Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Miles on Foot

 Covering miles of freestone trout stream on foot isn't an easy physical endeavor. Waders are clunky and heavy, limiting mobility, and though wading shoes or boots with neoprene socks are less restrictive they leave an angler open to cold water, insects, and still usually carry some water weight. Some rivers aren't too hard to navigate, with sand and gravel substrate and trails along their edges. But some are strewn with large boulders, slipper algae, cliffs, waterfalls, and generally lack easy trail access. And whether there is good trail or road access or not, sometimes it doesn't go where I want to go. When I was younger and didn't have a vehicle, my obsession with trout drove me to what many might consider absurd lengths. My mode of getting to the water was a bike, and once I was there I invariably wanted to fish as much water as possible, and to do so I needed to walk. It wasn't unusual that I'd bike to a river anywhere from 6 to 25 miles away, then fish 4 to 8 miles of it on foot. When I could be dropped off by a parent, I would do the same thing further from home. Not all that many years back I was left to my own devices for two days on the Beaverkill and covered 3 miles of water downstream one morning, then turned around and fished back up, passing the campground and going another two miles up river. That was nothing for me at the time. I fished trout streams a lot and that's how I did it. Once I got a vehicle I both shifted away from trout and had less incentive to cover huge lengths of water. I lost touch a little bit- stopped exercising certain muscles -and didn't think much of it. Then I recently went to fish one of my favorite northeast trout rivers and got chewed up and spit own like a piece of gum. 

Large, road-less areas along sizable trout rivers aren't especially common in this part of the world anymore. Drawn toward solitude, wilderness, and exploration, I'm pulled to these places whether they have big fish reputations or not. And this one river, though known and fished through some stretches, has a very large un-developed area. Limited to non-existent cell service, treacherous terrain, and a high likelihood of seeing very few other anglers are almost as appealing as the abundant wild trout. Two years back I fished it from one access going upriver a modest distance to break up a drive home from fishing the periodical cicadas. I was entranced by the river itself as well as the surrounding landscape and vowed to come back. When a day opened up recently, I made the drive out early in the morning. I arrived at a new access right before sunrise, determined to fish down to where I'd ended the previous trip. The result would be roughly 10 miles of fishing and some added out of river walking. 

The day dawn crisp and clear with air temperatures in the low 40's. I packed as much food, water, and safety stuff as I could fit in a sling pack and hoofed down to the river. Tendrils of steam rose from the boulder strewn pocket water, signifying that the water was a bit warmer than the air. The sun wouldn't reach into the gorge for a while, and I'd need to keep moving to stay warm. My plan, fishing wise, was to prospect with streamers until I saw heads. I needed to cover a lot of ground and to get where I wanted to go, so I'd have to fish faster than effective nymphing would allow. 

For a while the quality of the fishing wasn't great. Limited bumps and swipes, some good water not producing any signs of life... I switched flies, retrieves, and approaches a few times but I eventually assessed that the fish weren't all that active yet. Eventually I did pull on a gorgeous and very dark brookie, but it wasn't until the sun got on the water that things got going a little bit better. 

When the hits did come it was like a freight train. This fits my previous experience on this river, though I was fishing the Ausable Ugly then. The fish dart out fast, grab, and vacate fast. If they try to leave with the fly still in their mouth they pretty much set the hook on themselves. If not, they leave you questioning what you could have done to hook them. It really is a hit and run. Fight wise, some of the fish were very hot. Others seemed to be a bit less interested in winning the battle. They were all elegantly beautiful wild trout regardless. 

After a little while, the last vestiges of angler's foot prints faded as the terrain became more rough. I knew some people had almost certainly been through recently but at least not since the previous rain. Travel, atleast via the side of the river I was on, became complex when I reached a very deep pool flanked by a cliff. Most of the passage wasn't difficult until the little shale shelf I was skirting pinched off. With water over my head behind me, I hugged the ledge and pulled from a very modest understanding of handholds and footholds from rock climbing to negotiate the impass. It's this sort of stuff that makes me feel like I'm really trout fishing.  

