The Optimist and My Opening Day

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It was a frantic drive home from work to get everything ready for the evening fish. I couldn't get home fast enough. Not because I was short on time, but because I was excited to fish. It had been a long winter and I had an evening carved out for myself. Now it was up to me to make the most of it. The sun was peeking through a gray dome, barely. The weatherman was calling for showers by 8pm. I figured I could get 4 hours of good fishing in and maybe avoid the rain if I was lucky, but I had my rain jacket packed in case. The traffic was putting a delay in my fish master plan. In my master plan i could make my daily commute in exactly 30 minutes and get loaded in exactly 15 minutes and be fishing by 3:30. This was the master plan. I would get there just as the waters were at their warmest for the day and my assumption was that they would be more willing to take during this afternoon window, or so I thought.

The clouds were winning and had cleared out the parking lot below the dam when I arrived at 4, except for the lone minivan with rusty fenders sitting unoccupied. I was able to back up into my favorite spot right across from the trail to the river where I launched. It wasn't long before I had the kayak off the jeep, dragged down to the water, rigged up, and was ready to paddle.

The trees were just starting to break out into bright fresh spring leaves and the water was high and fast. My cell phone was charged in case the current proved too strong to paddle back against. I could, as a last resort, call my wife to come pick me up at the next landing. I didn't worry much about that as I had always managed to get back up stream, even in springtime. I had taken some time to select a fly for each rod and tied them up before I left the bank and then started paddling up towards the dam. I would use the leeward side of the dam as a break against the west wind and fish right up into the spill until I was ready to take the current downriver to some other spots in my address book. I could usually manage at least one fish before starting the float down river. I was feeling optimistic that my new streamer patterns would work.

Usually in the low summer flows, only one side of the dam releases water but today, in April, both sides were open and flowing. In the middle of the dam, between the 2 discharges is a kind of eddy with enough soft water to hold at least one pike or bass, and after fishing for its contents a wise angler will maneuver into the middle of it and have access to both spillways while being sheltered from the strong currents on each side. I positioned the kayak in the middle of the river between the 2 spillways, just downstream of that soft eddy. After playing line out of my reel and letting the current take it downriver until I had enough to make a good cast to the rip rap pilled up between the spillways, I began to cast. As I pulled back on the 9 ft rod, it flexed into a deep bend. Inch by inch, the sink tip line emerged from the water that changed from bright yellow into black as it neared the end where my leader and fly were attached. Eventually the fly broke the surface and launched into the air behind me. The rod begin to flex and load in the opposite direction, and after a brief pause, to let all 50 feet of line straighten out behind me, I powered my casting arm forward and all of that line sprang towards the eddy, unrolling smoothly to its end just inside the spillway and inches from the rocks at the base of the dam. I had forgotten how good it felt to load the rod and cast a fly. The long winter had dulled my memory but now on this first spring outing of the season I was pleasantly reminded. I waited a few seconds for the sink tip to begin pulling the 6 inch streamer with a big deer hair head through the surface film. A bit of the thick fly line caught in the racing current seam, and began to pull at the leader. The angle of the foam head directed the fly to descend quickly against the flow of the current. As more and more line created drag on the line, the current made the fly dance and roll from side to side as it dove just out of sight, like it was alive. So far the latest feathered creation that had hung on my cork board above my desk for weeks was now doing what I had intended it to do. It looked good so far. I gave it a couple short strips, then paused, as the fly retreated from my view towards the river bottom. Then another strip. The third time I pulled on the fly line to give it some action I felt resistance, and instinctively pulled hard on the line to drive the point of the hook deep into whatever fish was pulling against it. The rod thumped and thumped as the fish headed into the deep fast water of the spillway. After a short fight, and a splash of water on my face from the flip of its wide brown tail, my first fish of the year, a 14 inch smallmouth bass, was laying across my lap, and I was smiling from ear to ear. It is not often my first cast yields a biter, and so I was convinced that it was going to be a good night, and an even better season.

