I had missed fishing the Arkansas in October, my favorite time on the river. Family and a rejuvenation-contemplation road trip had filled the month. Now November offered dead flowers, hummingbirds gone, a dried-up pump and sluice.
A feeling of lost season and a Time’s Frank Bruni opinion piece, “American Optimism, R.I.P.,” had left me with a hollow feeling.
Canceled jury duty followed by a slight encouragement – “Aren’t you going fishing?” – was all I needed.
A chilly November morning and I was once again on the river. Stark cottonwoods, leafless willows and dry brown grass, but the water was glass. My thoughts and a single water ouzel, unruffled by my presence, my only companions.
I knew the brown trout were spawning, so let’s just say optimism wasn’t high. They had other things besides eating on their minds. But here I was, mid-thigh in the frigid water feeling the chill through multiple layers under my waders. Like a litany: Cast. Mend. Drift. Cast. Mend. Drift. I repeated the mantra working my way up the run where I had caught many fish before. Nothing. Optimism fading. Back to the coffee thermos; warm up; then try again. Is that optimism or just stubbornness?
I changed flies, always a remedy for faltering optimism. I left on the weighted stonefly (one of my favorite patterns from Mike Mercer), removed the trailing flashback pheasant-tail nymph and the black zebra midge. I replaced them with a caddis pupa (a gifted pattern from my fishing buddy Jim) and a loop-winged midge emerger (my own creative attempt).
After another cup of coffee and with a new optimism tied on, I waded up to where in past years I had seen brown trout spawning redds. I knew right where they’d be. This river and I have become friends over the years, and though it is said it is never the same river you come back to, I suppose I am never the same person either. I crawled to the edge of the undercut bank and slowly peeked over. They weren’t there. Talk about another blow to optimism.
I studied the shallow gravel run. Not a single fish. Where had they gone? Optimism (or stubbornness) still flickering, I began to move on up to another familiar run. Having taken no more than 10 steps, out of the corner of my eye I saw a huge brown shoot out from the undercut bank to the middle of the channel.
I froze. They were here. Multiple redds in the shallows, the silt brushed away from the gravel bottom by the male in preparation for the female’s eggs. On each redd were large brown trout – some singles, some pairs – tails moving leisurely against the current, their olive spotted backs making them appear as ghosts against the stream bottom. Then one would turn its golden side to the sun and shudder as eggs or milt were dropped into the water. They were beautiful.
They were doing what some ancestral clock had told them to do for thousands of years – provide the next generation. Life renewed. They had left the security of the dark pools and moved into the shallows, exposing themselves to predators, but where eggs could flourish resting in the clean gravel bathed in clear oxygenated water waiting for their time. I watched them for a while, then backed away slowly with renewed optimism, leaving them to complete their task.
I moved upstream to another deep run. Would there be any trout? Were they all downstream at the party? Today I reversed my usual course, starting at the head of the pool working my way down. I remembered having had some success in this pool by swinging the fly at the end of the drift. Seemed logical since I had my emerger as a bottom fly, and it would rise to the surface at the end of the drift simulating a real emerging midge (perhaps a bit optimistic).
I repeated the mantra. Cast. Mend. Drift. Cast. Mend. Drift with renewed optimism. Was that a bump I felt? I repeated the drift. The line tightened and a healthy brown leapt from the water. I quickly landed the fish. As it slipped from my net, I spoke: “Someday the hidden clock will tell you it’s time for renewal.”
I left the river with a new commitment to do all I can to conserve and protect this free-flowing river, my little part of the world. The best we can do is to leave a legacy for the next generation. I retrieved three small stones, placing them in my hip pack, a reminder of the hope those spawning fish showed me.
For more information about Collegiate Peaks Chapter, including our events and projects, visit our website: collegiatepeaksTU.org.
Jerry Wright is a member of and volunteer for Collegiate Peaks Chapter of Trout Unlimited.