The endless dark green ribbon glides by, ruffled gently by the occasional gust of winter as it rushes its way up the river under slate-gray sky, warning of its imminent arrival.
The river pays no heed. Ever onward it marches, ever relentless in its pursuit of the sea. Warmed occasionally as sun breaks through cloud, chilled again by icy breezes leaked from far northern vestiges, the mighty Elk cuts through the ancient mountains as it has for centuries, mindless of age or season, indifferent to anything but its own timeless agenda.
I sit still on the bank, perched on flat sandstone roughly the same size and shape as my hind-parts. Watching, waiting. Inhaling cold air, sensing its fresh sting in my nostrils with each breath, feeling the last vestiges of internal warmth from the Bloody Marys my buddies and I shared streamside as we rigged up.
I speak to the water in river-languages of the mind, and I listen closely for the reply.
An old abandoned railroad bridge spans the river to my right, upstream of my observation post, casting just enough shadow across the deep pool beneath it to cut the glare and create a window into which I view the subaquatic world. I pull my knit cap down tighter over my ears and warm my hands in the fleece pockets of my coat as I stare intently through polarized bifocals, looking for a shadow where there wasn’t one before, a shape moving against the current, hoping for some sign that I am in the right place at the right time.
Patience. Soon, if the stars align and the breeze blows true and the clouds obscure precisely enough but not too much of the warming sun, and the river’s spirit is in just the right mood, the game will be afoot.
Tiny mayflies, smaller than the point of a sharpened number two pencil, are waiting for the right moment to begin their migration from the watery depths into the chilly November air. They will be the last of their kind for the season, their emergence necessary for next year’s instars to repeat the endless cycle.
And so I too wait. Scanning my watery viewscape, watching for clues. Undoubtedly, beneath the surface, opportunistic trout are already feasting on the drifting pre-emergent nymphs. The temptation to go “down and dirty” is strong. Tie on a small pheasant tail or hare’s ear, pinch some lead to my tippet, work the deep current seams and see what happens.
But today is a day for dry flies. I don’t know why. Maybe the river told me so.
And so I sit, and breathe the cold, and feel its insistence, anticipating the imminent hatch.
Half an hour passes as the river flows on noiselessly, untroubled by my presence. Then, a splash. Subtle, yet unmistakable. The rings of the rise disperse across the otherwise flat surface of the Trestle Hole, caught up in the current and moving downstream as they spread out concentrically. That’s one. Keep waiting. Be patient.
Ten minutes later, another rise, near the spot of the first. A second fish or the same one? Keep watching. Keep waiting.
A slight movement catches the corner of my eye. Scanning the eddy along the bank I see one, then two, then a dozen minuscule baetis duns skating along the glassy surface. Blue Wing Olives, as they have become known to generation upon generation of anglers. My friend Dave Breitmeier, who lives and guides on the river, dubbed the tiny bugs of the Elk “Trout Candy.” It’s easier to imagine them as a treat than a meal.
Another splash, another ring, more bugs. Game on.
Slowly, carefully quietly, I make my way downstream along the footpath that borders the river, keeping an eye on the spot where the last fish rose (is it the same one I saw before?), trying to get below it so I can enter the river where the pool tails out, keeping my wading-wake moving away with the current rather than back into the still of the deep hole where it would undoubtedly spook the fish. Staying just out of the fish’s sight-line to remain hidden in its blind spot as it faces upstream into the aquatic smorgasbord.
I wade out across an ankle-deep flat, noting a half-dozen young-of-the-year brown trout finning in the relative safety of the tailout, darting about in the current to pick off the emerging nymphs before they can hatch in the surface film and escape into the November sky. Many of the browns and rainbows of the Elk are born here, but most, like these, are stream-reared, placed here by wildlife managers as fingerlings in response to occasional flows of silt from nearby logging operations that far too often fill in the spawning gravels like grout, choking the eggs left by would-be parents during their annual mating rituals.
Imported from Europe and the American west, these are not the indigenous Salvelinus fontinalis of the Appalachians, the char known as the Eastern Brook Trout. But human impacts on the forests surrounding many of these watersheds have rendered them friendlier to the immigrants than the natives which have been pushed higher up in the drainages to survive in the colder headwaters.
