, the flies I use. Maybe it'll help me to see the water in different ways. Maybe it'll teach me something I didn't even think about learning. If I'm always going out to catch the most amount of fish, I'll be less likely to be surprised. I'll just high-stick nymph with the same three comfort flies over and over again. Sure, that's a blast at times, but it's also good to cast a rod you found for 20 bucks with a new fly pattern you tried to tie last night while it rained.
Yesterday was inverted. It was cold and rainy until about 9 when a warm front pushed in and spiked the air up into the 50's. This morning I woke up to wind and the last leaves still struggling to hang on to the maples, oaks, and locusts around my house.
The fire red underbelly of ferns yellowed by
low water and late fall
greet us as we step out of maple and oak
into swept old rolling Appalachian mountains.
The green is leaving the canopy along with us, a trail cut
bank along the slide.
Red blazes on pine.
The dirt roads of Pennsylvania
are a good breakfast for a day in the woods.
I swear, some day I’ll just pull off
to the side of one and rest, watch the suns and moons
of its days and nights turn into each other.
Some clouds. A rain.
Cross Forks to Windfall to Red Ridge.
There’re your directions.
Up this high, the ground is soft.
Not like most of Pennsylvania. Didn’t turn my ankle on a rock once.
The trail curves, gaining a few feet of elevation, slowly as it
wraps itself up into the Hammersley Ravine.
No deer. No bear. Just a few chipmunks.
This morning trout were snatching my woolly bugger
as it dipped and streaked through their water.
From up here I see no water. Just endless wooded crescents and ridgelines
folding into each other
tired from the shift of the plates of years ago.
Tonight we’ll eat fajitas around a fire, but right now
it’s just you, me, our dog
standing in the middle of this old burn - 1964 -
small birch stained yellow by October, groves of ferns,
teaberry, dark streaks on rock nestled among little thorns.
We stop and stand before leaving,
eyes closed, a wind comes up out of the deep
sweeps across our mouths, chilling the sweat, the hair at the edge
of our ears.
The taste of this settles in my tonsils.
Shade mountain, Jacks Mountain, Penn's Creek.
A Bobcat in the rear view mirror
with still a few gulps of coffee left in the parking lot.
I got pissed at the big water by noon.
A morning of slight takes and spitting flies
ended with two dudes dropping into the middle of the run I was fishing.
I cut up the bank, crossed into the meadow and threw some hoppers.
It was lunch, I was hungry.
I had eaten my last granola bar an hour ago.
I walked back to my truck and drove up the mountain
until I found a pull off
and the stream winding itself out and away
into the rhododendron and mountain laurel.
I took one fly and my 6'10" rod.
Hiked into the woods
following the only path the water cut.
A few deep plunges,
some shallow riffles,
a cut bank that bled
into a hill of ferns,
some small brook trout
and I was fishing.
Eventually I reached the road,
walked back to my truck and off to find lunch.
Washington felt like home.
Maybe it was the two days of driving through 100 degree Idaho and eastern Oregon dry landscapes. Maybe it was insanely good burrito we got at the food truck in Olympia.
Maybe it was finally reaching the end of the swing, sliding into the last stretch of the boomerang arc, heading north along the coast, slowly making steps towards the east, our house.
Mostly I think it was the trees, the blues, the grays, the ocean and its driftwood.
Our first night was spent on the Pacific Ocean. We walked along fields of driftwood laying like fallen totems between the sand and the thick interior forest. There was a ceaseless breeze that kept the ocean in our camper and burned our fire quickly. After dinner sat and watched the sun set on the ocean. The sand skittered towards me and I would close my eyes but not for too long. I didn't want to miss the last bit of sun. I wanted to see the lightness of the dry wood begin to meld into the dark spruce as day left.
I'm still processing this place. It's fingerprints have been tattooed on me. There are only a few places I've been in my life that have completely altered my perspective. Northern Maine in late October. The saddle between the Upper and Lower Devil Peaks in the Siskyous Mountains. Predawn late August on the Susquehanna River. The Hoh Rainforest. It's primordial colors of blue and gray serve as a thick backdrop to the large Sitka Spruce and fields of fern that cover the soft forest floor. I want to go back with my fly rod, a backpack, some food and hike deep into it until I'm lost. 15 elk crossed the river right below our campsite as the sun set.
Our last few days were spent in the Cascades. I found some water full of Westslope Cutthroat trout eager to take a hopper on top. We stayed away from the crowds and camped in forest service land surrounding the National Park. We were reluctant to go, but knew we had to eventually start making it home or else we'd never leave.
