Washington felt like home.
Maybe it was the two days of driving through 100 degree Idaho and eastern Oregon dry landscapes. Maybe it was insanely good burrito we got at the food truck in Olympia.
Maybe it was finally reaching the end of the swing, sliding into the last stretch of the boomerang arc, heading north along the coast, slowly making steps towards the east, our house.
Mostly I think it was the trees, the blues, the grays, the ocean and its driftwood.
Our first night was spent on the Pacific Ocean. We walked along fields of driftwood laying like fallen totems between the sand and the thick interior forest. There was a ceaseless breeze that kept the ocean in our camper and burned our fire quickly. After dinner sat and watched the sun set on the ocean. The sand skittered towards me and I would close my eyes but not for too long. I didn't want to miss the last bit of sun. I wanted to see the lightness of the dry wood begin to meld into the dark spruce as day left.
I'm still processing this place. It's fingerprints have been tattooed on me. There are only a few places I've been in my life that have completely altered my perspective. Northern Maine in late October. The saddle between the Upper and Lower Devil Peaks in the Siskyous Mountains. Predawn late August on the Susquehanna River. The Hoh Rainforest. It's primordial colors of blue and gray serve as a thick backdrop to the large Sitka Spruce and fields of fern that cover the soft forest floor. I want to go back with my fly rod, a backpack, some food and hike deep into it until I'm lost. 15 elk crossed the river right below our campsite as the sun set.
Our last few days were spent in the Cascades. I found some water full of Westslope Cutthroat trout eager to take a hopper on top. We stayed away from the crowds and camped in forest service land surrounding the National Park. We were reluctant to go, but knew we had to eventually start making it home or else we'd never leave.
I was last here two years ago. We came up to the Catskills mainly to christen our new-to-us pop-up camper and to take our dog, Whitman, on his first camping trip. Fishing was definitely at the top of my list of reasons to check this area out, but it wasn't the only one, therefore, I only got to check out a few of the hundreds of miles of great fishing up that way. This time around, we were just taking a couple of days to get out of the lazy summer routine we find ourselves falling into once school is out. We were also showing the ropes to a friend who recently decided to get back into camping. This is just to say that there is still a ton of stream I want to explore.
The water temperatures got too hot to fish come 8 a.m. each morning, so I only had a couple of hours of fishing each day. Luckily, our campsite was right along the river, which let me wake up, make a quick cup of coffee, let it cool while I put on my boots and rigged up, slam it down, and head out on the stream. The last time I was here, I wasn't tying any flies and was just getting into fly fishing. I went home with a few fish landed and a good memory, happy that I caught trout in the Catskills. This time around, I wanted to fish some of the holes I remembered from last time and see how I could do. Have I progressed at all? What have I learned? How is my approach different? What did I miss last time?
This is where the idea of revisiting water became so important to me. Like a notch on your walking stick that you carve after climbing a peak or venturing into a place that you've always wanted to, catching trout on a stream that you've already fished can act as a mark in time to show your progress as an angler. It's not always about the numbers or the size, seriously. I know that's said a lot, but it really isn't, only when it is. Having already fished this water, I wanted to see if I could catch more trout and hopefully some bigger ones on flies I tied. If I did that, then it would show me that I have grown in my craft of angling and in the art of stream approach.
So, did I? Yeah, I did, and it felt really damn good. I only got to fish a few hours each of the two mornings I was there, but that was enough time to land some really nice looking fish on flies I tied. The dry-dropper rig worked best, with a fat orange stimulator as my dry and a hare's ear or hot spot pheasant tail as my nymph. The brookies tended to really dig the stimulator while the browns scarfed up the nymph.
I was especially stoked when I landed this dude on a hare's ear nymph that I've been tying a lot lately (and catching a ton of fish on). He was sitting in a short, deep pool behind a large boulder sipping bugs as they flew by in the express lane seams created by a series of rocks laid out in the stream like three thumbs up. This brown trout is definitely one of the largest I've landed on a fly I've tied. Based on my net, he's between 17 and 18 inches. He took me up stream hard when I set the hook and I slowly worked him back down towards me and over to shallow water where I could net and quickly release him. This is one of those trout that will be a mark of a moment for me. One that I will go back to and replay in my head when it's cold and rainy outside. I'll venture back to that spot and work through my approach, how I added just a bit of weight to my line right before casting, where I let the fly drop so it would follow the inside of the seam and drop quickly into the pool right behind the boulder, how his take was subtle, but fierce at the same time, and how we played each other until we were released from that moment.
