Dame’s Rocket

Writers Pool

By Kevin Searock

She was waiting for me there, in the shade of a tall oak beside the river.  I turned off the highway into the Rod & Gun Club and let the big green truck roll to a stop by a line of whitewashed posts, at the brow of the slope leading down to the Rush River.  I wasn’t surprised to see her.  I’d expected she would be there in the very heart of June, just as I expected the eternal river to be there, and the mayflies, and the trout.  But catching her scent as I pulled on wading brogues and strung a long, willowy fly rod evoked a flood of memories, of other rivers and other years long past, and of other June days as perfect as this one.  I went over to see her as soon as the leader was rigged with a pair of nymphs and I’d donned the trout fisher’s uniform of burnt khaki, pale green, and nut brown that helped keep me invisible to the fish – and nearly indistinguishable from any other angler.  Dame's RocketBy contrast she was dressed in a crown of vivid lavender petals atop tall green shoots, as befitted one whose name was Hesperis matronalis in the ancient tongue; “lady of the evening star” as near as I could make it in English.  “Dame’s Rocket” is her common name, and her presence by the waterside meant that it was time for us to seek out and fish the sulphur mayfly hatch on the Rush.

 The day was fine; the first clear, dry June morning after a series of overcast, showery days.  Since the sulphurs weren’t due until evening, I decided to spend the morning drifting deep nymphs through the big pools, fast runs, and pocket water where the Rush tumbles around the wide turn below the Rod & Gun Club.  There was more fast water upstream; this stretch of the Rush was made for nymph fishing.

 I took a detour through the woods so that I could enter the river at the very bottom of the stretch.  The shadows beneath the trees were filled with signs that the long Wisconsin spring was finally giving way to high summer.  False Solomon’s seal, with its dark green oval leaves, was nearly bloomed out.  Campion and ox-eye daisies showed in patches where shafts of sunlight slipped through the boughs.  Cow parsnip towered over my head in places, and I glanced at old scars from parsnip burns on my forearms.  Once at a seminar devoted to the problem of weedy, non-native plants in the Badger state, I’d remarked to a fellow biologist that I’d been burned by wild parsnip many times over the years.  “Slow learner!” she remarked.  “No,” I replied with a wry smile, “trout fisherman.”  She stalked off across the room with a frown, leaving me to wonder why hunters and fisherfolk are sometimes treated like black sheep of the environmental community.  Send a hunter and a non-hunter through a stretch of wild country and I’ll wager the hunter sees fifty times more than the non-hunter, and that the hunter knows much more about what he or she has seen.  The same is true of anglers by the riverside. 

 The trees ended suddenly.  I pushed through a dense stand of reed canary grass and stood on the edge of what may be Wisconsin’s finest trout river.  The Rush has a distinctive fragrance that an angler recognizes immediately; a particular blend of rock and water, invertebrates, aquatic plants, and trout.  I took just a moment to reflect on how hard I’d worked to be able to stand here, in this place, on this day, at this time.  So much of what we call fishing is preparation (and picking up the pieces afterwards).  Then I unhooked the nymphs from the keeper and began casting.

 It’s curious that good dry fly water and good streamer fly water possess many of the same characteristics, while good nymphing water differs from both.  Dry fly fishing is a game played in two dimensions on the surface of the stream.  A rising trout breaks the surface to take a floating or nearly floating fly.  The angler has no doubt about the fishes’ presence or position.  A dry fly or emerger is cast so that it comes down the drift line towards the trout; excitement builds as the fly gets closer to the sweet spot, and reaches a climax with the rise of the fish to the fly.  The charm of dry fly fishing is that so much of the experience is immediate and visual.  The key to good dry fly fishing is finding a surface on the river where most of the water is moving at about the same speed.  Drag, which moves the fly faster or slower than the speed of the current, is the great enemy of the dry fly fisher. 

 Whirling eddies and washes behind mid-stream rocks in fast water are often famously difficult dry fly spots, because of the inevitable drag that results when the leader and/or fly line drift at a faster or slower clip than the fly.  Dry fly fishing is generally easier in broken water and more difficult in slow, deep water where the trout get a better look at the fly.  During a mayfly hatch, comparaduns and no-hackle flies are good choices in slow water because they have a wing silhouette and surface film light pattern that’s much closer to those of the real insects.  Traditionally hackled dry flies, including classic “Catskill” patterns at least a hundred years old, are deadly in fast water, especially the riffles at the heads of pools and tumbling runs between the deeper holes.  

 Fishing streamer flies, including bucktails, wooly-buggers and the like is more of a game of chance than fishing nymphs or dry flies, unless the angler has already located a large trout holding in a particular place.  Drag is less of a concern than in dry fly fishing, (though still an important consideration to my mind).  The excitement here is in knowing that, at any moment, one may tie into something exceptionally large.  “Big fish; big fly” is as true today as it was centuries ago.

