By John Quinn
“The Delaware is done.”
“Well, you know, we’re from Northern Vermont, believe me, we understand November fishing.”
“Naw, I wouldn’t take you out.”
“Hmmmm… OK… appreciate you taking the call.”
My excitement at not speaking to an answering machine quickly faded as the gruff voice on the other end of the line attempted to dash my hopes of one last excursion on the water with my 13-year-old. Johnny’s football season ended the Saturday night prior (a bruising defeat in the semi-finals of the playoffs). The second excursion of what we hope becomes an annual rite, we had made arrangements with a guide — Johnny’s first float trip — on the fabled Delaware in the Catskills. He was really looking forward to being on the boat and the new adventure, but as circumstances would dictate, we were in danger of missing our opportunity.
I was raised in Northeast Pennsylvania. And while I’d not have been mistaken for a Trout Bum, I very much enjoyed stomping around our local creeks with my Shakespeare ultra-light and some earth or mealy worms. My specialty was finding fish; my pride was finding them where no one thought they would be.
Near my former home, there was a cool, clear stream that fed the small lake of our housing development. After walking the dogs along its banks a few times, I had a pretty good hunch it held trout. And I was right. My Dad and I enjoyed a new ritual: the night before PA’s first day of trout season, I would shave the barbs off all the 14’s and 16’s I had, he’d meet me at around 7:00 AM, and we’d hike the banks of the stream. And even though we were the only souls around, we made sure to follow the rules: at 8:00 AM sharp, the first worms got wet. Some years we would catch a dozen, some years we would catch several dozen. We always had a great time. And then I moved to Vermont. I think about that stream and those times an awful lot….
Johnny is 13, that border between boy and man. Already at about six-feet tall and a half-dozen cheeseburgers away from a chiseled 200 pounds, he’s easily spotted from a distance among his class of 8th-graders. It’s been a couple years now since we last heard the sweet, soft voice still employed by his younger brothers. Many of our conversations (unless talking about football or his Uncle Don’s muscle-car) are short, not quite sweet, and less than animated. “How was school today, Johnny?” “Fine.” “Anything interesting?” “No.” Both responses are delivered in a baritone semi-growl that would make Barry White blush. He “kind of” likes fly fishing; he likes fly fishing a lot more when Dad isn’t providing instruction.
A few years ago, Johnny’s Cub Scout troop was meeting to work on a fly fishing badge, and Dads were welcome to participate. Suffice to say, I’ve been eagerly consuming all things hook, hackle, line, rod-loading, etc, since. There’s a TV program I found and set the DVR to record; they produce a few episodes a year. The one in particular that caught my attention centered around a fly shop in Starlight Pennsylvania, the Delaware river, and the Catskills. This new (to me) information was the second time in a few months where my jaw hit the ground when I realized that I used to live very close to some of the best trout and fly fishing water in the country. My parents live within manageable driving distance; our post-football season father-son destination was set.
Thursday morning, Johnny and I started our 7-8 hour trip to Mom & Dad’s in Pennsylvania. Although I seldom actually use them on guided trips, I had tied a nice little batch of Caddis, Iso and Light Cahill imitations; tying flies, learning about the flies, and envisioning all the action they would provoke has become part of my preparation ritual. My flies, our waders and boots, our homemade 2-weight and 3-weight rods (outfits we never use but don’t leave home without), winter coats, fall coats, hoodies, flannels — you never know in the beginning of November — and most importantly for this trip, rain gear was packed as neatly as could be into the back of the SUV.
My biggest fear on this trip — and maybe my biggest fear in just about everything — is that Johnny isn’t going to enjoy himself. I visualize and pray that these are good times for him, that he’ll look back and smile and think, “Hey, that was fun.” Mostly I just want him to come back and want to fish with me when he’s his own man and I’m an old man. So I kinda have a lot riding on these little jaunts, and the weather was looking ferocious: cold and rain. He’s not going to have a good time if he’s cold and wet. We pack for the worst. I get the customary grunts and eye rolls when I ask for the 23rd time if he remembered his base-layer shirt.
Across the ferry and headed South on NY I87, a couple hours into the trip as we’re passing through Adirondack Park, just past its vibrant Fall peak but still a sight to behold, I see my phone light up.
“Hey Johnny, looks like I got a text, can you read it to me?”
With a little more emphasis, “Hey Johnny….”