After 2 more casts into the eddy I was satisfied. I had worked its contents thoroughly enough that I decided to paddle up into it and work the edges of the fast water, below the bubble lines. I spun around so I was now facing downstream, resting peacefully between the 2 rushing currents on either side of me. I made a cast across the current and let my fly and line swing through until it was almost directly below me, right above where the two currents converged into one. The sink tip line was pulling my fly down into the zone where the fish would hit if they were there. The buoyant deer hair head that caused the fly to wobble and dive, kept it from snagging on the bottom and was perfectly matched to the sinking tip so I could just let the fly hang in that zone. Just as I was ready to lift the line for another cast I felt a sharp tug and then strip set the hook. I pulled in my slackline. The fight was on and quickly my line went tight causing the small pike to rise in the water toward the surface. The fish with all of its fight broke through the water like a missile from a submarine, and did a tail dance across the water’s surface in front of me. Soon,the hammer handle pike of barely 20 inches was laying across my lap, with my new fly in the corner of its mouth. I unhooked and released the young beast. I was feeling optimistic now, 2 for 2 at the addresses I had tried so far. Maybe, it occurred to me, that this one off fly created on a cold January night in my basement should have a fitting name.

The Evening Optimist , or ‘Optimist’ was what I would call it from here on out. It was a variation on a few different popular articulated streamers. The deer hair head is cut to shape like a diver head, with a steep wedge to push the fly under when pulled. I'm too cheap to pay $8.95 for 3 foam heads at the local fly shop so I tie my own from the hair of last year’s buck. It takes some time, but i seem to find it, and I take pleasure in using the deer hair. Palmered white bunny strip and pearl polar chenille make up the body on a size 1 hook. That's the front half. The rear hookless shank is attached to the front hook with wire and has the same body, but with flashabou, bucktail, and 2 white saddle hackles for a tail. With a sink tip line, the Optimist dives to 2-3 feet and wobbles as it swims back to the rod. Because of the buoyant deer hair, this fly can be floated over wood, and will begin to rise on the pause, which is when many fish will find it irresistible and strike. My box is filled with dozens of variations, colors, and sizes. Im hoping this year will be the year of the Optimist.

My new fly was working well so far. I pushed out into the current and headed for the far side of the river that gets less pressure, even though I was the only one fishing there today. Below the dam, exposed to the current, I relied on my anchor to control the kayak as I fished the far side of the river along the steel breakwall. The two 8 inch pieces of heavy chain were attached to a rope which slid through a carabiner at the stern of my kayak. I adjust the length of anchor rope by pulling in through the carabiner and cinching it into a one way rope stop cleat, like those used on sailboats. In this way the anchor rope could easily be pulled up in an instant due to the forward facing teeth of the rope stop, and then quickly fastened back into the rope stop when the anchor was up out of the water hanging off the rear point of the kayak. When I approached one of my fishing addresses, and could easily pull the rope out and let the anchor down to the river bottom with just one hand, and then cinch the line back into the rope stop. I learned this the hard way, but It is important to note that one should never put a knot in their anchor line, as safety is compromised by this maneuver. Originally, it was my thinking that by putting knot at the end of the anchor line, I could avoid losing the anchor and line, if I should happen to lose grip on the line. This happened to me once, so I put a knot at the end. The danger arises when the anchor gets caught in a rock or log, and becomes impossible to dislodge, leaving the kayak and fisherman stuck at anchor in the middle of the river. My first strategy when this happens is to pull real hard on the anchor line and try to jerk it loose, which usually works, but should your hand slip and release the line with a knot in it, the line cannot pass through the carabiner, and gets caught at the stern. When this happened to me I was literally stuck anchored in the middle of the river. I couldn't reach back to clear the knot from the carabiner. Luckily this happened in the summer when the water was warm, so I jumped out and waded up to the anchor and unhooked it from the log it was caught on. And luckily it was only 3 feet deep. In faster or deeper water it could have been worse. Without the knot, the line would have ran free through the carabiner and I would have finished my trip dry but without an anchor. It is only a last resort to throw in the anchor line and lose the anchor, but this solution does allow the kayaker to be free and paddle away unharmed, instead of in the river with the fish. This is especially true in the spring, when the water is still cold.

