Butterfly Fishing

Posted on July 21, 2012


There are worse things than sleeping on the dirt in the rain and drinking whisky from a bean can

I recently tripped home for my NH summer trip, which usually revolves around shooting fireworks shows with my dad and this year included my parents’ 55th anniversary.

Tobey's 55th

What matters

Last summer, my nephew became a fisherman, and more importantly a fly fisherman.  There are few  people who will trek around the north country with you looking for palm-sized wild brookies  like they were hunting 2-meter taimen in Mongolia, but Liam is one of them, and that is rarer than any fish. Additionally, his cast is so natural and perfect, I wish I could say I taught it to him, but I don’t have that kind of perfection in me. I do try to learn by watching, though. At any rate, he took the week off and was dying to do an overnighter with fishing involved. Despite being home I was working long hours and by the end of the week, a trip in the White Mountains without electronic devices sounded like a good idea. He had researched the Dry River (I’m going to give you the name because searching for “dry river” is so fruitless as to be humorous), a trib of the Saco, and  I pretty much turned my fate over to his hands as he is a fairly experienced camper.Besides, what could go wrong?

He showed up he morning of the hike and we began sorting gear. I was a little surprised that he didn’t have sleeping pads, but I’ve spent my share of nights in the dirt, one reason or another. Since there was an Adirondack shelter at our destination 6 miles in, and weather was supposed to be fair all weekend, I opted that we  could leave the tent and just take a tarp. We sorted through the food and he brought a stove. I was fine with that as long as he carried it.  For me the 10 Essentials have long been pared down to a good knife and a roll of duct tape. I figure if those aren’t going to solve my problems in the woods, my problems are not solvable.  Likewise, I don’t feel compelled to reward myself for a stroll in the woods with haute cuisine.  I’ve gone as long as a week on nothing but power bars, and not the yummy phoofey ones you can get now, but the original ones modeled after the shoe leather they ate at Valley Forge, chewed in subzero weather.

The weather was hot, in the way that only New England days are hot and people say the word with an extra eighth syllable – “hawt.”  The Fourth fell on a Wednesday this year and it was a little surprising, and a little sad, to see virtually every North Country motel empty, especially following a snowless winter.  We stopped at a little crossroads store, the kind that has deli food, campfire wood, and always a little hunting/fishing area in the back. I loaded up on bugs, and while Liam reminded me we could get them cheaper online I reminded him A) not today, and B) it’s buying $50 of flies at a place like this that helps ensure they’ll be here the next time you need beer and feathered concoctions. Besides, where the hell else are you going to find orange hornbergs? That’s got to be as cool as finding Prada shoes for a certain set, I’m sure.

We hit the trail and as soon as we were out of the range the spin and bait casting crowd will go, as evidenced by a lack of empty beer cans and Styrofoam bait buckets, I figured we should hit the water and see if it was worth fishing. I showed Liam how to creep up behind a rock and cast over it so the brookies can’t see you. Honestly, I’d just read that somewhere and never tried it, but I hooked the biggest fish of the trip on that very first cast, even though I didn’t bring it to hand.  He went upstream and I went down, and in every pool larger than a bath tub I hooked a fish, despite it being cloudless and creeping up to 100F.

Dry River

Every pool, a fish (a dozen in this image)

The trail took us up and over a canyon, which we marked for the way back, mostly because I don’t like to hike up and then right back down when I can go straight, and I allowed as the canyon walls held deep pools. We kept this up until we got to a bridge with a sign that said the trail was wiped out by a hurricane. They couldn’t put that 2miles back at the road? Seems like it would’ve saved us all a lot of work. We shared mutual shrugs and moved on.

We passed what looked like some families camping on prime water, and soon after the trail, which had been following the river, was gone just like that. I scrambled down the bank, and crossed over to the next part of the trail, not trivial even with a relatively light 40lb. pack.  So far, I’d probably stuck a good 20 fish and we’d gone about 1/2 way in. This is a pretty good day by any account. I still had my original hornberg on, even. We sat down to discuss things and Liam made some good points about if we just stayed here we could get plenty of fishing in, and still spend the night. I pointed to a sandbar cross river and opined that I could easily drop my pack there and call it good. I wet waded over, dropped my pack and we started fishing. The one thing I had forgot to pack was my waterproof camera bag. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt compelled to photo every fish, but even though I would like to have chronicled a few I figured I could do it tomorrow and it was better off safe sequestered in it’s own pocket in my pack.

We caught fish everywhere, on every thing.  I showed Liam how to high stick to keep the line from dragging on the water and amused myself with him trying to stick fish too small to take the fly and too uneducated to pass it up time after time. Normally in these conditions in the West, I would find the ‘bows and cutts in the heads of the pools under the whitewater tongues, but here I kept finding them in the very tails, even into the bump where  the water thins to a film and rises up before entering the next cascade. Dry flies worked, but skated dries killed them. Well not skated, forgotten. If I left my fly in the water long after I “should’ve” taken it out and it skated sunk out of the pool, BAM! fish on.  Every pool one, two fish. Biggest fish maybe 10″, but they would bend the rod and fight  you hard.  You only had to rest the pool about 30 min and you could go right back to it.