It wasn't just a fly fishing trip, which is a nice change of pace for me. The last few camping trips I've gone on have been focused on the water (something that will never get old for me). This trip took us on a beautiful hike to a mountain pond and meandering around back roads, exploring the mountains. The Catskills are beautiful. Life is good when you can just get in the car and explore with good people.
I spur my horse through the wrecked town,
The wrecked town sinks my spirit.
High, low, old parapet-walls
Big, small, the aging tombs.
I waggle my shadow, all alone;
Not even the crack of a shrinking coffin is heard.
I pity all these ordinary bones,
In the books of the Immortals they are nameless.
- Han Shan
#4, Cold Mountain Poems.
Head for the mountains; my first inclination and instinct when my summer vacation starts. I packed some books, fly rods, good food and brew, and headed up to Potter County to get away from the constant murmur of traffic and work that seems to have taken a strong, subtle hold of life here in Lancaster County.
The winds shot up Route 44, tracing along dark early spring clouds and short bursts of showers as I weaved my way down into the valley. Within a half hour of pulling into my campsite, I was set up and back in the car to pick up some flies from the Kettle Creek Tackle Shop, one of my favorite fly shops. The owner is always eager to share some stories and knowledge and he has over 300 of his own, hand made fly rods for sale. One of these days I'm going to pick up one of his bamboo rods. One of these days. I was on the water soon thereafter and quickly hooked into a mess of rainbows and native brook trout.
I got up early the next day and hiked up into a beautiful wild area. I only scratched the surface of one of the more remote places in Pennsylvania, and am looking forward to taking a full day to fully explore the stream.
The afternoon brought more rainbows. So many that I started trying new flies and different techniques, just to see what would happen. I was hoping for more wild fish, but I'll still take a 30-40 fish day over getting skunked every time. Every time a few bugs started coming off the water, a burst of wind would tumble down the mountains and put them back down. A hare's ear variation that I tied up before the trip landed most of my fish. In fact, most of the fish I landed the entire trip were on flies I tied. A big improvement over the last time I was up here a year ago where I didn't even know how to dub a hook.
That evening, after a killer supper of rotisserie chicken soft tacos, I ventured upstream and soon found myself in a thick haze of bugs - mayflies, some sulphurs, and even some slate drakes. This part of the stream held a lot more wild fish and browns. They were keyed in on Light Cahills and the evening quickly became one I'll remember for a long time, a memory that I'll go back to and re-fish when I'm lost in a daze of work and habit. One after the other, these trout would swoop up from their deep lies and hit my fly. Eventually, I realized that I didn't need to count fish anymore and instead fell into the upstream moment, looking for the next seam to throw my dry. I fished until dark and took a nice long stroll back to camp under a beautiful summer night sky.
I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,
Already it seems like years and years.
Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
And linger watching things themselves.
Men don't get this far into the mountains,
White clouds gather and billow.
Thin grass does for a mattress,
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone underhead
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.
- Han Shan
#7, Cold Mountain Poems
My buddy Scot came up to meet me early the next morning. We had a quick chat about the state of the world over some coffee and oatmeal, then headed out to a nice size trib teaming with wild browns and native brookies. Within the first run I fished, I hooked a double on a GW emerger and hare's ear. My first time ever catching two fish on both flies I was fishing. This was definitely one of my favorite streams I fished the entire trip. It's a classic mountain freestone with deep pools, fertile riffles, and plenty of room to make a back cast. When I head back up there later in the summer, I'm already planning on spending more time fishing it.
To get over to Scot's camp, we weaved our way through the mountains bordering a Wild Area and down into the next valley over. I love these long dirt roads that traverse the mountains. It reminds me of being out west and driving through National Forest lands. You could spend a day just getting lost on them, stopping where it seems right, fishing for native brook trout. There's a freedom you only get where there are no stop signs or pavement and if you break down, your walking miles to get to a camp with a phone.
