November 10, 2011
August on the upper Delaware can seem dreamlike. Dense fog is common in the space where Arctic reservoir water meets Equatorial summertime air. This is the space where anglers stand and cast, the space where trout eat mayflies. The dense fog obscures sunlight, making it difficult to see your fly, or locate trout sipping dry flies behind the creamy veil.
During one early August trip this year, the fog was flowing in and out, pushed by an occasional breeze, only to return to stillness. In the thick haze, I could see trout rising in the mirrored pool in front of me.
The fleeting moments when I could see the water clearly kept me feeling rushed but focused, concerned only with perfecting my next cast. The cast had to be accurate, taking my fly within inches of a trout's feeding position. I concentrated on landing the fly—and fly line—lightly, and that helped me ignore the icy water and deep, shivering chill in my bones.
I caught several good fish on Sulphurs earlier in the afternoon, but then suddenly my fly was ignored like a bad pickup line at a bar. I knew Sulphurs weren't the only mayflies on the water. Three sizes of Blue-winged Olives and occasionally Slate Drakes and Cahills joined them, as well as a few ants and beetles, which should have been more careful while traversing streamside vegetation. But up to this point, all the fish I caught had eaten my Sulphurs with little hesitation.
I was casting to the nearest brown trout, sure that its disinterest was due to some minute inadequacy in my presentation. I just needed the fly a little closer, or maybe with a little more slack in the tippet to defeat the myriad microcurrents that could be causing imperceptible drag. I got a good look at the trout when it porpoised in a small hole in the fog, showing half of its body before slowly
descending like a killer whale rolling off the Alaska coast. Its immense girth gave an intensifying feeling of urgency to each successive cast. I switched my size 16 CDC Compara-dun for a size 18, and the big fish rose, ignoring my fly. A Sulphur emerger also failed to inspire a rise.
After a half hour of casting and watching the big brown purposefully rise in front, behind, and beside my Sulphur imitations, I realized I needed to take an observation break. I stopped, and peered through the vapory haze to inspect the water, and that's when I discovered my error.
The little mayflies floating in front of me were no longer Sulphurs with a few olives mixed in. They were all olives. And the big trout, which had probably inspected nearly every Sulphur dry fly known to mankind for the last two months, was keying on the smaller, darker mayflies. Perhaps if this fish lived in another river it would have eaten a Sulphur, but the trout in the upper Delaware's fertile West Branch aren't like most other trout.
The first olive dry fly I tied to my long, wispy tippet must have been too big. It sat too prominently on the water among the natural insects in the fog. The fish did rise to look at it, hovering just beneath before rejecting it and sulking back to the weedy depths. I was getting warmer.
On the next cast, I tried one size smaller, and the Blue-winged Olive Compara-dun was eagerly consumed like that trout had spent the last 30 minutes waiting for it. I was so stunned by the gluttonous take that for a brief moment I did nothing. I just watched the fish eat, like a bystander watching a mugging.
When I finally raised the rod, the big fish immediately began peeling line from my reel, racing across the river. I gently tightened the drag, hoping to slow the fish without breaking my fragile tippet, but it soon became clear that this trout had played this game before. It buried my line, leader, and fly in a thick weed bed on the far side of the river. My line remained tight for a brief moment, and then collapsed like a deflated balloon. The trout was off in an anticlimactic split second.
Once again, a few Sulphurs began to emerge in front of me, oblivious to the struggle that had just occurred. I moved to the next closest fish and wondered, "Is it eating Sulphurs or olives?"
For me, a river or stream must possess several qualities to be considered a great dry-fly fishery. First, it has to have diverse and prolific aquatic insect hatches. A stream with only one or two heavy hatches, and few other bugs, just isn't a "great" dry-fly river. Once those hatches have ended, these streams return to what they really are—nymph, wet fly, and streamer water. Second, the stream's wild trout—and they must be wild—should readily rise to eat surface insects. I've fished many pocketwater streams where you can catch fish on attractor drys all day—fun fishing, but not the match-the-hatch dry-fly fishing I'm after.
A truly great dry-fly stream should be challenging. The targets are there, but the trout make you work to bring one to the net. You must study the rise and determine which bug the fish is eating, which fly pattern most closely imitates that bug, and which angle and cast provides the most natural drift.