 But this morning I was nymph fishing, casting upstream with two weighted flies rigged in tandem at the end of the leader.  There are several reasons why upstream nymph fishing to invisible, non-rising trout is inherently more difficult than dry fly fishing or streamer fishing.  One is that the angler must visualize where the trout are holding in a particular piece of water, usually without any visual clues to the fishes’ presence.  The second is that nymph fishing is a game played in three spatial dimensions rather than two, as in dry fly fishing; the angler must cast the flies so that they have time to sink to the trout’s level as well as passing over the place where the trout is likely to be holding.  Finally, the upstream nymph fisher is bedeviled by drag just as much as the dry fly angler, if not more so.

 I waded out across a shallow riffle to the first deep run.  Here most of the Rush piled up against the opposite bank before sluicing off downstream.  The current was fast and choppy against the bank on the outside edge of the turn, but nearer to me was a slow, deep eddy where the water actually flowed slowly upstream.  And between the fast water racing down and the slow eddy moving up was a seam, or current break; a line that separated the two opposing currents.  The seam was my target.  For flies I had a #10 Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear Scud at the end of the 4x tippet, with a #16 Sawyer Pheasant Tail Nymph trailing about 15″ back from the bend of the scud on another piece of 4x.  I cast the team of nymphs to the top of the seam and a bit to the right, so that my flies would drift down towards me along the edge of the current break.

 I used a strike indicator set about five feet above the lead fly.  Some fly fishers object to them, and there are nymph fishing situations where no strike indicator is needed.  Fishing to visible trout in ultra-clear water is one case; the angler simply watches the fish for some evidence of a take, (“that cunning brown wink under water”, as George Edward Mackenzie Skues, the “father of modern nymph fishing” wrote many years ago).  But in many Wisconsin trout streams, where conflicting current speeds guarantee that there will be a bow in the line between the angler and the fly, and the water isn’t clear enough to sight-fish, a strike indicator is a necessary aid unless the angler is content to hook very few of the trout that take his or her nymph.  And I’ve yet to meet an angler who wants to catch fewer and smaller trout.

 Even with a strike indicator, most takes of the nymph go undetected.  It’s rare for the indicator to be pulled under; anyone can see that.  Most of the time I strike to small bumps, or hops, or to slight rocking motions as the indicator drifts downstream.  When accompanied by less experienced fly fishers, they are often mystified as to how I know when to set the hook.  And to be honest, much of this has become ingrained and automatic after many years on the stream.  I can think of several instances where I’ve been talking to a fishing partner, not paying any attention to what my flies were doing, and suddenly my right arm lifted the rod high and I was fast to a trout.  As in any sport or physical activity, with long practice and countless repetitions, fundamental skills become unconscious.  We no longer have to think about them; they simply happen, just as when typing we don’t consciously think about what our fingers are doing – our thoughts simply appear in print as if by magic.

 And so I cast the team of nymphs up to the top of the seam, and as they drifted back I watched the orange indicator like a hawk.  It took several casts, but finally the indicator made a little hop downstream (the flies had drifted ahead of it), and I struck the solid weight of a good fish.  Trout, in swift cool water, and fat from feeding in a productive stream, fight like mad, and this particular trout was no exception.  The rod, bent in a satisfying arc, throbbed from tip to butt as the fish bored deep among the stones in an effort to rub out the fly or snag the leader.  Failing in this, the trout writhed to the surface, and then it leaped.  With a barbless hook, a jumping, head-shaking trout has a better than even chance of throwing the fly.  And so it proved; the fly (the scud in this case) came free, and the whole business rebounded straight into the umbel of a six-foot cow parsnip in back of me.  Leader, tippet, and flies were tangled in a hopeless mess that took ten or fifteen minutes to extract and sort out.  But such is fly fishing, for me at any rate. 

 When I got back to fishing the nymphs proved their worth by taking a beautifully marked 16″ brown trout from fast, broken water at the top of the run.  Hardly a fishing day goes by where I don’t think to myself, “Boy, when you were fourteen you’d have given your right arm to fish a big river like the Rush and catch one trout like that!”  By the time I reached the top of the big pool at the turn below the Rod and Gun Club I’d taken several good browns and many smaller trout.  But when I rounded the corner and looked upstream towards the fast runs at the head of the pool, I saw it was time for a dramatic change in tactics.

 By now it was mid-morning.  The sun was high and bright, a good hatch of tan caddis flies was in progress, and trout were rising in bunches, feeding aggressively.  Off came the nymphs and the indicator; on went a couple of feet of 5x tippet and a dark tan #16 CDC Caddis.  A fishing friend had showed me the effectiveness of CDC in dry flies and midges a couple of years before, on this same stretch of the Rush, and even though I’d never tied any CDC patterns myself, I still had several that I’d bought from various  fly shops in recent years, including Lund’s Hardware in nearby River Falls.