The biodiversity as I pushed ahead became more and more obvious. Lush plants sprouted were springs seeped from the cliff face. American toads called everywhere. They were in the heat of their breeding period and I had to take extra care of the strings of eggs laced through the shallows. Northern watersnakes basked on midstream rocks, seemingly unbothered by my presence. There were larger terrestrial fauna too, though it was a while before I saw any. Their tracks, though, dotted the sand bars and muddy spots. Some of the more significant trails through the woods were game trails rather than human trails. I found racoon, possum, fox, dear, mink, bear, coyote, and bobcat prints along the river. 

Eventually I did pass a couple other anglers that had come in from the other access. They reported spotty action as well. I soldiered on, catching sporadically as I went. Finally I did reach my intended destination. The pool I'd seen a few big fish in a couple years ago gave up the largest I'd catch on this trip. Ironically I didn't realize it, being on the opposite side of the river and approaching from above and with different flow conditions. I ended up passing it by quite a bit until I hit and unmistakable bend. That added distance would compound and already building problem. I knew I was going to be hurting when I got back to the car. Short breaks to rest and stretch became as mandatory as eating and drinking.

It wasn't until I re-fished a stretch almost middways back that I experienced legitimately fast paced fished. There seemed to be trout in every pocket and run, often multiple, and they were very interested in a half pint. I missed a lot and lost quite a few as well, but had a stretch where I was catching very regularly. None of the fish I ran into were all that large. I flashed two that I thought may have been over 20 inches but I couldn't be sure. It was abundantly clear that there were loads of healthy wild trout though, so I was in paradise. 

The one thing that I'd hoped would materialize was a strong hatch, and it never did. There were a few caddis, a Yellow Sally here and there, one or two March Browns, and a few Light Cahills. It was never enough to get any heads poking though. When I first started fishing the Catskills I wouldn't have cared, I was streamer obsessed. Now that's just amusing to me, I relished the idea of getting a break from the constant motion to rebuild my leader, tie on a dry fly, and target a specific fish. At one point it seemed like the opportunity might arise as a few fish began sporadically taking along the far bank of the same cliff edged pool I'd traversed on the way down, but they never increased the frequency as there was hardly a trickle of mayflies coming off. I tried for a little while but gave up. They weren't especially large fish anyway.

It was after fishing that pool for a while that I chose to peel away from the river and shorten the walk back. The game trail that lead me across the steep hillside over the river had some notably careless tracks on it that I couldn't identify for a while. The wet leaves didn't give a good read but they weren't deerlike at all. A pile of scat soon told the story. A mother bear and cubs. The mothers prints were far from obvious, in fact I only found one indentation that I think was hers. The cubs, young and naive as they are, left obvious and meandering prints. They were fresh. I realized I ought to get off that path. No sooner had that thought entered my mind then I looked down the slope and saw the cubs maybe 130 yards out in a stand of mature hardwoods. Two scrambled down from the tree they were in while the third waited on the ground before they departed hastily. Mama wasn't visible amd I didn't particularly want to see her. I gave them a wide berth.

On the way out I passed through a bizarre grassy clearing. It was totally isolated and full of deep rock piles. I took a break to flip some rocks as it looked like excellent milksnake habitat, though none were found. 

Eventually, haggered, hungry, and with the beginnings of what would prove to be some absolutely horrendous leg cramps, I made it out. If there's a lesson here, it's to be as prepared in training and warming up as in provisions. I'd brought as much food and water as I'd needed, had drinks with electrolytes and bananas for potassium... but I pushed way, way harder than I've pushed in years and payed the price. Know your limits. Push them if you'd like, but not so far that it compromises your safety. 

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1 comment:

  1. Hey rowan,,, read your article, in the fisherman mag, on mulberry carp,,,,I've seen this also,,and would like to drop a bomb, on the aspect of mulberries,,,if you do research on line, about the tree,,,you'll find,,,the unripe fruit,,,IS HIGHLY HALLEUCINAGENIC!!!!,,,,possibly why the carp blitz,,,,bizarre, but true,,,LOL,,,tight lines,,,from Paul K trailbossx2. Saturday mornings outdoors,,on youtube,,,