By Sam Larson
The sky presses close overhead, dark grey and rippled with the texture of winter storm clouds. There’s no wind. Just the overwhelming stillness of the first autumn day where winter starts knocking on the door and summer packs her bags to take the long road south for the season. I have my tenkara rod and gear with me, chest pack laid over top my wind shell and net swinging back and forth from my shoulders, but my rod isn’t rigged up yet. The collapsed tenkara rod swings easily in my hand as I stomp down the path in my wading boots.
I’m walking in the creek and remembering trout. I know this river, have walked it almost my whole life, and each bend and sandbar has its memory. At the foot of the bridge I stop think about the big brookie that holds here, with his small kype and dark black streaks around his jaw blending into a rich swirl of spawning colors. He’s the king of a stream where fish multiply, stunt, and rarely top eight inches. I wonder where he is, whether he’s sunk down low in the cold water, preparing for winter, or whether he’s given up his hard-fought climb to the top of this particular food chain, tumbled downstream over rocks and riffles to be picked apart by other, lesser fish.
Depressing thoughts, I tell myself… Autumn thoughts.
Above the bridge is a stretch that I don’t fish. In the spring and summer it’s too overgrown, a tunnel of trees and brush that meet and intertwine overhead. In this part of the creek flies migrate to the trees by way of my backcast, forming a sparse, tattered constellation of feathers, hooks, and tippet in the branches. I leave this part of the river to the fish and the dappled, leafy shade. But autumn strips the leaves and brush from the banks and, for the first time since last winter, I can see the bones of the river; the gravel and sand rippling along the bottom, the splash of clear water, and the stark, rocky banks.
I wade noisily upstream, noting lies and eddies where I’ve landed fish, favorite spots where I can always find a fish that will rise to an emerger or a micro Chernobyl Ant. Next season, after winter, spring, and a heavy runoff have had their way with the river, things will be different. Old, familiar beaver ponds will vanish, swept clear by rising water, and new deadfall will redirect the current, carving channels and cut banks to house the coming summer’s brook trout. In spring I’ll come back to a river that I claim to know and have to learn about it all over again.
Stretches of the creek have accumulated names over the years: The Swimming Hole, the Cow Ford, and the Magic Stretch, where the fishing is always good. The Bridge, the Black Pines, and the Rocks, where I am now. In the middle of the creek two tall boulders are framed by deep currents. In late fall’s low water, I can approach and scramble up their backs, sit astride them and look up and down stream.
An advancing wedge of clouds noses over the ridge to the south and starts to tumble down the valley, bringing vague puffs of wind along with it. The smell of snow is thick in the air and if I want to get any fishing done I need to keep moving upstream. The granite rasps on my waders as I slide down the Rocks and splash heavily back into the stream. A pod of brookies darts out of the pool I landed in and vanishes downstream. I note them but keep walking upstream towards an appointment I’ve made with a few favorite bends, above the twisted bramble and trees of the valley.
As the valley continues to narrow I step out of the water and follow a faint footpath through the crackling brown grass. It traverses a steep hillside and rises quickly above the water. Through the bare treetops, now at eye level, the pebbled bottom of the creek is visible. Clouds continue to edge down the side of the valley opposite.
I feel as though I’m climbing into the sky, heading upstream and upslope, parting swirling tails of fog with my tenkara rod and splitting violent cracks in the cloudy silence with every branch that snaps underfoot. I feel small, one man climbing inside a vast silence. The physical presence of the sky leans in so close that it seems I could cast a fly upwards and play a cloud into my net. Or perhaps, where the creek recedes into the lowering horizon, I’d get hauled upwards through a river of fog by a bucking trout-shaped swirl of mist, angrily shaking streamers of vapor from its silver-gray tail.
My boot slips on a clump of grass and I have to put out a hand to steady myself. That’s the wakeup call I needed to stop staring at the clouds and start paying attention to the thin trail ahead of me.
Columbine Meadows is a flat, square-acre field projecting off the side of a steep hill. Beneath the pines in the center of the meadow blue columbines remain hidden long after they’ve faded away elsewhere. Above the meadow the river slows into broad curves across the bottom of the valley. Sweeping cut banks and glassy flats replace the pockets and small eddies that define the lower stretches. This is the kind of water that offers curious trout all the time they need to hover below a fly and pass judgment before they commit to taking a bite.
My level line tumbles off the foam spool in loops and whorls, nothing a few false casts won’t shake out. The water is clear and low, and the peacock and partridge soft hackle that I’d already decided to tie on seems like a good place to start. A puff of wind sends the line out behind me like a pennant and there is snow falling around me. The ticking and rustling of the snow on my jacket and hat brim is loud in the overcast silence. The dry grass whispers in the new breeze and my boots crunch in the gravel of the river bed as I walk towards the first seam, thinking about rivers, trout, the coming winter, and the spring that will follow.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.