 Rise after rise showed quickly and repeatedly in the run about thirty feet above my position near the bank.  From the quick cadence of the rises – each trout rising once every few seconds – I knew they’d give me instant feedback as to whether my fly was right or not.  The first cast dropped the fly in the center of a feeding lane occupied by a good fish; the fly drifted back … and the trout took it with a popping rise, just like he’d taken the naturals.  Business was very brisk for the next hour and a half as I was constantly casting, playing fish, releasing fish, or drying the fly for another go.  I took fat trout with the clock-work regularity that only comes with a good hatch and the right fly.  There were no refusals, and every trout took the fly with the same rise form that I saw when it took the naturals.  This, I believe, is the key to judging whether or not an artificial fly effectively imitates the natural insect.  For example, a slashing rise to an artificial fly during a hatch where the trout are rising quietly to the naturals tells the fisherman two things; first, that the fish will take this particular fly, but also that the trout isn’t taking it for one of the hatching or drifting insects.

 By one o’clock the caddis hatch petered out and the morning rise was over.  Both the trout and I needed a mid-day siesta.  I drove up to Ellsworth for lunch and spent a quiet afternoon tying flies on a picnic table in a city park, in the welcome shade of two large sugar maples.  Shelby Foote read Stars in their Courses – the Gettysburg Campaign as my fingers whirled around the vise and spun out a couple of dozen sulphur comparaduns on light wire #16 hooks.  As I worked and listened to the audiobook, I thought about the fittingness of the subject to the day, and the place.  Colonel Daniel Ellsworth paid the last full measure of patriotic duty as the first man killed in the Civil War.  The men who shot him down were Americans too.  The summer solstice was drawing near; just the time, some 142 years ago, that the Army of Northern Virginia, general Robert E. Lee commanding, slipped across the Potomac behind the screen of the Blue Ridge to begin its second invasion of the north;  so long ago, in a world so different.  Long ago, certainly, but how different?  “You can say there’s no such thing as slavery anymore; we’re all citizens.  But if we’re all citizens, then we have a task to do to make sure that that too is not a joke.  If some citizens live in houses while others live on the street, then the Civil War is still going on; it’s still to be fought, and, regrettably, it can still be lost.” – historian Barbara Fields.

 I drove back down to the river at about four-thirty and parked near the 450th bridge.  Since I’d never fished this part of the Rush before, I walked to the middle of the bridge and scanned the water on both sides.  Above the bridge was a set of riffles extending a couple of hundred yards upstream, finally ending where Lost Creek joined the Rush and the big river turned away from the road.  Below the bridge was a smooth, gravelly flat of shin-deep water where the banks retreated to either side and the river spread out.  “Black Dog’s Flat” I named it, in honor of a good trout friend from Minnesota who favors this stretch of the Rush.

 At first the riffles seemed more attractive from a fishing point of view.  But somehow I was attracted to Black Dog’s Flat, perhaps because such “waste water” was common on the eastern freestone streams I fished as a teen-ager decades ago.  On those hard-fished streams, “waste water” was attractive because it rarely had anyone else fishing it, and the trout, though they were easily frightened in the shallow flow, were also relatively easy to catch – if they weren’t spooked by wading or casting.  And sure enough, as I watched intently from my perch on the bridge, one trout after another revealed itself with quiet rises here and there across the wide flat.  A fat brookie sipped something invisible from a bubble line.  A good- sized brown occupied a choice lie beside a fallen tree, and divided his time between feeding and running off two or three other brown trout that occasionally drifted too close to his place near the log.  After twenty minutes of watching from the bridge, I was surprised at how many trout were holding, and feeding actively, across what seemed at first to be barren water.

 A deliberate, heron-like approach was called for.  I lengthened the leader to sixteen feet and tapered it down to a long 6x tippet, and for the  fly I picked a #18 CDC Caddis with a dirty yellow body – a simple pattern that to a trout might suggest  any of a half-dozen types of insects. 

 Few, if any, Wisconsin trout streams can match the Rush for its diversity of aquatic insects and other trout foods.  Sulphurs were the main course on the bill of fare for this evening, but at one time or another during the day trout could be seen taking caddis flies, midges, scuds, olive mayfly nymphs, stoneflies, crane flies, terrestrials, even crayfish; an astonishing variety of invertebrates.  I made a wide detour downstream of the bridge and slipped into the river below the tail of the flat.  Then, wading so slowly that not a ripple of water pushed upstream, I entered the flat and began casting to the nearest trout.