After a night of eating take-out Mexican food under the Milky Way while Nebraskan rednecks shot off legit fireworks around a lake a few miles east of the Wyoming border, we scarfed down an amazing breakfast at Luxury Diner before driving down the last hot stretch highway towards the Rockies. We made it to mountains after 2.5 long days of driving.
A strike through the Gros Ventres along the Hoback still swelling with the last snow lead us to Granite Creek. Spring currents under a heavy summer canopy.
From left to right: Yellowstone Cutthroat, Crystal Creek Campground, Our Home in the foothills of the Tetons, Granite Creek Hot Springs, a Mountain Whitefish, and Granite Creek Campground.
Black-eyed Susans marked the quebrada made by Granite Creek as it tore through the Gros Ventres. The hot springs cleaned us after days on the road, the mountain wind swept the dirt through our pores.
We stayed in Wyoming for about a week, camping almost exclusively in Forest Service and BLM campgrounds. We had nothing but wind and sun on the Green River. We were scorched, dry, our skin mottled with the fine scratches of the valley. Mountains bordered us on the north and west. Nothing but flatness and goat prairies to the south and east. We built a fire and watched, sat in the ecotone, the place between, while fireworks still scraped the horizon back towards Nebraska and early July.
After lounging in the Gros Ventres valley and wilderness, we decided to head out to the coast, to big trees, ocean, and rainforest. The Olympic Peninsula was just a day and half drive away. We stopped at the Kelly on the Gros Ventres for coffee and breakfast and kept heading west.
We're leaving for Wyoming on Friday.
That means I won't see the river for a few weeks.
By the time we get back, it'll be in its Summer space.
Low, warm water. High grasses. Maybe some hibiscus.
I wanted to get out in it one last morning before we left.
The water's still high and muddy.
The bass seem to be settled below rapids or along the shallow water along the banks.
This one inhaled my slider and immediately took flight.
He was in only a foot of water, right along the bank.
He fought hard down stream.
Jumped a few more times and after a long fight, I finally landed him.
My personal best smallmouth bass - 21",
I was lucky enough to have a good friend along to snap some photos.
This river has some beautiful water and some beautiful fish.
Get out and enjoy it.
Check out the newest issue of The Drake Magazine (Summer, 2017), for my latest essay on fly fishing, Shank's Tavern, the Susquehanna River, and my close friend Steve.
"freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
Summer is here.
Nettles are in full throttle.
I walk through them when I'm looking up, paying no mind to my steps,
tramping towards the next fence or bend in the stream, trying to avoid another groundhog hole.
It's never intentional. Sometimes necessary.
Cold water soothes the sting, but long after my legs are still mottled with the red scratches of their thin hairs.
Though, just the other day, I thought I was in the middle of a field of nettles,
mixed in with high grass, but soon realized it was mint. The breeze filled with the cracked leaves
and I rubbed some on my fingertips and on the fly I was casting.
Another day, last week, I found myself walking
the banks of Penns, watching for the air
to fill with bugs.
It was morning, which I tend to enjoy fishing
more than the evening. There's an anticipation
that can last an entire day in the morning.
The evening offers a quick spike
in the denouement of the day. It's subtle and reassuring
but there's always a solemnity in it for me.
Looking up, I realize my shoulder just passed through a cobweb full of Green Drakes.
They got caught as they were leaving their branches to drop eggs into the water late last night.
Some of their wings still twitched.
I promised Whitman a long walk today.
We explored a couple of ponds
set back from the trail
between a copse of trees and a cornfield.
There, he could bark at the ducks
and I could throw a popper for bass.
Check out the latest issue of Susquehanna Life Magazine for my essay on the Susquehanna River, "Bringing a River into Focus".
We set off around 8:30 a.m.
The clouds were coming in from the west over Brunner Island.
The kayaks, smooth.
The water, muddy.
The sun couldn't make it out of the east,
let alone onto our shoulders.
"You're gonna have wet asses"
Steve's uncle politely mentioned as we pushed off.
"Eh," we shrugged. We've been getting advice from his uncles for years
and they're usually right and we usually ignore them.
Just a few weeks ago, they had to tow Steve's boat back upstream
after the engine died,
after they carved a wooden plug so we wouldn't sink.
Luckily, we were able to paddle hard enough to run into some trees
leaning out into the river and tie off so we didn't get washed downstream.
Just a few minutes later and a about a hundred yards downstream, just past the first bend,
it started to rain.
There was a break in the clouds down past Shocks Mill Bridge
so we paddled. Didn't fish much.
Past the Conoy
Past the White Cliffs,
Through the Haldeman Riffles
skirting Ely and Pole Islands aiming for a big slow eddy where we pulled ashore.
There, under a thick grove of river birch and maple,
we had a morning snack and shot the shit for an hour
until the rain passed through.
We watched the water.
