by Michael Thane
Although I had fished this tailwater for twenty-seven years, it was not my home river; that title belonged to an obscure small freestone stream 150 miles to the west. Perhaps from jealousy, the river received me with the chill indifference of an ex-girlfriend as I waded into my favorite pool, curiously vacant of other fishermen on this warm late-May afternoon, and took position just upstream from where two current seams collide. Large, Mensa-member rainbows, browns, and brook trout patrolled this heavily pressured river, where cobweb tippets, minuscule dries, and micronymphs ruled, and where a two-fish day was accepted with astonished gratitude. As afternoon shadows overtook the pool, trout began to rise to a sparse mixed hatch of midges, small caddis, and occasional sulfurs. From streamside brush a flock of cedar waxwings appeared, who with devastating accuracy consumed each caddis and dun midair with faint clips of their beaks. One intrepid waxwing desperately wished to perch on my rod and hat, diverting each time at the last second as prudence took hold. Slow to abandon nymphing given my distracted state of mind, eventually I cut off my Hare’s Ear and shot, attached fresh tippet, and knotted on a Sulfur emerger pattern of my own design.
It had been a brutal two weeks occupied entirely by my father’s rapid medical decline and his final hospitalization for intractable pneumonia. As eldest son and sole physician in my family, it fell to me to help my siblings understand that Dad’s condition was hopeless, that his death was imminent, and that further treatment was futile. Hope gave way to grim acceptance during a dismal breakfast meeting in the hospital cafeteria, and we agreed that my father should begin comfort measures only and hospice care.
My father was a master plumber with a poet’s soul, an autodidact of complex intellect, a gentleman farmer in retirement. With a plumber’s wages, my parents somehow purchased an early-nineteenth-century Catskill dairy farm as our summer place, complete with Greek Revival farmhouse, two barns, and assorted outbuildings. The farmhouse featured a gravity-fed water line to the kitchen sink from a hillside springhouse, a shallow well for drinking water, electricity of doubtful reliability, wood stoves for heat, and a three-seat outhouse. Our valley had received electricity from the Rural Electrification Administration a mere twenty-one years before my parents’ purchase. All local roads were dirt, treated with oil and stone by each farmhouse to minimize the billowing summer dust kicked up by tractors and the very occasional car. Ours was only the third family to own the property since the French and Indian War: the first European settlers were Bells and their descendants, followed by MacArthurs, followed by us.
Each summer my siblings and I gleefully regressed to early-nineteenth-century standards of hygiene as my brave mother coped with the primitive conditions; my father drove from Weehawken on Friday nights to join us on the weekends. My brothers and I worked the area hayfields shirtless and sunburned, hoisting 40-pound bales onto tractor-drawn hay wagons as field voles skittered into the jaws of the farmer’s dogs; our pay was a half-gallon of Neapolitan ice cream at day’s end. Most summer nights we sat together on the porch, seeking the occasional fickle breeze from our hilltop woodlot, watching bats and insects dart about the barnyard security light while distant thunderstorms quietly illuminated the Catskill high peaks. One hot August night we ran a half mile from our woodlot camp site to the farmhouse as a rogue thunderstorm toppled trees, flattened our army surplus tent, and raked the hayfield with lightning strikes, hail, and horizontal rain; quite by accident my siblings and I survived the gauntlet to arrive on the farmhouse porch drenched in sweat, rain, and abject terror.
Winter visits to the farm teetered on the keen edge of survival: buckets of water hand-cranked from the well for drinking and cooking, woodstoves stoked to incandescence, communal sleep with my siblings in the great room on the coldest nights, rushed trips to the outhouse through arctic cold. On a subzero January night, my fearless girlfriend (now my wife) rescued a drunken, hypothermic farmhand who had floundered through the drifts to our door; Carol sat the stranger by the kitchen woodstove, draped him with blankets, and gave him hot coffee while I sat at the kitchen table, loaded shotgun in conspicuously easy reach. Formative experiences like these doubtless made me the sole Boston physician able to drive a tractor, bale hay, fell trees, keep bees, deliver a calf, and (after verdict of hayfield trespass) cleanly dispatch a woodchuck at 70 yards—with iron sights.