Because of pollution and other degradations, few streams that I've fished in the East reach my lofty qualifications as great dry-fly fisheries. But one does—the upper Delaware River. Rumors of the Delaware's demise from catastrophic floods, insufficient water releases, and invasive didymo have been largely exaggerated. High water in the spring of 2011 limited dry-fly fishing opportunities for wading anglers. But the excellent fishing conditions in the West Branch during the summer, created partly by an improved water-release plan, provided some of the best dry-fly fishing I've witnessed anywhere in the last decade.
The water releases were cold, leaving the reservoir at temperatures in the low 40s. This created the odd summer phenomenon where, even on a 90-degree day, the water needed to warm up before the bugs began to emerge. This usually happened just after noon, creating opportunities for commuting fly fishers like me to leave home at 9 A.M., drive three hours to the West Branch, and get to the river with plenty of time to await the first rise.
Though I relished and took advantage of this opportunity all summer, my wife didn't always see it with the same enthusiasm. Perhaps it was one too many days where I glanced at her over morning coffee and announced, "I'm going to New York. I'll probably be back tonight."
Every afternoon it took the trout a little while to notice the Sulphurs affixed to the water's surface. I imagined that the fish were already feeding on nymphs before I'd see the first nose break the surface film. But I wasn't even tempted to tie a wet fly to my leader. I knew the fish would rise. This summer, they rose every day—at least every day that I fished.
In the upper half of the West Branch, the Sulphurs were the first mayflies of the day, but they were usually followed by a parade of multi-sized Blue-winged Olives. Smattered among the Sulphurs and olives were many other insects: Cahills, Slate Drakes, various caddis, crane flies, and always some terrestrials.
In early summer, the fish were less discriminating. There were more Sulphurs than any other bugs on the water so that's what they usually ate. As summer progressed, the fishing became more technical, the Sulphurs began to diminish in both size and numbers, and the fish became wise. A steady stream of fly fishers helped with their education.
The West Branch's physical characteristics exacerbate the river's technical fishing. It looks like a typical Eastern smallmouth bass river with long, flat pools connected by comparatively short riffles. These long, flatwater pools create feeding lies where all food items can be carefully scrutinized as they slowly pass by.
Some of the trout are cruisers, necessitating hurried yet accurate casts to reach the fish before they move to another spot. Other trout maintain fixed positions, or meander around a small territory.
The meandering fish, which often lazily glide a couple of feet in one direction, then haphazardly to another, eating mayflies as they go, are often the ones you really want to catch. They have strained my marriage, frazzled my nerves, and emptied my wallet by forcing me to drive six hours (round-trip) to try to catch them, with gas hovering at just under $4 per gallon.
The West Branch is big water by Eastern standards, and it requires casting skills not usually required in the small limestone streams near my home. The fish are famously wary of boats and wading anglers, so you can't wade too closely—this is especially true in flat pools during daylight hours.
Distance casts, sometimes 40 feet or more, are usually accompanied by long leaders. My usual leader and tippet combination for West Branch summer dry-fly fishing is about 15 feet long, tapered to 6X fluorocarbon tippet. Because the wide river plain provides few sheltered areas, you sometimes have to cast these long leaders into a wind that can range from a slight breeze to a mild gale capable of blowing drift boats upstream.
Even expert fly fishers struggle on the West Branch if they attempt to cast upstream to the trout rising in glassy pools. Delaware regulars have learned that the best drifts are accomplished with casts quartering slightly downstream with a reach cast, so the trout sees the fly first, and the leader never passes directly over the fish. It's the same presentation that's preferred on the Henry's Fork, Silver Creek, and other difficult fisheries in the West.
Even if you come armed with the appropriate tackle, finely tuned casting skills, and the right flies, you may still struggle if you're not observant, as my previous anecdote illustrates.
But that's how it is with a great, technical dry-fly fishery. You don't just tie a fly to your leader at the car and begin catching fish. The river shows you what the fish want, and then you comply or you get skunked.
Although it's a challenge, it's one you can handle. The only way to get proficient at something is to do it as often as you can; at least that's what I tell my wife. If you want to test your dry-fly skills on some of the most beautiful and discriminating wild trout in North America, the Delaware is ready. Are you?