I notched off a piece of skin, right at the base of my pointer finger, last night.
Being stubborn when a simple snip would have done.
This morning, I knew I had to get out and up into the woods.
I left in the dark and hit the dirt roads just as my Stanley mug drained of coffee.
Black winged caddis fluttered and flailed up stream. Inches at a time.
The wind caught some rhododendron and for a second it sounded like
barbed wire on aluminum foil.
Most people are with family today for the holiday. It's why I have this water to myself.
Just a thought
while I change flies, chew on some beef jerky, and let the cold limestone water,
the hue of moss and mud,
wash my wound clean.
Like a Tibetan Buddhist shrine deep in the Himalayas, here stands a trash shrine along the banks of a trout stream in central Pennsylvania. For sure it's ugly, but it's the creation of all the mangled jumbled plastic bits that run down the currents of this stream. A reminder as you cast of our ceaseless over-consumption and apathy for our environment.
It's hauntingly beautiful when the wind catches the used quart of oil bottle and it raps against the beheaded doll. Maybe we need more of these shrines since it's become so easy for us to flush away any semblance of pollution or swipe left when glint of a disturbing image catches your eye.
Things to do before Tuesday's Snow Storm
Drink another cup of coffee.
Build a fire and howl at the cold clear night.
Cut down the tall grass that's browned thru the winter.
Pick up large dead limbs taken down by the wind.
Listen to these records:
Loyalty - The Weather Station
Singles- Sun Ra
Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes
Superwolf - Superwolf
Get out the shovels.
will fall into the river.
Somehow the beavers keep it solid.
The water behind
is murky with mud and bugs,
grasses and dead wood.
It captures the moonlight
as mayflies hatch.
In the spring it flows.
In the summer it shrinks.
In the fall it fills with leaves.
In the winter it freezes.
Sun Ra and Rain Dogs tenderly blister the morning.
Instruments and melodies I don’t understand,
sublime abstract cacophony of the unexpected.
dark, with a bit of sugar.
Ice, slush, April air after a December winter storm,
wind keeping the leaves off the ground.
Bull trout in Idaho, the panhandle,
that slender slice of land between Montana and Washington,
campgrounds down winding gravel roads -
Dreams of summer.
Wrapping pheasant tails around #14 hooks,
Peacock hurl, red thread, gold bead head and lead wire.
Unknown melding with known.
These flies work.
They catch fish.
Keep it simple.
They’re all I know.
Big water out west, flies in the vice.
My mind wanders to mountains, a cathedral of pines, cold beer.
The dog barking down the alley, the train tracking its way downstream,
bring me back.
I’ll have to try these flies on some local water, first.
The ingredients of a great weekend:
A cabin in the woods
Wild brown trout
Winter in Pennsylvania
Hemlocks and pine
The old rust of last season
wake up covered in snow,
Gone by mid day.
hare's ears on ice.
Killed a 6-point buck with the front end
of my car. Early Friday morning.
"A clean patch of ground after a rain
an ancient pine half-covered with moss
such things appear before our eyes
but what we do with them isn't the same"
There's a county up near where I live that is the pariah of the Susquehanna watershed. Whenever anyone has an incest or meth joke to tell, they be sure to locate it there. It gets written off fairly quickly and regularly, even by neighboring politicians who make bureaucratic jokes at its expense. Most people see it from the interstate - a nice farm valley butting up against a slice of the Appalachians. In the winter, like today, the mountaintops have a glittering of frost on them, like grouse tracks traversing the ridge line. Most of the crevices and caverns aren't seen by anyone but the locals; I think they like to keep it that way.
I took a drive up there today to explore two different watersheds. The day didn't warm until right before lunch, when the sun was halfway through. I started on some nice water in search of roaming brown trout. A few deep pockets and nice runs to check out for the spring, when water is up a bit more. I followed it up to it headwaters and found brook trout before cutting up and across the mountain down into a hemlock holler that cradled shavings of some riffles and runs.
It was getting on into the afternoon by the time I crested the last ridge and headed down into Henry's Valley. The last creek turned out to be the most enjoyable. The stone were freer when they tumbled down this ravine and in return, they were rewarded with a plethora of cold springs. Ice shelves created pocket water and opaque slices up and downstream. I found a frozen over beaver pond that will be great to fish in the late spring.
It's been a slow fall of fishing for me. Points just didn't seem to connect throughout the last two months. I ended the summer of fantastic bass fishing and big Maine brook trout and landlocked salmon by falling quickly back into a deluge of work. I lost all my headspace that allowed me to explore in a pile of papers and lesson plans. So it goes. No complaining here. Sometimes it's just hard to not let your life become, as Jim Harrison mused, "the sloppy leftovers of your work." This is just to say that it's easy for me to trace my life over the lines of fishing and come up with a pretty dynamic and accurate portrait of how I've been living. The past few months have held very few points and the lines that were connected seemed short and didn't draw much more than a few incoherent shapes that look like they were traced left handed by a right handed person. Pretty symbolic of how I've been feeling.