 It was a game of chess.  Not only was every move carefully considered on its own merit, but also for its effects on future moves.  Trout that were easy to see from the bridge were surprisingly difficult to locate once I was in the water, and again I spent a great deal of time watching for rises.  Many times I saw a rise without a trout!  They were invisible in the flat light of late afternoon and the rises might have been made by ghosts.  Such fishing is absorbing, and I had no sense of the passing of time as I stalked and cast to each trout.  Long, looping casts were hooked so that the fly would settle down a couple of feet upstream of each trout’s position without the leader falling over the fishes’ head.  Then a long wait as the fly drifted back, waiting, waiting … then a rise so small that it might have been a chub or a dace, but then a surge of water and the feel of a heavy trout as a turn of the wrist set the hook.

 In the end I spent two hours fishing Black Dog’s flat.  Finally at seven o’clock I moved upstream of the bridge in anticipation of the sulphur hatch.  But the flies were late, and a good hour passed where no mayflies were evident and no trout rose.  I still took fish here and there from the riffles, on a single pheasant tail nymph fished to the current breaks and alongside rocks, and by eight o’clock I’d worked my way well upstream from the junction with Lost Creek.  A brief rain shower drifted past, soaking me, and then an intense double rainbow arched across the river, backlit by the setting sun.  As suddenly as organ music strikes up in church, sulphurs (Ephemerella invaria and E. needhami) began helicoptering over the riffles.  Within a few minutes it seemed like every trout in the Rush was rising like mad.   The air was filled with flies.  The murderous intent of swallows, swifts, flycatchers, and waxwings made no visible impact on their numbers.  The river boiled and seethed with trout, and as I tied a #16 sulphur comparadun to the end of the leader I thought I could not miss.  But the first trout rose to the fly without being hooked, and then another, and another.  Something was wrong; it looked like trout were taking the fly and somehow not getting hooked, but I examined the fly carefully and the hook was fine and sharp.  Several more “missed fish”, and then I was sure that the fly wasn’t right.  All the while the hatch was getting thicker – one of the most impressive hatches of mayflies I’ve ever seen, anywhere.  But the light was fading, and I was getting frantic.  Shaking badly, I somehow tied on another #16 sulphur comparadun, but this one had a chartreuse body.

 I cast nearly straight across the stream to a rise that just spelled “size” … the fish came to the fly, but this time the long rod bent and I felt the satisfying pull of a good fish on the end of the line.  From that point on the fishing was easy, though all too soon I ran out of daylight.  Still the flies kept hatching, the trout kept rising, and I kept fishing, on and on into the darkness.  The familiar colors of the day faded to silver and black.  A waxing moon helped some.  Fat, coal-black trout sagged into the net from time to time, dripping molten silver back into the inky river.  Browns for the most part I think, but a big brookie or two might well have been taken that night without me being aware of it.  Swallows had long since been replaced by bats.  Coyotes sang from the ridges. 

 At ten o’clock I called it quits and reeled up for the day.  I could smell dust in the damp night air, mixing with the lush scent of a June evening as I crunched along the gravel roads back to the truck.  Lost Creek murmured in the darkness where it sluiced through the culvert under the country lane.  The year’s first fireflies flashed above the long grass on the shoulder of the road, and along the hedgerows.  Bright stars wheeled overhead in the rain-washed sky as I swung along.  The welcome outline of the truck loomed up out of the darkness beside the road, and I was glad to slide the rod into its case, and get out of waders and heavy fly vest at the end of a long day.  But then I sat for awhile on the tailgate, savoring the warm darkness and a cold Rolling Rock, and wondered, as all of us have, what makes us dream of June days like this one, and leads us to make whatever sacrifices are necessary so that we can be on trout rivers on such days.

 I was already teaching science when Halley’s Comet returned to our neck of the cosmic woods, back in 1986.  To commemorate the event, I traveled around to various schools in our district, teaching lessons about the significance of the comet and organizing evening sessions where students could get a good look, through a powerful telescope, at this “blazing star” moving across the heavens.  In answering questions from the young folks, one that came up often was “Mr. Searock, what’s your favorite planet?”  One day when I had a quiet moment (a rare thing for a public school teacher), I wrote an answer.

 “My favorite planet is Earth, the water planet.  I’ve never grown tired of it, or bored with it, and many of my happiest days have been spent in its wild places, beside rivers, lakes, oceans, and in the company of organisms who, like me, find themselves caught here, in the nets of space-time and evolution.  And I’m confident that in the future, as we take our first steps to explore the galaxy and move out among the stars, that the most awesome thing we’ll see is our own blue planet, growing larger and larger on our forward view-screen as we journey home.”

Copyright 25 June 2005

by Kevin Searock

No part of this essay may be copied or used for any other purpose without written permission from the author.

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