With my anchor deployed, I had the kayak in position just upstream of where I thought the bass would be holding. I figured with the high water, most fish would be holding along the bank, behind structure like rocks and submerged timber. This river, like most rivers, is set up by the forces of nature like a shallow v, with 2 ledges or steps leading down to the bottom of the V, where the river is deepest. The first ledge is next to the bank and extends a few feet into the river. Between the first and second ledge is a sharp drop off varying from 1 to 3 feet deep. The second ledge is next, and slopes off gradually toward the middle or deepest part of the river. This second ledge is exposed to most of the river current during spring, so most of the fish would be along the drop off or up on the first ledge near the riverbank. This is where I would focus my attention, and if I was right I might get lucky and catch some fish. I was making repeated casts tight into the overhanging trees and brush along the banks. After a couple of casts to one spot, I would raise the anchor for a few seconds, float downstream a few feet, and then drop the anchor to stop my forward progress. After this anchor maneuver, I would repeat another cast or 2 and then move on down the bank to repeat the process. The “slapping the banks” strategy is a great way to cover the water and find fish. After a few more casts and a few more anchor drops, I had a another decent bass in the boat. What surprised me most wasn't the small bass across my lap but rather the fact that after 3 months of winter I had pretty good control of my fly and line, and hadn't yet hung the Optimist in a tree or lost it to the submerged wood scattered over the river bottom. I was feeling optimistic that I would be able to keep my Optimist attached to my leader, for a at least another fish.

That this thought even floated through my mind should have been enough warning, as now suddenly I was thinking about not losing it, making careful reserved casts, and that was a curse. I should have taken a victory break. Now I was trying not to get snagged or hung up in a tree. I wasn't getting close enough. I was doubting myself. This would not lead to a fish. When worry creeps in and the anglers mind is filled with thoughts of losing a fly, he is not fishing freely with confidence, and is bound to avoid fishy spots altogether for a fear of losing the fly, rather than fishing with a fear of missing a fish hidden in the wood. There is a fine line that separates these 2 mindsets, and an easy solution is to tie multiple copies of a successful fly, so that the thought of accidentally losing one isn't so devastating. My box is unfortunately full of unique one off patterns, and no two flies are exactly the same. Some work better than others. After a few good fish anxiety begins to creep in. The odds were against me.

Soon after this thought passed through my mind my optimist wrapped itself multiple times around the branch that stretched out across the hole next to the bank. It played out in slow motion. I had a perfect setup, and as I shot my line forward towards the bank, I realized I should have opted for more of a side arm cast so my fly unrolled on a horizontal plane, below the branch sticking out. I didn't think this through until the fly and line were unrolling in a perfectly vertical plane. As the fly line began to unroll, i saw my leader hit the branch and watched my fly make six quick revolutions around the branch. Sometimes i've been lucky enough to have a fly unroll itself and fall perfectly into the water, but not this time. As my kayak floated by the branch, the line tightened until the point of the hook dug deeper and deeper into the branch until my fly line was stretched to its limit, eventually snapping the leader, leaving the tree adorned with a fuzzy ornament. I thought about making the effort to paddle into the logs and wood and recover the fly. I probably could have, but with the strong current, and tangle of logs nearby I didn't want to risk it. I thought of the deer hair cape and all of the flies I could tie and made the quick decision to float on by. I couldn't help but stare until it faded into the distance behind me, the bright white fur and silver tinsel fluttering in the wind. However, as long as the fly hangs in that tree I will know it as a marker and a warning to cast with care. After losing the fly, I dug into my box of one offs to search for the next lucky fly. The Optimist was working and now I had to find another fly that was similar or else my luck could be over.

I anchored in the middle of the river and put my legs up on the sides of the kayak to stretch as I fumbled through the mess of feathers and fur inspecting my work to make a selection. I was looking for another fly close to the Optimist, and I found one. This fly was similar up front but had a 3 inch white rabbit strip for a tail instead of bucktail and saddle hackle. It might be a little heavier to cast because of the amount of water the rabbit fur would absorb, but it also might work even better because of the increased action of the rabbit strip. I was feeling optimistic.

