As summer air temperatures in New England veer sharply from their northern roots most water courses warm beyond the tolerance of trout. With trout hunkered in thermal refuges the sulking trout angler has some options. There's opportunity on stillwater for largemouth, crappie and bluegills but that requires tactics and tackle that is foreign to many. In several renowned trout rivers smallmouth share the same neighborhood with their sleeker kin. With yin to trout's yang, smallmouth come alive when water temps suppress trout. While both are a fine distraction, truly tormented trout anglers seek the succor of a tailwater in the days after the mid-year solstice.
Last week I had smallmouth on the brain and was prepared to make the hour drive for a few hours fishing. The previous evening a summer storm rolled up the valley and created a muddy torrent while sparing neighboring, smallmouth-free watersheds. I could have scrapped the whole notion but my buddy Steve had planted a few seeds with solid tailwater intel.
Steve is one of those quiet anglers who goes about his business without calling attention to himself. Not knowing Steve you might dismiss the counsel of this unassuming gentleman. But he's committed to his craft, puts his hours in, and when Steve says that a #26 Olive will work until 6 p.m. and a #16 Sulphur spinner until dark, you stock your fly box, pack your car, and drive north.
I arrived relatively early to get a spot in a pool that I expected would be a crowded by twilight. As I suited up the sun was still high enough to conspire with humidity and shift my sweat glands into overdrive. The blessed relief of wading into cool water momentarily stunned me to inaction. Then I saw my first rise. Steve's advice on the #26 was rattling through my brain as I considered my first fly but then that rising trout smacked an lone, large dun and I went with something bigger than the olive.
The sulphur lured several trout to come to the surface for a sampling but none stayed on. I suppose it was hubris to think I could go so contrary and expect results but several slashes made me more committed to my error. Movement in my peripheral vision exposed a trout working upstream in faster, skinnier water. I made the right cast and drift several times before I got a take. It was one of those quick little sips where the fly disappears and your brain briefly wonders what the hell happened to it.
Coming tight I watched the line zip upstream with a rooster tail behind it. I briefly considered that I had tail-hooked a modest fish but then I saw the form of this trout rush through the riffle and reconsidered; I may have tail hooked a much larger fish. Whether hooked fair or foul this fish had its way with me. As soon as it had taken the loose line and some off the spool it dodged downstream forcing me to strip in as fast as I could. Passing by me it began to take the slack line back. That's when I lost it. I have little experience with big trout and when one is on I forget all the technique that will easily land an eighteen inch fish. Something akin to buck fever, I suppose.
As I sat streamside smoking a cigar and waiting for the adrenaline rush to wear off I watched an angler who's skill far exceeded mine. I swear my buddy Ross seems to get more satisfaction watching others enjoy success at sport than he does being successful himself. Watching this guy I understood Ross a little bit better. He cast a tiny olive to eager fish and worked them methodically. His cast wouldn't win awards for beauty but it was quick and precise. Several fish came to hand and the thrill of watching the misses, refusals and hookups made me forget the sweat that ran down the middle of my back.
It turns out this guy, Zach, was a local guide and we got to talking about tactics, technique and the merits of teaching your wife to fly fish. Zach offered water that was far closer than I would have otherwise fished and we worked the spinner fall well into the dark of a moonless night.
The heavy night air seemed to amplify everything. The slurp of a distant trout felt danger close. An impossibly small fly was just visible as it approached a rise. The satisfaction of weight in the net creased the lines around ones eyes as a smile beamed unseen. The deep trout itch was scratched.
From across the water Zach whispered a change in bug activity but my appetite for changing flies in the dim light of the headlamp had waned. The rises became more sporadic and a bird's nest of monofilament provided enough frustration to remind my sweat glands that it hadn't cooled all that much. Flowing water and rising fish can only do so much to alter summer's reality but they had done their part, at least for long enough to enjoy the benefit of good intel and the graciousness of strangers.
Steve sweats profusely in the waters of western Connecticut and writes occasionally at sippingemergers.com and other places.