Night Moves

Dan Donarski is back – this time with a creative twist.  Check out this fly-fishing story – do you know someone who could play the starring role?

(Fly fishing after dark on rivers like the Indian and Escanaba in the UP, or the Au Sable, Manistee, or PM in the Lower, are simply pure magic. Here’s a scene that could feature you.)

Like Christmas for a young child wishing the time was now, not later. That’s what the day has been like. Instead of Christmas the wish was for nightfall, and the hopeful subsequent trout-rise.

A breeze of any kind barely rustled the leaves in the trees during the afternoon. The temperature rose so quickly into the low 90s, that a perceptible fellow may have felt the rush of air escaping through backyard thermometers as the mercury rushed higher. Even those unable to discern this could certainly feel the breezes from tempers rising even higher than the mercury.

“Perfect”, he thought sitting on an ancient fallen hemlock alongside the Indian River. Mosquitoes tormented him as they needled him as relentlessly as the sun’s heat had hours before. “Just perfect”. Even now, at just a hair past 9:30, with the clouds kissed in the hues of cotton candy, the temperature was still in the 80s. Save for the mosquito wings, that slight afternoon breeze was a distant memory.

Sweat ran down the middle of his back, across his brow, stinging his eyes as it trickled from his graying hair beneath the well-stained cap. His legs wrapped in old canvas duck waders were as wet from the sweat as if he had been wading all day in pants.

When he got to the hemlock an hour or so earlier, the deer flies and horseflies, the stable flies and black flies, seemingly all that bites and flies descended down upon him. Nothing on the river showed promise. Not even the ever present skipper brook trout, the style that come so small that once he set the hook they come skipping back at him, were out.

But that was an hour ago. The skippers were out now. Tell-tale rings from their rises expanded in ever increasing circles on the river’s still surface. Most were upstream, just behind the remnants of an old white pine that never made it to the mills in Manistique.

Over the past 20 years he had sat here, watching the pine. Each year there was less and less of it. Succumbing to the tugs of current, the crash of break-up ice, and the slow work of various mosses and lichens it was not quite what it once was. Not all that different than him. Still holding strong, but the holding was getting more and more precious.

As the cotton candy clouds turned from vivid orange to deep red he opened his fly box, choosing a scruffy looking pattern that used to be called a mouse. Tying the fly on the line in a loop knot of 10-pound test– thank God for magnifying glasses– he tested the knot with a quick heavy tug. Satisfied that the knot was right he continued to watch, and wait.

Nighthawks and whip-poor-wills slashed against the purple night sky. Above them a crescent moon slid silently further to the west like a silent canoe.

Finally he made a concession to the mosquitoes and started to apply bug dope. He was careful of the fly and the line. Using the backs of his hands as the spreaders he kept his fingers and palms repellent free. A few years ago some fly dope had come in contact with his line and the result was melted plastic and another $45 for a new line. Not to mention a ruined fishing trip upon its untimely discovery.

Just after 10 he thought he heard something in the river just upstream from his seat on the hemlock. Straining his eyes he could make out a doe and two fawns crossing the river. The doe was sure footed along the bottom while the fawns flailed away in the deeper sections, forced to swim.

The deer startled a barred owl when they came out of the river. The owl flew down the river directly in front of him, landing in a popple, or aspen tree on the other side.  Displaying its displeasure of having to move the owl’s call of “Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-too?” echoed through the valley. It was joined by at least three others answering that questioning call.

His ears caught the familiar sound of a big trout feeding, that unmistakable sound of a big brown coming up for a bug, or a mouse, or something substantial in that huge discourteous slurp. He had once read that the sound was not unlike a pig falling off a diving board but to him it reminded him of an old girlfriend’s father and how he slurped soup.

Not long after came another slurp from the same location, pinpointing the rise. And then another from a bit upstream of the first two. Then another from just downstream. What was a barren river just two short hours ago was no alive with feeding trout. Under the cover of darkness, and urged on by the hatch of giant mayflies, the trout had come out of their hiding places and were now feeding. He thought that his old girlfriend’s father had all his brothers with him tonight.

He moved into the water slowly, gently making his way towards the nearest soup slurper. The water felt cool against the canvass and pulled at his legs.  Playing out line by feel he measured by sound the distance and let the tattered mouse fall near the last rise.  He used mouse flies almost exclusively at night, leaving the dainty mayfly imitations to the more cultured fly anglers.

In more of a heavy swoosh than a slurp the mouse disappeared. Raising his rod quickly he could feel the heavy pulse of a big trout as it dug for the cover of an undercut bank. His reel whined, his rod arced over, his face became taught. The big brown ran for the tangle of a bak-side sweeper. Putting more pressure on the rod, and from the rod to the fish, he turned it. Now the fish bull-dogged, straining for deeper water, straining to find the current. Soon, the fish tired, and slid into weathered ash and cotton mesh net. Twenty-two inches of Indian River brown trout.

The old man cradled the fish in his hands, letting the water run through its gills, gaining its strength back. He could feel the trout grow strong, and with a shake of its head and a thrust of its tail it disappeared into the inky water.

Five minutes later he heard another big fish. Again he measured the distance with his ear and sent the mouse pattern upstream. Another slurp, another hook set. The fish was now joined to the old man. Just as quickly as it had become fastened tight to the old man, the fish became unbuttoned. And, just as quickly as the bugs and the trout became active, they just as quickly quit.

The old man went back to the hemlock and sat down. He listened as the world went to sleep. Walking back to his truck his smile was wide.

Dan Donarski is an award-winning journalist/photographer and author. He specializes in the outdoors and adventure travel. When he’s not out and about he lays his head in Sault Ste. Marie.