With a look that bordered somewhere between pain and annoyance, Johnny forced his eyes from the mobile device that was consuming his attention. The text is from Wayne, our guide for tomorrow’s adventure. And the news is ominous: a serious weather system is moving up from the South, 100% chance of rain, probably heavy, no lack of wind. Dictating a response to Johnny to relay via text that we understand and are prepared for reasonably poor weather, Wayne responds with honesty that our chances are slim, and Friday is doubtful. Wayne will be out of cell range and unreachable for the remainder of the day, but will check in Thursday evening to discuss the latest developments.
We had chosen that Friday because Wayne was not available on our originally requested Saturday or Sunday, but I immediately liked Wayne from our first interaction: a punctual response to our inquiry, a friendly tone, an empathetic understanding of our need for a guide with the patience of Ghandi to work with a beginner 13-year old and put him on fish. Wayne quickly put Johnny at the forefront of consideration; while I’ll grind through any conditions, this trip was about Johnny, and Wayne was primarily concerned with the vision of a cold, wet, grumpy man-child at the front of the boat.
Johnny put his device down and we lamented our luck for a few miles. We were set to arrive at Mom & Dad’s at about 4:00 PM. Wayne wouldn’t be available to discuss for at least another few hours after that. We decided that when we arrived, I would hit the Google, and start pounding the phones to see if, by chance, anyone could take us out that Sunday.
“The Delaware is done.”
“Well, you know, we’re from Northern Vermont, believe me, we understand November fishing.”
“Naw, I wouldn’t take you out.”
Clearly, this interaction was not the Wayne-esque engagement I was seeking. Undaunted, (well, maybe a little daunted…), I spent a solid hour-plus Thursday evening filling-out website forms, finding phone numbers and calling and leaving voicemails. Mr. Gruff was the only one who answered the phone. My list of possibilities exhausted, I resigned to the hope that someone with availability would return my call and save our weekend.
It really wasn’t too long before Captain Joe came to the rescue! Joe is an Orvis-endorsed outfitter, and had one guide available, Anita, for Sunday. It turns-out Anita also has a 13-year old son and specializes in patient instruction. To boot, we would actually meet and embark on our journey at the original fly shop in Starlight, Pennsylvania that we saw on TV which sparked our interest in this particular destination in the first place! We were all set for Sunday; and who knew? We still might be able to get out Friday with Wayne and double our chances, but at the least, our bets were hedged: we were going fishing. We couldn’t believe our good luck, but as is often the case, the pendulum wasn’t quite finished swinging.
By the time we spoke with Wayne Thursday evening, he thought we had a shot at a decent trip on Friday. Wayne was totally cool with and understood our predicament in making alternate arrangements for Sunday and left it up to us whether to cancel for Friday, very professional and courteous. We decided we’d give it a shot, and planned to convene at our pre-arranged locale. About an hour into our very rainy drive the next morning, at about 6:30, Wayne called to tell us the river was rising rapidly, and the mud was likely to follow. Johnny made the call to abort the trip; I think he was happy for the opportunity to return to bed. I was ready to grind it out; I’m always ready to grind it out. My flies were tied, my gear was packed,that 21-inch brown by the rock just below the bridge was already taking screaming line from the reel in my mind… but this was Johnny’s trip. Wayne knew it. I really liked Wayne — hope to meet him some day. And besides, we had Sunday.
Turns out, Johnny made a good call. I studied the web links of the river gauges Wayne
forwarded to me. I was heavily invested in those little lines on those little graphs, rejoicing when they pointed South, concerned through Friday and Saturday morning as the lines climbed further and further North, easily tripling the pre-storm flow rate. By Saturday morning, the river was blown-out. But Anita was cool, with a confident and assuring air about her. Our orientation call was fantastic. I didn’t need to prep Anita about a parent’s anxiety toward November fishing with a 13-year old. Anita mentioned this river system recovers quickly, Sunday’s weather looked unbelievable for early November, Johnny and I were eager and enthusiastic. But that darn pendulum….
Sunday morning we arrived in Starlight at the fly shop a good 45 minutes early. Bummer, but it turned out the shop wasn’t open (and wasn’t going to be open that day). We took a walk down to the river, and the pendulum punched me in the arm. The river was high and stained (to be kind). It wasn’t crazy blown-out, still, I broke the news to Johnny that the day’s fishing was going to be somewhat challenging. But, the weather was perfect: chilly but not cold, some sun, but no chance of sunburn. The mood was still high, and Johnny was happy that there was a McDonald’s 2 miles away just across the bridge in Hancock, NY. Halfway through a hashbrown, I got the call, and the pendulum punched me in the other arm. It was Anita calling to tell me that her trailer suffered a flat and that she was having some difficulty arranging for roadside assistance. Anita still had some calls to make and some ideas, but we were
realistically looking at a couple of hours delay.
