I pick my way down to the river along the angler’s trail, carefully stepping over ferns and stalks of goldenrod wet and heavy from yesterday’s rain. The dampness unlocks an earthy smell of soil and decomposition that compliments the perfume of the river. I climb down the riverbank in flip flops and armed with a thermometer. Fly rod and sandals wait in the car.
A low ceiling of dark clouds broods overhead, threatening further precipitation that I hope will come. The river is tinged with a slight tannin stain that looks fishy, but the water is lukewarm to the touch. The thermometer confirms my initial sense: 69 degrees. Too hot for trout fishing, but not bad for mid-August. I bid the trout farewell.
Out West, August is described as “angry.” Waters lower and warm under a hot dry sun working persistently to dehydrate both you and the river. Tourists in brand new waders clamber along riverbanks while float guides jockey drift boats around every bend. The trout that ate size 8 chubbies with relish in July now require a bit more technicality. Angry seems to me an appropriate adjective under these circumstances.
At home on the East Coast, August differs from the beast encountered by our western friends. Though we share the issues of warm water and difficult fishing, we rarely see another person on the river at this time of year. Most anglers have given up on trout until at least autumn, busy with golf, barbecues, or beach vacations. I can’t recall ever having seen a spin angler dragging a loaded stringer up the bank in August. A calm placidness, hot and humid, shrouds the rivers.
Sultry August is much more fitting.
I check the temperature on a second river (too hot) and arrive at a third, a small tailwater ten minutes from my childhood home. A chilly fog carpets the water and spills out into the floodplain forest, weaving among trees in the windless afternoon. The fog pushes against my face like a cool breath as I stoop down with my thermometer. The water is cold to the touch and my temperature check ends with a satisfactory 64 degrees. With a smile, I return to the car and grab my three-weight rod.
I head upstream to distance myself from the heavily fished runs that flow along the road, walking along a long series of riffles. The water that chattered brashly over the loose stones in May now mumbles softly. The bend pool lying at its head, where water once briskly rushed through, is awash in microcurrents threading across a glassy surface. I tie on a small black chubby with a size 18 caddis pupa as a dropper and work the pair through the pool as best I can, struggling to achieve a drag-free drift. No fish eat either dry fly or nymph, so I continue upstream, slowly picking my way through pocket water and small pools.
Expectations change in August. Several months ago, this same stretch of river generously yielded wild browns and stocked rainbows. Now all I want, all I search for, is one fish. Such meagerness in aspiration serves to cushion failure—there’s always August to blame—and makes a two-fish day wonderful. Maybe there’s something to learn here, but it will certainly be forgotten by next spring.
Black ant, foam beetle, green weenie- I present a buffet of terrestrials to no avail. The caddis pupa is swapped for a black perdigon that now suspends from the beetle. Soon after the switch, the beetle submerges as it sweeps past a basketball-size depression lying behind a midstream boulder. Despite the strong visual cue, I set tentatively, and a small wild brown breaches the surface and disappears just as quickly. I stand on the bank with a limp fly line. The ephemerality of the contact makes me wonder if I imagined the whole thing. A comforting thought in the face of failure.
The clouds finally begin to release their bounty and I put on my raincoat only to keep my fly boxes dry. I leave my hood down, feeling the rain drum softly on my head and streak down my face. August converts trout fishermen into pluviophiles.
Through the cacophony of rainfall, I continue upstream, moving through the woods with a silent grace that I wish I could retain into the upcoming hunting season. And as if on cue, as I climb above a plunge pool a deer stands up fifteen yards in front of me, her red summer coat glistening with moisture. She is looking straight away from me, and I realize that she has yet to detect my presence. I track her gaze and two more does materialize on top of the ridge that the river cuts through, heads down as they paw the ground. “Excuse me ladies,” I say in a volume just above the patter of rain, and the nearest doe cuts a startled glare in my direction before moving up the hill to join the others. The three watch me pass below them with annoyed indifference.
Ahead I can see the dam and there is only one pool left to fish. The water drops from the spillway and runs through a series of riffles before the riverbed is constricted by the remnants of an old mill. Even in the low flow, the water runs deep and fast before slackening into a circular pool. I fish the tail out and middle part of the pool intently with the dry dropper but fail to raise a trout. I move up to try the quicker water at the head of the pool, and it only takes one cast for me to realize that neither dry fly nor nymph has much of a chance of being discovered by a trout, if there is one, in the churning, tumultuous flow. Hunched over to protect my fly boxes from the rain, I thumb through them and find a small black wooly bugger with a heavy tungsten head. I tie on the bugger and cast into the plume.
Halfway through the drift the rod suddenly bends into a deep arc, and before I can react appropriately, the rod begins to gyrate and dance as the fish turns broadside in the current. She goes downstream into the pool proper, making several laps around it that pass nerve-rackingly close to the jagged rocks that line the water’s edge. She then rockets out of the water, and I see that she’s a rainbow, too big to have been stocked this past spring. A holdover, survivor of Augusts past.
I eventually coax her into the shallow edge of the pool and slip the hook from her jaw. She rests in my hands as I admire her beauty. With one sharp pulse of her tail, she slips from my delicate grasp and returns to her home.
Stepping back onto the bank my phone buzzes with a text message from my mom. She wants to know if I can stop on my way home from fishing and pick up fresh basil for her. Yes, I reply, I am on my way home too.