As I rested and tied my fly onto the leader, I contemplated the the cycles of the river and life in general. While scanning the banks I considered how much higher the water was now compared to the low levels of July when bugs would be everywhere, and fish would be crashing the surface eating. I considered how the fish would move, and change their patterns in response to natural forces like weather, reproduction, and hunger. I considered how I, much like the fish I was after, had emerged from a long cold winter, with a renewed vigor. I was changing my pattern. I was in a transition period. I was gaining activity, burning calories, seeking the warmth of the sun when it appeared, and trying to eat less, to drop my winter weight. The fish were also in transition, in their pre-spawn mode. They were also gaining activity, warming up with the sun, increasing in metabolism, and eating. The fish were getting their bodies in shape for the spawn, building some reserve energy, for when they would temporarily lose their urge to eat and be focused on one important task, reproduction. It was evident all around me, in the emergent green leaves and bulging buds on the trees, in the unrolling of first green plants that cover the soggy areas along the river, in the high water feeding everything, and in the first bugs popping from the river’s surface. Spring had sprung, and I was not living outside the boundaries of the natural world. I was a part of it. Being in the river, as a predator, reminded me of my small place in the natural world. As I drew in the cool moist air and felt the sun sinking lower in the sky behind the trees, I took notice of the soft sounds of gurgling water around me. I noticed the sound of the wind as it blew through the trees. I tasted the fresh smell of renewed life all around me. I had forgotten about my lost fly, my anxiety was gone. I was renewed. I was ready to paddle to my next address and ready to make another cast. I was feeling optimistic and ready to lose myself for a few more minutes. I was ready to get back in the zone and push away all of my thoughts about life and work. I was ready to hook another fish.

The railroad bridge was coming up ahead. It is the fishiest spot on this stretch of river, but also the most difficult. The river narrows, gets deep, and picks up speed below the bridge. The pilings or feet of the bridge create 4 massive current breaks behind which the fish usually take refuge, to have easy access to passing food and the shelter of deep water. Collected in front of each piling is a tangled mess of sunken timber, logs, and other riverine items. It is hard to fish because of the submerged wood, the depth, and the current racing through. This modern bridge was built atop of an older wooden bridge, which has been gone for many years now. The 6 old wooden pilings, which look like telephone poles, are hidden 18 inches below the surface now, and appear to have been simply cut of at the water line. During the summer months, when water levels drop, the pilings rise about 4 inches above the water, and these pilings also collect loose wood in front of them. Dropping the anchor in the area is hazardous because of the risk of snagging and getting the anchor caught. If one is able to anchor without getting tangled up, fishing is even more of a challenge. I started by anchoring just upstream of the bridge, and decided on using a heavily weighted fly with my 7 weight rod on floating line. I used a long 9 foot leader to try to get my fly down deep. I thought the long leader might cut through the current and have less drag than the sink tip line which was much thicker and more dense, thus more likely to be pushed around by the strong current. This fly had large dumbell eyes and a rust and cream colored barred rabbit strip body and tail. It was about 3 inches long. I made my first cast across current and upstream of the first bridge piling. I held my rod tip high to keep my thick flyline off the water to avoid the drag of the current. I followed the fly forward toward the based of the bridge piling, and could feel the fly ticking the rocks along the river bed. I knew it was in the right place, but felt no resistance until it was right beside the piling, almost directly below me. As the flyline straightened out below me, i knew the drag on my line and current were lifting the fly toward the surface where I would pull it back to make another cast. Just as I felt the fly begin lift toward the end of the drift, a heavy fish smashed it bending the rod tip toward the water. The rod tip bounced and my line went tight as there was very little slack in the line. I was playing the fish on the reel now, which always feels good, as opposed to playing a fish with a hand on the line. When I get one on the reel, I usually assume it's a big one, and this fish felt bigger than the others I had caught. The fish made a run towards the middle, between the bridge pilings. I raised my rod tip high to try to keep the fish away from any submerged wood, that I knew existed. After a short fight I had another fish. Not a huge fish, but bigger than the others, or maybe it just fought harder. I admired the brown vertical bars along the flanks, and contemplated how such a pattern was the perfect camouflage in a dark watery home. She was a fish who would kill and eat my 3 inch minnow fly because she was hungry or because this minnow was swimming in her yard and she didn't like it. She really hammered it hard. Aside from fisherman, I wondered, what else might prey on the smallmouth bass. I considered that the hawk or the eagle could take down (or up) a bass of similar size but not much else could present such a danger once a fish was full grown. It was the juvenile bass that were most vulnerable to predators, like herons, egrets, other bass, catfish, and certainly pike. This one had made it a long way and was released to grow and fight again someday.