Of greatest importance to me was the brook trout stream due west in a neighboring valley and county, more properly a home creek than home river, this a minor tributary to the main stem Susquehanna. Countless feeder brooks gathered to form several branches, which in turn converged to form the creek that flowed through forest, bottomland pasture, and wetland. In this well-watered landscape of limestone, karst, and shale, streambed springs kept trout-friendly temperatures for miles downstream through the hottest summer weather. I was introduced to its potential on a rainy April day while coasting my bicycle in an intemperate, muddy, high-speed glissade down the steep road into the next valley. I slewed to a stop on the roadway bridge to watch an angler bait fishing downstream, rod propped on a forked stick next to his worm can.
Recognizing him as a coworker from the hayfields, I shouted “Richie! What are you fishing for?” above the current’s noise. Richie shouted back “Speckled trout! Look!” and held high a stringer of two brook trout as proof. One frantic hour later, I returned with my fly rod and a handful of Brown Hackle wet flies to find the pool deserted; through intermittent rain squalls, I caught and released six penny-bright brook trout from a quarter-mile stretch of river before surrendering to the weather and pedaling home soaked, mud caked, and entirely smitten.
A self-described casual fisherman, my father introduced me to the sport as a toddler, then watched my childhood obsession with fishing progress from bait to lures to flies. In New Jersey I fished the Hackensack River after school for pumpkinseeds and perch with my first crudely tied flies plopped between discarded tires and other jetsam, an urban exercise in casting accuracy. My first fly-caught trout came from the Big Flat Brook adjacent to our family’s tent platform. From Worthington State Forest’s campsite 56, I fly fished for smallmouth, rock bass, and shad as big-band music wafted across the “big” Delaware from Fred Waring’s Shawnee Inn. In the Catskills I fished for Susquehanna-strain native brook trout on my home river and others, exploring upstream with fly rod and shoulder-slung .22, oblivious to property lines, barbed wire, livestock, and (mostly) tolerant farmers. From the Noll Guide to Trout Flies, I learned to tie Brown Bivisibles and Brown Hackles, the only two flies listed that required no wings and for which I had all necessary materials. With allowance and lawn-mowing money, I bought better tackle and materials, tied flies and tapered leaders in my attic bedroom, and built fly rods and spinning rods in our garage. I wrote to Wes Jordan, who with great kindness advised me about which Orvis rod blanks I could afford on a sixteen-year-old’s meager budget (none). I hitchhiked from Cornell to the Catskills, toting rod tube and texts, and spent spring study periods alone at the farm; I fished each day and studied at night by the muttering woodstove as late April rainstorms lashed the farmhouse and filled the feeder creeks.
Infrequently my father joined me to fish the Beaverkill, the Delaware’s West Branch, the Susquehanna, and other local streams. Using rod, leader, and flies of my construction, he caught the occasional trout to the mutual surprise of angler and fish, always while preoccupied with the task of staying upright in his waders. Catch and release came naturally to me, given my father’s aversion to killing without purpose and my mother’s propensity to cry when shown my catch. As taught by my parents’ example, all members of my family practiced mandatory catch and release of insects, spiders, and other unfortunates that strayed into the farmhouse; these were invariably named Bud and escorted outside with a cheerful “Off you go, Bud! Take care!” At times this would go awry: Bud the katydid was eaten by a mockingbird seconds after takeoff from my daughter’s hand, a hard lesson for a distraught eight-year-old.
Disagreements with my father were infrequent and memorable. I was a teenager of the 1960s and my father a child of the Depression, and we clashed over issues from profound to trivial: Vietnam and the draft, choice of college and career, choice of friends and girlfriends, logging the farm woodlot, and hair length were all fertile topics of discord between us. My Naval Reserve commission and medical school acceptance invoked great pride and modest envy in my father, as these were ambitions of his own derailed by military and family circumstance. Much later in life, my father and I fought furiously over my parents’ move from the farm to a senior living facility; my mother’s medical condition required this, my father was bitterly opposed, and I crushed the proud old man’s objections with bitter resolve and words that I now regret.
Now my father approached death as we kept vigil and slept fitfully at the bedside, bearing sad witness to his passage. With the help of co-conspirator nurses, we smuggled an illicit beer past hospital security and shared with my father sips of his last Miller High Life. When my father died early Friday morning, my brothers, sister, and I made final funeral arrangements, chose Dad’s Carhartt cap and pewter stein as grave goods for his casket, and departed for home. On my way home I detoured to this tailwater, desperate for an afternoon of fishing and solace.
