A handful of palomino trout circled the pool in front of me. They went round and round, all five of them, searching their watery confines for a cool place to rest before eventually stationing themselves in fighter plane formation where the riffles dumped into the pool. A few minutes later, they repeated the process.
It’s been hot lately, but perhaps more importantly, it’s been dry. In fact, for about two years now, First Fork has run consistently lower than its 100-year average, and water temperatures have hit 70 degrees earlier in the season than usual. A few nights ago, at the tail end of the Delayed Harvest section just below Berge Run Road, I got a reading of 76 degrees in the shallows where most people usually stand when fishing. Out in the current and deeper, the water was considerably cooler. I waded out a bit and dropped the thermometer well below the surface but still got a reading of 70 degrees.
That explained the nervous trout.
Most of us know better than to target trout when the water gets this warm, but many don’t understand why. As water warms, it loses dissolved oxygen. Basically, trout slowly suffocate. Imagine trying to eat with a hand clasped around your neck. Now imagine even a short period of great exertion and then trying to get your breath afterwards, meanwhile that hand clenches tighter with each uptick in water temperature.
I hung around and sat on a rock for a while. An hour or so later, the water must’ve cooled down a bit because the palominos seemed satisfied with their noses in the riffle now. Rather than try for them, though, I headed upstream to where the water was cooler.
A few miles upstream, I found 68-degree water and a huge pool full of rising trout. They weren’t the emphatic rises of early spring, during a Quill Gordon hatch, for instance; these were more in the line of wine-sippers with exceptional pallets debating which cheese or cracker best compliments the flavors of their Chateau La Fleur.
As a friend of mine says, you must first swish the wine around in the glass to unlock its aroma, and then stick your nose into the glass to breathe the many different flavors that come together to form this unique blend. In essence, that sums up perfectly the moods of rising summer trout. I threw a number of patterns at the fish in front of me. BWOs, Sulphurs, various types of caddis, but all I got was a few sniffs before the trout inevitably turned away and chose something else with more taste.
Meanwhile, the sky grew darker by the second. My last hope was a size 20 Cahill Sparkle Dun. Tying it on was harder than expected. I struggled trying to find that right distance between my face and my hands where the fly would magically come into focus. Years ago, I held things closer to get a better look at them. Now I move them farther away.
Want to know a phrase that sends shivers up a fly fisherman’s spine? “Midging trout.” Very few enjoy tying on flies size 20 and smaller in lowlight conditions. It can seem impossible to finesse the end of a tippet you cannot see into the eye of a hook you cannot see so that you can fish a fly you cannot see – in fading light and with dozens of trout rising all around you. That’s hell!
Eventually I got the tiny fly attached to my tippet and landed it in the vicinity of some rising trout. One of them had mercy and ate the fly. I thought the evening might end on a positive note, after all, but the fish shook off just as I reached my net out to scoop it up.
For the next 10 minutes or so, I battled the moral dilemma of whether or not to count it as a catch. It’s irrelevant, of course. I only wanted to count it since the next 15 minutes yielded zero takes, and it hurt my ego a bit to think of getting skunked. But I imagined going home and walking into the kitchen where my wife might be doing dishes as our 5-year-old daughter sits on the counter, swinging her legs over the edge. I imagined my daughter asking if I’d caught any fish. No matter how I cut it, the answer had to be no.
I couldn’t see my fly anymore, which is sometimes the case even with plenty of light! When using hard-to-see flies, I like to imagine a strike zone out ahead of my fly line. I calculate the length of the tippet and visualize a three-foot circle where the fly should be, and if I see a rise somewhere in that circle, I set the hook. More often than not, I hook the fish. When that three-foot circle swells to a 15-foot circle, I know it’s probably time to head home.
Ultimately, I determined I definitely had been skunked and decided to accept it with dignity. They were taking midges, for godsakes! And so, for the first time all season, I ended an outing without a trout.
Before leaving, though, I sat on the bank a bit and just watched the dimples of midging trout. The end of the spring season is always a bit of a solemn affair. I get a little sad thinking that another season has passed. No matter how much fishing I do, it never feels like enough.
In truth, this spring was probably one of my best ever. I hit some amazing hatches, caught a lot of great trout, and fished many beautiful waters. Of course, there are still a lot more of all three of these things to experience. Although summer often brings more technical fishing – and more midges – it can still be rewarding when you hit it right. Heck, sometimes it can even be enjoyable. I’ve had some fantastic days and landed a lot of trout on very tiny flies…when I could figure out exactly what they were taking…and the stage of the hatch they were feeding on…and got good drag-free drifts…and didn’t spook them with my cast…and actually hooked them when they came up to take the fly. Sounds impossible but it can be done!
Sure, summer doesn’t evoke the same level of enthusiasm as spring fishing here in Pennsylvania, but it’s all part of a greater season, a larger work. It’s another chapter in the book, and it’s time to turn the page on spring and see what happens next.