Still, the Elk and other rivers of the Potomac Highlands have managed to retain the ingredients for salmonidae to survive and thrive, even if they are not the original inhabitants. And this river, the Elk, above all has proven time and again its remarkable resilience. Fed by deep limestone springs in the porous Karst geology of east-central West Virginia, she rises up from beneath 4,000-foot peaks cold and pure, a veritable factory for the benthic food base required to grow large, healthy trout.
Some of these hatchery-bred fingerlings will, no doubt, will be breakfast tomorrow for their elder cousins who have made their homes here. But others will grow wild.
A few will grow large, and a few of those will grow very large, and the legend of the river will be theirs to tell to new generations of fishermen.
The juvenile browns scatter as I step across their feeding lanes to gain the right position to cast to their bigger, older, wiser relatives. Upstream to my left an underwater ridge rises to meet a barely-submerged gravel bar deposited behind the trestle’s footings. To the right of the ridge the bottom is scoured into a deep, dark pool where boulders and tree limbs discarded by the surrounding mountains over the eons have settled and provide cover for the wary fish.
A telltale line of minuscule bubbles betrays the main line of the current as it crosses over the deepest part of the pool. “Foam is home,” the flyfishers of old have said. Like a conveyor belt these seams collect insects struggling to escape their nymphal shucks, or those swept back to the surface by the gusting winds. Beneath the white line lay the trout, waiting to grab a morsel. Or two. Or more.
Another splashy rise shows me just the spot to which to deliver my imitation baetis, a concoction of olive-tinted nylon fibers and light gray cul de canard—literally the feathers of a duck’s ass, known for their ability to shed water and float high—lashed with fine thread to a tiny size-22 hook.
I play out my line, simultaneously stripping it off my reel as I false-cast to the side, being careful not to throw a shadow over the spot where the fish showed itself. The first cast falls short and too far left. I strip off more line and find my target, pull the line fast behind me and then back forward, stopping my forearm abruptly to allow the leader to straighten and the fly to fall softly onto the surface 30 feet above where I stand on the rocky streambed as the river flows around me, unknowing and uncaring about my momentary invasion.
A snout pokes up through the film, and my fly disappears. Line straightens as I pull back quickly, and the feisty rainbow on the other end rockets out of the water and dances for a moment on the surface before plunging back into the depths. I turn my reel crank frantically, trying to catch up with the fish as it pulls the other way so I can gain the leverage of my nine-foot graphite rod.
All of eternity seems compressed into the few brief minutes the trout and I do battle.
I raise my rod high and slip the net under the beautiful fish, a solid 17-inch hen with bright crimson lateral bands, mossy back and silver belly. I quickly pluck my fly from its jawbone and simply lower my net to allow it to swim away.
The trout lingers for a moment in the shallows alongside me, sizing me up as to whether I was worthy of her time and energy before swimming slowly back home to nurse a wounded lip. I wonder if she has conceded defeat or if she feels she has won, whether she is sulking in defeat or gloating in victory.
Another half-dozen trout would repeat this scenario as the afternoon wore on. Each one played the game well and honorably, a feat I hoped I was able to match as we shared the day and the river and the sun and the clouds and the winds of the coming winter.
For most anglers, the season ends a month or more earlier, before winter blows in and lays hold of the landscape. Many of my Central Appalachian neighbors prefer to spend this time of year in tree stands and woodlots gathering fauna of a different type, doing their part to maintain a balance our ancestors unknowingly disrupted as they tried to create homes and economies and lives in this rugged, abundant country.
But a few of us will fish the winter rise.
And my friends and I who did so on this day will gather at the bar later to share a meal and cocktails, and we will raise toasts to the river, to the fine trout we encountered, and to the ones too old and too smart to be fooled, who remind us of our place.
Tonight we will sleep, and we will dream of them.
The Elk River is one of six major watersheds that originate in a portion of West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest that is home to the newly-proposed Birthplace of Rivers National Monument. To learn more about the proposed monument, the heritage of the area, recreational opportunities and more, please visit www.birthplaceofrivers.org.