Consumed with morbid thought, I nearly missed the sharp take of my Sulfur emerger downstream; a fierce rainbow trout detonated on the surface, dove to the bottom of the pool amidst the drowned timber to snag my tippet, then defiantly came to net. Amadou, silica dust, deliberately sloppy pile cast between the current seams—another! As my reel shrieked with alarm, this fish cartwheeled across the pool, then swam twice around its perimeter before capture. A third rainbow trout leapt as I set the hook, dashed toward me at flank speed, jumped with acrobatic ease through loops of slack fly line and wading staff tether, and escaped as the tangle came hopelessly tight. It was the fly-fishing equivalent of a wounded Cape buffalo’s charge, minus the fatalities. Despite my dark mood, I laughed at the trout’s suicidal audacity as I picked apart the wreckage of my leader, retied stronger tippet, and replaced the fly.
Over the next two hours I caught and released six more trout on the same pattern as the sulfur hatch quickened, none smaller than 18 inches, witnessed only by a great blue heron who watched with professional envy. I had hooked and lost an equivalent number, beneficiaries of my barbless flies and clumsy net technique, an impossible feat of success for this implausibly deserted tailwater.
I was eventually overtaken by deep twilight, river fog, and cold; the sulfur hatch stuttered to a stop, and the pool’s surface quieted. As I reeled up and secured my fly to the hook keeper, two whitetail deer dove through the underbrush and swam on a downstream tangent to the opposite bank, emerging from the water at a dead run. A quick backward glance to the riverbank showed the reason: two coyotes drank at the water’s edge while five others flitted indistinctly through the streamside willows, tracing the deer’s scent and mine. The pack stood astride my only easy exit from the pool, whose depth and velocity prevented me from wading to the opposite bank or downstream. A quick inventory of my sling pack showed that both my headlamp and penlight lay forgotten on the back seat of my car. An old, feeble LED C-Lite clipped to the bill of my cap was my sole light source; a small folding knife and my wading staff were my only weapons for defense.
Faced with no alternative, I switched on the C-Lite and waded with great commotion toward the pool’s exit path, waving my staff at the coyotes while shouting “Hey bear!” as I had been taught in Alaska. The pack moved reluctantly to higher ground and watched as I emerged from the water, fascinated by my antics. When I labored up the path to the meadow, by amber LED light I saw the coyotes arrayed in a rough semicircle, eyes glittering with cryptic intent neither overtly threatening nor clearly benign, awaiting my next move. As I began the mile-long walk on the trail to my car, the coyotes followed 20 feet behind and to either side, retreating briefly only when I wheeled around, shouted, and waved my staff—an untenable and dangerous situation.
Eastern anglers who suffer from night fishing’s curse know the whip-poor-will’s eponymous call, typically heard singly or as a rare duet from these secretive birds. As I stumbled along the trail with the pack in leisurely pursuit, suddenly hundreds of whip-poor-wills erupted around me in dissonant birdsong, soon joined by warblers, robins, towhees, sparrows, jays, and crows in a deafening cacophony of calls. The coyotes paused, confused by the cordon of birdsong, and then doubled their distance from me. Slowly I threaded my way out of the woods guided by the half-moon and my C-Lite, whirling my staff constantly for emphasis, surrounded at every moment by a protective avian rolling rally as the pack yipped and paced in frustration, and as unseen creatures crashed away through the underbrush.
The multispecies birdsong chorus ceased abruptly only when I had gained the deserted parking access; an invisible hand had thrown a switch. The coyotes had disappeared; the fog-shrouded woods was deathly quiet and deeply menacing. Unnerved by what I had just experienced, I threw my rod and staff into the back of my car and drove to the nearest town still clad in wet waders, sling pack in my lap. In the perceived safety of a well-lit Cumberland Farms parking lot, I shed my waders, stowed my gear deliberately, and thought things through. I then drove home to my wife and daughter, unexpectedly reassured and at peace.
At times faith withers in the cold light of reason; sometimes the reverse occurs. As a physician I knew that the human mind makes pattern and purpose from coincidence; as a birder I knew that I had encountered a flock of whip-poor-wills returned to their breeding grounds from the Yucatan. And I knew with absolute certainty that in the extraordinary events of that day I had witnessed my father’s actions, a grace note to his death, vividly expressed through the natural world he revered. Dad’s message was clear: that he had saved me from harm and despair, that he was grateful for his release from debility and pain, and that he knew our separation was only temporary.
To which I answered “Off you go, Bud. Take care.”
Michael Thane is a retired primary care physician who lives in Hingham, Massachusetts. He is a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps and a former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, Boston University School of Medicine, and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. He is an avid fly fisherman, fly tier, rod builder, and gardener.