Truth in angling

There's something to be said for getting out on the water
fly fishing in the fog
Photo: Matt Shaw / Matt Shaw Creative

I made the long flight from Montana to southern New York to see family and friends, and more from force of habit than from any overwhelming expectation of angling excellence, I brought my fly fishing gear along. The area I visited isn't really known for its outstanding fisheries (the best waters are in the Catskills, a couple of hours to the northwest), but if you're willing to look around you can almost always find a place to wet a line. There's also something to be said for getting out on the water regardless of the prospects.

Anyway, a couple of days after I arrived, I found myself sitting on a bank of the East Branch of the Croton, a pretty little stream that connects two reservoirs in the New York City water supply system. The East Branch is a fair trout fishery with good midge and baetis hatches in the fall, and I hoped that I might find a few rising rainbows where the creek slows and widens at the top end of the lower reservoir.

Twenty minutes after I arrived, I noticed a fish feeding against the far bank, taking Blue Winged Olives from the surface with the subtle rise form that I associate with substantial fish. Sure enough, when he took my imitation a few minutes later, the rainbow was thick and healthy and close to sixteen inches long—a dandy trout for the area.

A moment after I released him another fish started to rise, and I waded downstream a few feet to bring myself into position to cast. On my third drift, my fly disappeared in a boil and I was tight to a deep diving terrier that stressed my 6x tippet right to the limit. I was sure I'd hooked one of the Croton's browns, as they tend to fight low and hard, but when I brought the fish to hand, I found that instead of a trout, I'd landed a sunfish about seven inches long, all orange and red and yellow like a Vermont hillside during the peak of fall colors.

The little fellow struggled in my hand for a moment, his dorsal fin stiff and spiny, and then held still while I eased the hook out of the corner of his mouth. I cradled him gently for a moment before I released him, astonished at the memories that flooded into my consciousness, memories from a childhood replete with sunfish and bluegills and pumpkinseeds and perch and bass and pickerel and bullheads. "How is it possible," I wondered to myself, "that I've forgotten what beautiful little jewels these fish are?"

I was brought out of my reverie by a soft splash about thirty feet away. I looked over to see the rings of the rise spreading out in concentric circles and easing slowly downstream in the placid current. As I started to cast my heart beat a little bit faster, and I was once again a nine year old boy who believed that just about anything was possible.