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I’m admittedly not a rabid fan of fly-fishing mostly because I’m not good at it and haven’t the patience (or the vision) to deal with all the nuances of delivery and presentation. The odds of my sending a tiny offering to a suspicious trout waiting under a canopy of leaves and twigs are minimal at best. I can toss spinners, lures and spoons with the best of spin-casters, but most of the time my fly rod and vest stay in the closet where they are safest.
However, it is just about this time of year when I think it’s worth the risk of leaving half my fly-box inventory in the tree tops because, if you like trout and salmon fishing, this is the time to be out there. Most of the year fly-fishing is a tremendous challenge, a mix of skill, knowledge and dexterity that I rarely measure up to, but for the next few weeks both species will be eager, enthusiastic and almost reckless in their response to a dry, wet, streamer fly or nymph that’s dropped just about anywhere on the surface of the water, purposefully or by mistake.
It’s quite likely that brook trout are the primary reason that fly-fishing was ever invented, at least in this country. I have caught more colorful brookies on bad casts to the wrong place with absolutely no finesse than any other trout or salmon species I’ve ever encountered in the 50-plus years I’ve been trying to perfect my technique. In fact, on several occasions I have caught brook trout on a fly dangling off the end of my rod while I tried to untangle my line, or while dragging a fly in the water while crossing a stream. One time I caught a huge brookie on a fly I was just about to change because (in my opinion) it wasn’t working. I had reeled up to make the change but the fly hit the water at my feet for a few seconds, just long enough for a 15-inch lunker to come out from under the stream bank and nail it. It was my best native brookie ever and I had absolutely nothing to do with catching it other than standing in the right place at the right time. Suitably impressed, I fished that fly – a Wulff Royal Coachman – for the rest of the day and didn’t catch another fish!
For the most part, these last weeks of May are prime time for brook trout and landlocks, particularly in small streams and wadeable rivers. Because my casting skills limit me to fishing water that’s within 20 feet of my position, I don’t bother with large rivers or wind-whipped lakes; though I do occasionally take a chance on small ponds late in the afternoon once the wind has died down. At some point just before sunset (or slightly afterwards) the pond’s surface will be stippled with the rings and rises of hungry trout that, up to that point, had remained hidden and inactive all day. Back in the day when the limit on brook trout was 15, even a duffer like me could fill a cooler with trout in the last 30 minutes of the day. The “dangle-a-fly-over-the-gunwale” approach worked for me and that’s when I was at the top of my fly-fishing game!
Stream fishing is quite enjoyable in May because the trout and salmon seem willing to ignore most mistakes in presentation or drift. They just want to eat! I like to walk slowly upstream and make short casts into inviting pools that, in early spring, are usually full of aggressive, eager fish. Because the trout are so close it’s an easy matter to cast to them, set the hook and play the fish without worrying about losing them to hidden structure or long-winded battles. It’s easy enough to lift an 8-inch brookie out of the stream and into a small net. On a good day I can take my (2013) limit of five trout in as many accurate casts and not send too many costly flies into the overhead foliage.
Salmon are a tad more selective in late May but my technique is simple and direct. I wade upstream, pause at the tail of likely-looking pools and send a nymph, wet fly or streamer as far upstream as I can reach without tangling myself in line, leaders and the shoreline alders. Once the fly hits the water I strip the line in quickly so that it appears (to the fish, I’m hoping) that a tasty morsel is getting away in the downstream current. If I do it right and the fly “swims” more or less naturally, I’m rewarded with a strike and the joy of watching a silvery landlock dance on the surface before, most often, throwing my fly and disappearing into the depths.
One disadvantage of stream fishing for salmon is that nearly every fish you hook is going to be just a tad under the 14-inch limit, which means you can’t keep them. To make it easier to lose (I mean unhook) short salmon, I’ll crimp down the barbs on my flies using my dependable Leatherman pliers. Every so often I’ll hook a 2- or 3-pound salmon, but with steady pressure on him I can usually keep him solidly hooked until I lead him into the net.
Perhaps the one time I am most happy to be fly-fishing is when I encounter a beaver pond on a favorite trout stream. Thanks to the efforts of the tireless rodents there is always plenty of room for a back cast and room enough on the surface of the pond to place a dry fly or nymph that, in most cases, the trout can’t ignore. With a high rod and a tight line it’s easy to keep a trout from tangling itself in the punji-pit bottom of the pond. Because these ponds are generally small, cold and deep it’s likely that trout will remain in them well into June, promising additional great fishing for fly-rodders who have not yet reached the “artiste” level. When the trout finally become choosey and the salmon ignore my best efforts, I don’t hesitate to dust off my old Mitchell 308 and head for the nearest bass pond!
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