Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Footprint

The Footprint
Copyright 2009, Erik F. Helm

The Tomorrow River had been fickle that morning as I picked my way up the boulder strewn pocket water casting a dry fly and enjoying some of the most spectacular cloud formations the Wisconsin sky could conjure up. The brown trout were there somewhere, even if I could only intercept or tempt them sporadically. I was hoping for a definable hatch of mayflies or caddis, but the mixed batch of varied insects made for a challenging outing. I had managed a few small fish, and spooked an old boy around seventeen inches from beneath a root cluster.

Coming to the belated conclusion that flailing the water with a dry fly with no fish rising was an exercise in futility, I sat down on a large granite boulder at stream-side and unbuckled my canvas tackle bag. Unwrapping my bacon sandwich, I began to eat my lunch. Accompanying lunch was a paperback of Robert Frost’s poetry. The perfect compliment to the wild countryside and a fitting distraction from the uncooperative trout. I found “Hyla Brook’ most enjoyable. This, I realized once again, was why I fly fished. Something about the flowing water, drifting clouds, and the infinite green colors of the foliage erased things from my mind which had crept in like silent mosquitoes to suck and dine upon my thoughts. Here I could be truly free. Had I been an artist, I could have tried to capture that moment in time, but a river never sleeps, and to try to paint a little snapshot in time could never capture the way that everything felt alive with movement.

After an hour or so of daydreaming and contemplative dozing on my stream-side rock, I felt it was time to begin my foray for trout again. The next bend of the river offered new possibilities, as it was shaded by numerous cedars. I had picked my way to the top of the little bend, missing one fish and landing another six-inch brown the color of country butter and honey, when I saw him. He was at the top of the next pool casting into a shallow riffle. Crouched down by the water’s edge, his straw porkpie hat angled slightly on his head, he wore an old red and black check lumberjack shirt as he puffed a pipe and peered into the water. As I watched, he quickly fired a cast into the riffle, hooked, played, and released a nicely sized brown. A minute later he repeated the performance. This guy obviously knew what he was doing. As I was getting up to continue forward, he landed a third fish, this one larger than the other two put together. Watching him fish and wading upstream at the same time led to my stumbling on an unseen rock. Regaining my balance by staggering for footholds on the gravel and sand bottom, I was less then quiet. The water splashed about my boots and cascaded onto my face. Looking upriver through the droplets of water on my glasses, I noticed to my surprise that the man was gone. He had disappeared without a trace. If he had waded the river, or burst through the tight brush, I did not know, but he was gone sure enough.

The trout however, were still rising in the riffle he had been fishing. A bug buzzed clumsily into my face, and as I grabbed it with an open hand, it was revealed to be a large spotted sedge or caddis. Fumbling around in my wallet for the appropriate fly, I found a fairly close imitation tied with a bucktail wing. Trout rose carelessly in the riffle often splashing water onto the bank in their enthusiasm. The first cast I made received a surface roll by a fish, but no take. The next cast received no interest at all, as did the following two dozen drifts of the fly. I began to change flies every other cast, and had worked through my entire arsenal of caddis imitations both dry and wet without a single positive result.

There is a time and a place for everything, and as frustration set in, I decided that I needed a mental break. I did not want to wade through the riffle and spook the fish, so I made my way to the bank and slipped through the cedars and ferns. The soil was black and rich, and sucked at my boots as I struggled along making my way up the river. Not twenty feet from where I came out of the river I spotted a footprint pointing into the woods. Wanting to follow what must have been the path taken by the other angler, I looked for more footprints. I consider myself a decent tracker, having spent the better part of twenty years as a bow-hunter, but try as I may, I could not locate his path. It was as if after making that single imprint, he vanished completely. Coming back to the footprint, I noticed a large caddis like the ones hatching that moment in the river. It was perched at the end of a blade of grass arcing over the footprint. When I grabbed at it, a funny thing happened: it never tried to fly off, and didn’t even flutter. Then I noticed the hook protruding from the bottom. This was an artificial fly. A fly tied so convincingly that it had fooled me. It had a slender cream body, antennas made from what looked like moose hair, and a tent wing which appeared after some examination to be a triangle of pounded deer skin which was waxed. Why it was here, perched above this single footprint, I could only speculate.

What I was certain of was that this fly was the one that fooled those trout in the nearby riffle. To prove my hypothesis, I tied it to my line and went back to the riffle. On the first cast I rose, hooked, and landed a fourteen-inch brown. The second cast produced a foot long fish, as did the third and fourth casts. In wonder, I hooked the fly to the keeper on the rod, and began to make my way upstream when a cautionary thought occurred to me. What if this fly was too perfect? What if that lone fisherman had placed it there for a reason? I imagined a scenario in which every cast I made with this fly would catch a fish, and realized that all the mystery and challenge would vanish forever. It could have been simply dropped by the other angler, offered up as a courtesy, or placed as a curse. I did not intend to find out. I made my way back to the footprint, hooked the fly into the blade of grass where I found it, and tearing off a sheet of paper from my little fishing log notebook, wrote the words “Thank you!” and placed it next to the footprint. The way I came to see it as I made my way back to the truck was that what happens on the water stays on the water. Whether skill, magic, or curse, that fly belonged along side that riffle, and I belonged at home where a lonely dog and warm fireplace awaited me.

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece Erik...very nice!

    Hyla Brook, ah, yes, excellent choice. Did our vigilant angler perchance hear the frogs shouting about the place?

    -scott c


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