When I arrive at the West Branch of the Croton River at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, I expect to keep driving. A recent two day heat wave and the only substantial summer weather we've had in weeks has me doubting that the water temperature will be safe for trout fishing...it's got be 70 or up I think. I park the car at a pull off just over the Butlerville Road bridge and head toward the stream. I can hear some commotion and it's not long before I spy a bent rod in the water held by a twenty something kid being coached by a fifty something angler. Actually, there is one coach in the water and one on shore. The shore man is impressed that I have nothing but a thermometer in my hands and the water coach comes stomping over as soon as the kid lands and releases the fish. I can't get down to the water well enough to get a proper reading so the wet wiry guy grabs it and offers to do it for me. I hand it over with thanks as the guy sitting on the bank, who wears slacks and a button down and drinks wine out of a red solo cup, compliments me on the forethought of taking a stream temp. Not many guys know to do that, he says, it's good to see.
The lanky water man and the wine man shout back and forth at each other about water temps and insect hatches as the twenty something seems somewhat quietly relieved that he is being left to fish on his own. He doesn't seem to know how to cast a dry fly very well but, hey, he did just land a fish and I wonder what he landed it on.
He stripping nymphs? I ask.
Nope, says the solo cup, he's got a Steno on. You know the Summer Stenos? They're coming off a bit now.
I pretend I do. I don't know why I pretend to. Maybe because I feel a lecture coming on if I claim not to or maybe because I want to appear to be a better fisherman than the kid in the water. Let's face it; all fisherman pretend to know more than they do at one time or another. It's the ones that always pretend they do that no one likes. This is just one little slip up for me. Eventually though, I lose the facade. Probably because it appears that these two guys are extremely knowledgeable in between all of their loud and splashy ribbing of each other. That and the fact that whatever this "Steno" is just caught the novice caster a fish.
In the meantime the wiry man in waders is back on the banks with my thermometer and a reading of 66 degrees. That's up there but that's still good water to catch and release trout in without doing too much harm to them. Whatever I don't know about stenos to these two older experts is made up by what I do know about water temperature. It's stated again, "It's so nice to see someone come up to the stream with just a thermometer. Good for you."
What can I tell you, solo cup, I know what I'm doing. Now about those stenos...
It's basically a Light Cahill fly, a cream colored sort of yellow but not too yellow fly says the wet wiry man. Jeez, I think, you couldn't have just said Light Cahill, huh? I know what those are. Gotta make a guy feel dumb.
They weren't trying to make me feel dumb. As a matter of fact they were trying to help me. Another thing fishermen can be besides pretending to be smarter than they are; too proud for their own good. Well, I'll check both off the list for today. The good news is that I caught myself and with one authentic glance from the solo cup man I knew I had to listen to what they had to say and that, as loud as they were being, they were genuinely trying to help me (the thermometer genius).
I tell the guys to enjoy the rest of their wine and that it is nice to meet them and thanks for the tips. I head back to the car with wishes of good luck. By the time I gear up, here they come again headed back to their own cars. What the hell, I think as I shout, "So one of you guys mind looking in my fly box and tell me which fly to use?" Here I went from too smart and proud to a common beggar all in the stroke of a few minutes.
They descend on me and my pathetic fly box with big chatty smiles, still ribbing at each other along the way. The solo cup a more steadfast demeanor to compliment the wiry man's goof sense of humor. These guys clearly make a good team. They point at the Cahill or two I've got in the box but say it's just too big. Solo cup ducks into his trunk and appears back in an instant with his own tied Steno fly. Wiry comes up and wants to snip it to perfect it's shape and they now start in on their fly tying abilities. Abbott and Costello would be proud. Between the two of them, it is snipped to their liking and I am thankful and gracious and they are really on their way this time. Hey, I yell, 6X? Solo cup yells back to use 7X to which I say something that I'd rather not type but starts with an F and ends with a UCK. Wiry looks back up and hollers over, don't you have any? I answer that I do but that I hate the stuff. He tells me to use a good 30 inches of it as he holds his bony hands apart. He tips his proverbial cap and they are gone.
Down on what looks like a good stretch of water I begin the arduous task of adding tippet to my 9 foot 5X leader. My magnifiers are on but the glare is brutal and the wind is not helping. The 6 gets added to the 5 with general ease but now it is time for the 7. I've already spent a half hour with my new comical and fly fish pro friends so I'm really down to an hours worth of fishing time, an hour and a half at most. My patience for knots is directly related to my window of fishing opportunity and if you add a couple of rising fish, you have a recipe for some interesting stream side language. This is just what happens too. I must've cursed that 7X the same amount that the old tennis pro, John McEnroe, would curse a line judge. Every once in a while I would look up from my profanities to see if anyone was witness to my madness. At least, I figured, they wouldn't dare ask to fish up or down stream of the pool with me. Silver linings, ya know?
Finally the set up is good to go and the little home made Steno begins to fly. It is a nice long leader and the fly lands ever so gently each time it touches down. I can see fish fin up to it and refuse a couple of times to my bewilderment. They are interested though and I am once again appreciative of this gesture of knowledge from the shore line stand up routine. One fish tries to take the fly and I am too soon on the set and miss the fish. I see a good splashy rise down stream between two downed trees that create a "V" of water. It will be a tricky task but I prove up to the challenge. I put the fly where I want it and I am feeling good about myself when I decide to let out even more line. Hitting the spot again with a good drift but no takes I strip even more line out. Wow, I think, this is the best I have placed a cast since--what the?? DAMN BACKCAST!!! And just like that I am in a tree behind me, and my fly and my 7X are gone. The 6X is frayed as well so I will have to cut it back to 5 and start all over.
If only my nippers didn't fall into the stream and drop into four feet of cloudy water. Yup. That just happened. More expletives.
I am down to an eight and a half foot 5X tippet for spooky trout. Not good. I have no nippers. I knew I should have gotten a new retractable nipper holder after the last one broke instead of having to keep bringing it in and out of my vest pocket. Hindsight being what it is...
Fish are rising around me. My teeth are not cutting the line. The only fly I have left is a large Cahill, the one that they said was just too big. Do I have anything that can help me make any of this work?? I dig through the vest...
Hmmm...I tie up the large fly on the 5X shorty leader. I burn off the tag very carefully. I then proceed to burn the hairs back on each side of the fly and just a bit burns off the tail. The smell of singed hair in the air and on my fingers. The fly, although fairly balanced in it's burnt state, looks ridiculous with it's blackened outline. Hey, at least it's the right size I think as I start to chuckle at the idiocy of it all. I could have just packed it in and went home. It's just about time anyway.
I actually say out loud, "Imagine this is the damn fly I get a take on", and wouldn't you know it, I do. I hook a beautiful 10 inch brown trout on the ugliest and smelliest fly I've ever used on a leader that a small-mouth bass might have passed up.
It is hammered home again to me today that there are always unknowns in this wonderful sport and that there are no "rules of thumb". That, and a couple of funny new friends on a 66 degree stream are just a few of the many reasons that I love this sport so much.