I was satisfied with my fish from the bridge and felt like no more effort was needed here. I was really feeling relieved that neither my anchor, my fly, or my fish got snagged. I felt like I should get out while I was ahead, because I knew from experience, that so many of my other fishing trips did not end well under the bridge. Usually they ended with a flurry of profanity, when I lost a fish, or lost an anchor, or hit the submerged piling. Today I was lucky and optimistic about what lay ahead. Just after pushing on from below the bridge it started to sprinkle and I was startled by a the sound of a large splash behind me. When I turned to look, I saw the group of young guys standing on the bridge laughing at the big splash one of them had produced. They were banging rocks, laughing, and yelling, like typical teenagers, and I could smell their smoke as it wafted across the water towards me. It occurred to me that these boys were the likely occupants of the van with the rusty fenders parked at the dam. It also occurred to me that they might beat me back to the dam and leave before I could make it back.

I put on my rain jacket and paddled into the widening river with shallow flats that would be covered in lily pads and weeds in a month. I knew where the edges were, where the river dropped off a few feet toward the main channel. The river was not clear enough to see the bottom and knowing where the edge was without the clues provided by weeds and lily pads, was a matter of experience. During the spawn, smallmouth would fill this flat between the lilly pads and the main channel with beds. Today, the fish weren’t yet ready to spawn, and were still getting fat before the dance. I anchored on the shallow flat not far from the drop off. Switching back to the sink tip rod, I made a cast out across the current and into the deeper middle channel. A couple strips of line had the fly diving down in the current, and sweeping across the transition from deep water to shallow. I let the current swing the fly down across the dropoff and up onto the shallow flat below where I was anchored. Just as the line crossed the transition into the flat shallows, it got bit. My rod tip was low, aimed straight at where I thought my fly was swimming, so when the fish hit, I felt it immediately pull on my straightened line. A strip set was almost not needed because the fish pulled so hard against my already tight line, it set the hook on itself. This fish immediately jumped out of the water and did flip the air. After splashing back down the fish attempted to make a short run against my tight line which caused it to rise in the water again toward the surface, where it broke into the air thrashing about. After the second jump the fish was soon landed and released. Another smile came to my face, and I noticed that what little was left of the sun was getting very low and the sky was darkening. I raised the anchor and pushed down the edge of the flat a little further to repeat the process. After 2 more fish from similar circumstances, I decided to string up the rods and head back up river. It was beginning to rain now, and it would be at least 30 minutes of hard paddling to get back up to the dam.

I must be a little crazy or something because I've taken few people fishing on this stretch during the summer when the current is half of what it is today. They all had a blast catching bass. Everyone tells me afterward that they could barely make it back up stream, which is true, and that they would much rather fish above the dam next time. They are probably right, and I realize it should be done by spotting a car and doing a one way trip, but when you're solo you do what you have to do. I have to fish and I have to exercise. So it works perfect for me. I have never done as well above the dam as I have below it. There are largemouth bass above the dam and smallmouth bass below it. It's more like lake fishing above the dam, and while fishing still water is fun enough, nothing gets me excited like moving water. It's more challenging, but also much more rewarding, and the fish fight harder in a river. Some of my friends decline to fish this section because of the current. I will admit the current is strong, but I like it that way. It keeps people away. It also gives me a chance to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. I can have a great time fishing in solitude, and then at the end, I can get a workout paddling back up river. Sometimes, depending on the current it takes me 20 minutes to paddle back, other times it has taken an hour. I have had a couple days, like today, when the current is fast, and it seems that even at full paddle i'm barely making headway against the current. I've worked up a good sweat, but have always made it back. Today was no different. I was sweating and wet from what increased to pouring rain, but I made it back to the landing. I felt like and probably looked like my fly in the tree, beat up, cold, limp, and soaked. As I drove home with the heat on blast, I felt victorious. The fish weren't huge but they were many. I was fully satisfied. Aching yet renewed. The fishing season had begun. I was ready to tie a few more flies for the next outing.
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