Something about water

We fished down through a cascade and came upon the camping families, fishing and playing in a good pool. Yeah, I’m cold: I beat them to the water and pulled the fish out, because I figured they would keep them and I have a thing about killing wild fish. (Most NH fishing is put-and-take and you can do what you want with them as far as I’m concerned, but wild fish are rarer than honest men.) We did stop and chat and they showed us how the river had changed course as a result of Hurricane Irene in ’11. They were surprised there were any fish here.  Once they pointed it out the damage was obvious. In one place not only had the river crossed the narrow valley, it had dropped about 15′ (coincidentally, right where we lost the trail).

Dry River hurricane damage

River used to be on the upper right, though the woods 15′ above new position

We went below them and, being a very fast mover on the water, I soon outdistanced Liam. At this time, butterflies began landing on me. They would land on me, flutter off, always a few feet down river like there was some place they wanted me to go, and then come back. Even if I believed them, I was here and there was no way I could follow. When I got to the bridge, I bid them adieu. They kept me company until Liam caught up and then disappeared. While I had been waiting I decided to change flies, my box broke and I lost a good two dozen flies into the water.  Maybe next time I’ll follow the will ‘o  the wisps.

We busted it back upstream to camp, a good mile of water covered hard. Liam broke out the stove and I let him, feeling the day seep from my bones. This is when Liam discovered he forgot his pans. But we had beans, and I have no issue eating them out of the can. Hell, I do that at home, and I don’t even bother to put them on the stove to heat them up like he did. Once those were gone, we had some freeze-dried stuff, cooked kind of rare for my taste, and then put the cans to better use by drinking Scotch Liam had brought in one of his nalgene bottles.  Times  like this, as I enter what Harlan Ellison called the “downhill slide” I often regret not having children of my own, and I’m glad for Liam and his brother Gabriel, as close to sons as I’m likely to have. More so, now that they are at an age where they are starting their own families, I’m glad they go out of their way to make time for me, always the black sheep of the family and often far, far away from it.

At one point near dusk I reckoned it would be fun to try a hopper dropper, even though I’d seen only one caddis pupae all day. I hooked a 2″ salmon dry fly (a fly I don’t think hatches on this coast although I saw one insect on the Merrimac earlier that sure looked like one) on as the hopper and dropped a little nymph off it. The idea is the salmon fly is essentially a bobber suspending the nymph below it. It wasn’t on the water a heartbeat before it disappeared in a swirl like a flushed toilet, but I was quite sad to find the little cannibal had taken the hopper on the number 2 hook, surely lethal for him, and not the dropper. I never thought he would hit a fly as big as a leaf! Fortunately, we had some whisky left to wake him.

We had a little fire, just to have something to stare at as words failed us at day’s end, and then called it a night. I’d insisted we put the tarp down the very first thing when we encamped to keep the sand out, and had put my pack on a bed-sized rock to keep it off the sand. Around 1:30 I began to feel the rain spatter on my face, but I didn’t want to break it to Liam. After all, we were supposed to be in a shelter for the night, and no weather was predicted. It might pass and I didn’t want him feeling bad. By 2:30 it was enough to wake him, and at 2:35, the downpour started. He jumped up and started looking for rope and such to spread the tarp. I merely reached into the stuff sack where I’d put my clothes for a pillow, put my shirt on, tossed my pack under the undercut bank and said “just put the tarp over us and tuck it under our feet” (the wind was up).  I didn’t even bother to stand up. Like I said, I’ve spent some nights in the dirt. The only issue was as the rain hit the topside of the  tarp, little explosions of sand would come off the bottom onto your face.  I soon peeled the tarp back and let the rain wash over me, but sometimes I lie on my deck in Seattle when I can’t sleep and do the same thing.  I slept better than I had at any other point in the trip.

We got up at dawn, had coffee, and decided to fish the canyon on the way out, maybe hit the Saco if we had time. Dawn, 40 degrees cooler, overcast, fresh cool water in the system. In my mind, these were fishing conditions, whereas yesterday was not. But except for my first cast in the canyon we didn’t stick one fish.  He was a sweet little 10″ fish that took me a few moments to land.

Dry River native brookie

First, and only, fish 2nd day

Honestly, had I known either how sweet or how rare he would be, I would’ve let Liam take the cast, but he had taken the long way round to the pool, and I’m not a patient man. This time I had my pack with me and decided to fish my camera out, only to discover that  there are worse things than sleeping on the ground in the rain: sand in your camera gear. Somehow in stashing my pack the night before sand had gotten into the camera pocket.

I’m afraid it was hard on the fish to get the picture, he was a fighter and I had to land him alone, fish the camera out, and get some shot, without killing him from lactic acid. I’m glad I took it, though, as it was the last fish of the day, and without it there wouldn’t be one fish picture! Had the days been reversed, I would’ve told you the river was sterile and never even bothered to camp on it, but hiked out and gone on to other waters the day before.  In fact, we fished some killer water on the Saco with the same results.

Before it snows
In the winter wood
You can follow the frozen streams
Imagining trout dreaming
Of spiral vortices
In their crystalline palaces
When Eastern hills go ruddy
With Western light
Go home

We had a beer in Lincoln on the way out and as the shadows crept across the deck I contemplated: What to do in the ruddy light?

The rocks speak to me in hieroglyphics

Posted in: Fly Fishing