“Hey Johnny, still hungry? Go ahead, go back and order what you want — no rush, take your time.”
After 2nd breakfast, we decided that we would go back to the fly shop, throw on our waders, and start stomping the banks. We were there to fish, right? There was water, we had stuff; we’re going to fish. We cast a few times and caught a few leaves; I put my favorite Clouser Crayfish in a tree behind me and was retrieving it when I got the text from Anita. Turns out, Anita was resourceful and it wasn’t going to be as long as feared. Crayfish and the remains of a small branch in-hand, we walked back to the shop to meet Anita, eagerness and optimism returning.
Optimism really soared when we got to the put-in. A pair of fathers was fishing the bank with their daughters. I watched a 5-year old in a little pink coat cast a small spinner and reel-in a beautiful 13-inch rainbow! It was her first trout — I was sooo excited for her! Dad told me he had pulled-in a big brown just prior to our arrival. There were fish! They were eating! That 21-inch brown by the rock under the bridge reappeared in my mind. “Let’s go!”
As it turned-out, the fish in the net hauled in by the little girl in the little pink coat represented half the fish we saw in a net that day. Neither fish belonged to Johnny. It was not fishy fishing. But something happened in the boat that day. Anita was amazing: interacting, engaging, and teaching Johnny. See, us Dads know that “Dad” fishing is all about taking your kids to the fish, baiting hooks, untangling snarls, removing the hook from panfish after panfish and the occasional bass. But if there aren’t any fish — if that spiderman rod isn’t bouncing all over the place — there’s no interest. There’s rock-throwing, and a whole lot of “I’m hungry” and “I have to pee” and all that fun kid stuff. And even though Johnny is well past his rock-throwing stage, Dad still assumed that he had to catch fish to have a good time fishing.
But I watched him this day, and listened. He spoke to Anita. He asked questions. He was chatty… if not quite eloquent, certainly more than one-word grunts. He beamed when she complimented him. He didn’t cower in fear when he put his fly in the trees on the banks for the 2nd time in 10 minutes, afraid to tell Dad. And yes, he really liked lunch on the boat, but even more so, he liked that Anita asked him to test-cast the new Orvis Helius 3 and solicited his opinion. He was proud… OK, who am I kidding…. I was proud to hear Anita complimenting Johnny on a solid backcast, avoiding the typical beginner’s propensity for going back too far. Johnny was growing before my eyes.
I was thrilled when I saw him hook-up; he was so focussed. It was a perfect cast near the bank, perfect mend, absolutely no hesitation on the hook-set. He had him! We all saw three flashes of silver and a roll… and the fish was gone. My heart sank into my stomach. Johnny calmly asked, “What did I do wrong?” In unison, Anita and I responded, “Absolutely nothing.” Johnny set his jaw and nodded his head, solemn in this knowledge.
I couldn’t have been more disappointed as we approached the take-out. All of the ups and downs of the weekend, the 7-hour drive from Vermont, the rain, the on-again, off-again guided trip, the flat tire, the stained river, the pink coat, the perfect weather — even witnessing my first BWO hatch — and my boy didn’t catch a fish. I could feel my sails hanging limply, no wind.
Driving home, I glanced over at Johnny. He wasn’t staring at his mobile device. He was looking out the window, but he was smiling. I could almost see and hear him thinking about his day on the water, and there was a definite smile on his face.
“How’re you doing, Bud? I’m soooo sorry you didn’t catch a fish.”
“Dad, I had a really good time.”
“Really?? You’d want to go again?”
Half-chuckle, half-snort, Johnny replied, “Yeah, of course!”
I love November fishing.
There really is a 21-inch brown at the rock just beneath the bridge. I saw him for one roll and one head shake before he spit my nymph. Anita graciously agreed to not show me the picture she has of her successful conquest of that fish. Instead, she’ll be floating me past that rock another trip or two come this Spring with an almost 14-year old who will hopefully be avoiding the trees on the banks… 🙂
For information on fishing the Delaware: crosscurrentguideservice.com/