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Fishing Sandhill MAG
Sitting tall, beyond the vermilion reeds that scratched at my face, I could see the two bucktail wings against that dark, knotted alder branch reaching out of the water. I had feathered it in perfectly. It hovered in the current, dancing with its reflection. “Kerploosh!” Glittering water exploded in a halo of light.
THUMP THUMP … THUMP THUMP. My 11-year-old heart wanted to rip through my body and flop out into the stream. At the end of my line its weight was pulsing, angling, wrenching for freedom. I had set the hook.
“Fish on!” I yelled. My ears were greeted by the frantic whine of line being retrieved by my father’s reel as he took chaotic strides upstream. The graphite arc stooped low, quivering with each shake of the fish’s head. “Steady pressure!” instructed Dad. The line whisked through my hands. I regained it.
Give … take … give … take. Time was elongated. With a smack, the fish turned its head. I leaned over the soggy bank, grasped my leader and guided the fish to my hand. The sky was clear and the last rays of light illuminated the tall grasses on the bank. It was May in Putney, Vermont, just down Sandhill Road. Dad and I stood by the bridge in the slack water, fly rods in hand. Sacketts Brook flowed gently, meandering through thickets of alders and standing deadwood.
“Whooo!” I hollered. Vivid red and yellow spots jumped out against the fish’s emerald body. I could feel its cool slickness in my palm. It was a ten-and-a-half-inch brook trout taken on a #12 Royal Wulff that Uncle Chuck had tied. My cast was delicate, an intentional presentation, a product of many casting lessons on the front lawn. “Nice work, buddy,” said Dad as he patted my scrawny back. I leaned my rod against the bank. It had belonged to George “Ace” Schwarzenbach, my grandfather. It was a seven-and-a-half-foot four-weight Superfine from the Orvis Company in Manchester, Vermont.
I kept that first Brookie. My dad took a Polaroid of me holding the fish, an old droopy fly vest sagging from my shoulders, a broad-brimmed L.L. Bean hat on my head. Rod in one hand, fish in the other, an elastic smile stretched across my face.
At the Sandhill pool, the water is deep and cuts far into the bank. It is glassy and the fish hover under the serene surface, skittish and aware. Herons stalk the shallows. Buckthorn and alders constrict the flow, and songbirds nest in the scraggly poplars. It’s peaceful. It was there that I was introduced to the tradition of fly-fishing, and it was there that I discovered a true passion.
My dad and I would drive over and peer into the water. Are those mayflies hatching? Is that a fish tucked over there? See it? Under the log by the far bank?
“Remember, it’s 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock,” he said, as he swished his line overhead only to stop it at the very last moment so that I could see the loop unfurl – line to the leader to the tippet to the fly, which fluttered and then came to rest softly on the surface.
“Wait,” I said, “could you do that one more time?” I mirrored his motions with exacting determination. My eyes scanned the water for the slight twitch or hesitation at the end of my line indicating an imminent shattering explosion of water and adrenaline.
“Keep even pressure,” he said. “Give with the fish.” He stripped in line and let it out. The classic fishing question always surfaced. It didn’t matter that I was new to the game, or that my dad had 30 years of experience fishing the big rivers of the West.
“What are you using?”
“Yellow Humpy,” he might say.
“Spent-wing Adams,” I sometimes replied.
We sat on the bank and pored through boxes of flies. Bright, vivacious Wooly Buggers complemented sparse and aristocratic Lead-wing Coachmen. They were clumped into the little compartments of those green, grungy Cortland fly boxes. Every pattern evoked some response or story from the depths of my father’s childhood past.
One sultry summer evening back in the ’70s, Uncle Chuck and Dad were fishing Blue Winged Olives in the Beaverkill River’s fabled Cairn’s Pool in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Fish were rising to feed all around them. This was a hatch, the ultimate dream of any fly-fisher. On one cast upstream, as his fly drifted toward him, a 20-incher rose up, swam with it for 15 feet, bumped its nose against the bottom of the fly, felt the hook, and disappeared back into the gloomy depths. They didn’t catch any fish that night. From an early age I learned never to underestimate the skittish intelligence of fish.
Fly-fishing is a game of wits. Catching a trout is the product of an equation that incorporates presentation, line glare, entomology, fly size, twisting currents, and a multitude of obscure variables. It is a guessing game. Many fishermen attempt to reduce the art to an exact science. But more often than not, it is the overarching theme of luck that dictates whether a fish is caught, refuses to eat, or gets away.
My greatest success has always come with the Royal Wulff, a dry fly pattern tied by the late fishing legend Lee Wulff. It has a slender hook – usually a number 12 or 14. The tips of peacock feathers are wound around the shank, as is red floss, one rich brown chicken feather, and two tufts of white buck-tail. It’s stunning, the noblest fly in my box.
That spring when I was home with a fever, I curled up in bed and watched “A River Runs Through It.” Brad Pitt made an excellent case for fly-fishing as the ultimate man’s sport. In one scene he hooks a fish, loses his footing, and is sucked through raging Montana rapids as he fights the fish, ultimately raising a brown trout longer than his leg, dripping into the sky. I wanted to be like Brad Pitt – the bad-a** fly-fishing, river-floating trout conqueror.
Beyond Pitt’s antics, the movie introduces the idea that fly-fishing is an art, a tradition, and in some cases, can be a religious experience. My father and his brothers grew up fly-fishing in the Raritan River in New Jersey. Their father, “Ace,” was an avid trout fisherman in the mountains and streams of central and northern New Jersey. Uncle Chuck still hunches over his roll-top desk, winding creations onto hooks. He sends me vintage Altoid tins overflowing with scraggly nymphs, dry flies, and gaudy streamers. I am not particularly religious, but I can understand how this sport could provide a spiritual experience. Above all, fly-fishing represents stability in my family. It is the one constant. We can always set our differences aside and unite in the stream.
Sandhill has grown bleaker over the years. A beaver dam blanketed thick loamy silt on the bottom that slowed the current and suffocated insect populations. The dissolved oxygen levels in the water have dropped drastically. Occasionally I’ll stop to stealthily stare into the pool from the bridge. I don’t fish there anymore. There are no darting shadows, no rises of feeding fish. The occasional mayfly sputters through the air. But the image of that Royal Wulff vanishing in a predatory explosion of water and sunlight is vividly painted in my mind.
I can still see the way the light came through the alders, the reflections on the water. I can feel the thick spring air filling my lungs. Now my dad and I drive a few hours in search of bigger water and bigger game. I’ve gotten into fishing for striped bass at night on the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard. In the ocean, the elements are unforgiving, and that 10-inch Sacketts Brook trout is replaced by a 30- or 40-pounder that rips a hundred yards of line from my reel.
I often let my mind wander when I’m fishing. It drifts with the current as my eyes track the contour of my line through the cold rumbling waters. I imagine the still surface off Sandhill Road exploding as I replay the events of landing that first trout. My breath quickens, sweat pools on the cork grip of my fly rod, and the sun filters in softly through the surrounding trees, bathing the scene in a surreal, golden light. I am always fishing for that moment.