It's easy for us to measure our life by one or two points: relationships, work, hobbies, money, politics, things, whatever our focus goes to, and not take into account the whole landscape of what we've been living. Now that the leaves are mostly down and the sun is gone by 6, I'm left with some space for reflection. It's easier to see further when the trees are naked, but you have less time for it. Anyway, a few points have bolded themselves and have marked the last few months. One has been Jack Gilbert. Life seems to always go back to his words. There is one poem that I keep coming back to, rereading every other day - "I Imagine the Gods" . Two lines in particular.
"Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present, Help me to find
the heft of these days."
If ever there was a prayer that I should say every day, this is it.
On a purely stylistic note, I absolutely love his choice of "heft" instead of "weight". Completely different connotations in this context. Weight holds us down, requires strength to maneuver. Whereas Heft has the duality of functioning as both a noun and verb, thereby not immediately attaching itself to its root meaning of weight, but also of action and active engagement in the moment.
You can tell a lot about a person by their favorite Dylan record. If they don't have one, well, I'm not sure you even want to fish with them. I met Justin when I was taking my dog Whitman for a walk and Justin was walking back to his car after an evening of fly fishing on the river. I saw him with a fly rod so I struck up a conversation about the river and the fishing. We quickly discovered that we had a lot of common ground - he teaches writing at the college level, I teach high school English, he likes good music, I do to, and most importantly, we both like to fly fish. We quickly exchanged numbers and set a time to head out to the river in the near future.
He just moved into the area, so I took him to a spot on the Susquehanna that I recently discovered. This is my first season fly fishing for bass and I'm now in full bronze mode. These past few weeks have been terribly hot and humid - horrible weather for trout fishing. In past summers, I would have sulked and been agitated not being able to head out on the water. Realizing that I can have an incredible angling experience right outside of my house has been a gigantic blessing. Instead of driving all over the place looking for spring creeks and limestoners, I've been getting on my bike, riding up the rail-trail along the river, and drifting a crayfish pattern for beautiful bass.
Talk turned to music once we were on the water and Dylan came up. I asked him what his favorite Dylan record was. "Time Out of Mind", he said. "Seriously? Mine too!". Yeah, I know, it's just a record, and really, who cares? But if you don't know that record or why it's one of Dylan's best, then that part of this anecdote will never make sense. Some day I'll do an entire post about the genius of that record. Either way, it's great to meet someone that understands the magnificence of that record. That record is everything that Dylan was meant to do as an artist. It quickly became obvious that we shared a lot of the same interests and that our lives had struck the same chords at some point or another. We hit it off and quickly started catching some really nice bass.
I've lived most of my life within a few miles of this river and only now, in my 33rd rotation around the sun, have I spent a lot of time on it. Enough time to learn its rhythms and seasons. Rightfully so, the Susquehanna gets a lot of bad press. Ask any angler and they'll immediately start talking about how great the bass population USED to be. Ask any concerned citizen and they'll correctly tell you that the river should be listed as impaired and needs a lot of love in order to get it to a healthy, livable, sustainable standard. I agree with all of it. I love this river and it needs our help. However, we often easily get consumed by the negatives and the "what needs to happen..." mentality which can filter our view of the river and keep us from realizing the beauty that is right in front of us. If we don't see the beauty that we have, we'll never be willing to protect the beauty that may be.
Over the past month and half, I've caught a ton of beautiful, healthy looking bass. Only one had a sore on it. I've also caught bass ranging from 8"-16". Justin recently landed a 20" and an 18". It's great to see the bass population seemingly doing well. They've been nailing dark poppers, crayfish patterns, and Clouser minnows; the deadly three when it comes to bass flies for me. If they are healthy and doing well, it also shows that the river has a lot of great things going on. If we don't acknowledge the vibrant ecosystem of the Susquehanna, we'll never care enough to keep it healthy and work to make it better. We aren't only catching really nice bass, but we're seeing a ton of egrets, herons, and bald eagles. Just the other day we stopped fishing to watch two bald eagles circle over use for a few minutes. Their nest must have been close.
It has been a blast discovering this river. For my entire life it's always been in the periphery, but now it's coming into focus and I'm loving what I see. Get out there and enjoy the water.
If we don't acknowledge the vibrant ecosystem of the Susquehanna, we'll never care enough to keep it healthy and work to make it better.
Sketches & scatterings. Rooted in Pennsylvania along the Susquehanna River.