That last few days of my trip were spent at Scot's camp with Kurt and Andy, helping them christen their new-to-them old-school-trailer that they rented (appropriately named Wild Boy Hops & Trout Camp). I am blessed to have good people in my life willing to share their places, their knowledge, their jokes (Kurt is the best joke teller I have ever met, a master of the lost oral tradition of making people laugh with great timing and a good pun), and cured meats (not a euphemism). We explored the valley, caught a ton of fish, sat by the fire while an old white skunk skulked around us, and ate great charcuterie. It was an awesome trip and just what I was looking for to start my summer. I explored a bunch of new water, landed over 100 fish (most on flies I tied), embraced some magnificent solitude, hung out with good friends, and had beautifully deep sleep each night. I can't wait to head back up there.
Ah, a week later, and I'm slowly falling back into the "home for the summer" routine - waking up, drinking coffee, riding down the bike path to Shock's Mill Bridge, reading on the porch, and planning my next fishing journey. I've also had a bit of time to reflect back on our Vermont/New Hampshire road trip we just got back from. First off, we absolutely fell in love with Vermont. The greenness, the mountains, the vibe, the water, Everywhere we went, there was water and there were inevitably people enjoying it - fishing, rafting, swimming. It was great to see. We will be going back there, maybe for a long while some day. Montpelier was especially awesome.
The first piece of water I fished was the West River, which ran right next to our campsite in Jamaica State Park (great place to put up a tent, by the way). It's large water and would probably be great in the spring right after a stocking. However, it was more of a Warm Water Fishery during the time I was there. I got a lead on a small brook outside of Jamaica that I got to check out one evening. Big boulders, gravel, black bears. Great stretch of stream that put me on some beautiful Vermont natives. Jess & I also hiked up to Hamilton Falls one afternoon. I decided to take my glass 3 weight and got into a few small brookies right below the falls. This is how we do vacation - find a great little hike that takes us to a good place to sit and I meander down the stream fly fishing while Jess sits and water colors. It's a good life.
Rock Art Along the Trail
Eventually we made our way up to northern Vermont to a cottage we rented along the North Branch of the Lamoille. I got to stop in at Green Mountain Troutfitters for some intel and flies. A perfect fly shop - nice folks, willing to help, and even to laugh when I said LAMWHAA instead of LamOIL (not Frenchy...). We really dug that area - vibrant small towns, beautiful meadows that roll right up into mountains. The streams are different up there than the brooks I was fishing in the southern part of the state. Giant, round boulders giving into really fine gravel. As the gradient increased, so did the amount of random "potholes" formed in the swirling water. I got lucky and landed some wild rainbows on a yellow stimulator and rolled some nice browns with a crazy looking bugger that I picked up at fly shop.
We ended our trip with a few days in the White Mountains. Probably the closest to feeling like I was "out west" anywhere on the east coast - dramatic mountains and alpine lakes strewn throughout. Cool place, but way too touristy for our liking. I'm glad we saw it, glad I fished it and landed some beautiful natives, but it's not on our list to get back to anytime soon. It's a fine line between preservation and exploitation. It's hard for me to enjoy a place of natural beauty when everything is monetized - want to go see this cool flume? gotta fork over 15 bucks. Oh, you'd like to canoe on this lake? 20 bucks an hour. It's great to see these places "preserved", but sometimes I can't help but feel like they are being "loved to death", or in the case of the Whites, bastardized by economics.
One last thing - I think Jess & I are finally figuring out how to vacation. One of the highlights - the first night we got to Vermont it was raining. We set up our tent and canopy and sat in our gravity chairs (the ones Jess made us buy and which are amazing) and just listened to the rain hit the top for hours. That's vacation. We did miss Whitman and his stupid little face, which is why we are on the hunt for a small fiberglass trailer...
And because I've been listening to way too much Dead this summer (sorry Jess), here is a great "Eyes of the World" (gotta love that Lesh bass). Watch out for that dude with the fire.
I stumbled upon the name "Raftman's Path" walking the river trail that traverses through the little town I live in. It was named during the days when lumber was a huge commodity in this area. The Susquehanna River was an industrial thoroughfare - bearing down loads of lumber from the northern reaches of Pennsylvania towards the Chesapeake. Marietta was a stopping point, a place for the lumber either to go to the mills lining its banks or shoot further downstream through pig iron smoke. Raftmen would guide the lumber down to the mouth of the Susquehanna into the Chesapeake - an estuary of salt, water, lumber, ore, eel and shad. When their job was done, they would walk the raftman's path back through the Susquehanna Riverlands of Lancaster County towards their homes. The path is now wooded and meanders through some of the only "wild" places left in the county.