Of Spring Trout Streams

Precious memories, how they linger.

[Article & Paintings by Galen Mercer]

TO FLY FISHERS, springtime is the rope tossed across melting ice, the open hand extended over the precipice. Soul-weary of winter, sapped by shades, anglers view the arrival of Opening Day as salvation, yearned for as children yearn for an absent parent.

IN THE EASTERN TRADITION, April 1 was Opening Day. With the advent of year round no-kill sections, and the lottery of an increasingly volatile climate, precise seasonal demarcation becomes difficult. Within the past two years I’ve seen barns collapse beneath April snows followed by a season that opened with 80-degree days and Hendrickson hatches a full month earlier than the oldest living anglers could recall. Constancy, it appears, has left the building.

While spring is famously fickle if not outright elusive, it does have its own comforting cadence. The disembodied strains of a sky-dancing woodcock, spiraling in the streamside dusk. An expanded range and density of birdsong. The piercing trills of spring peepers, enlivening first the river bottoms, then proceeding rapidly upstream to the springheads—a chorus that announces a season’s start as clearly as the gate bell at a horse race. One almost expects to hear, Annnnnd, we’re off!

Coltsfoot, jonquils, trout lilies, morels, fiddleheads, dogwood, apple blossoms: beyond their beauty, each tells the alert angler something essential. Returning swallows, mating efts, saffron clouds of pine pollen, the first kingfishers and blue herons: a stream calendar more precise than any yet printed.

Delaware River, Early Spring

Perhaps an angler’s truest and most elegant accounting of progress is the sequence of hatches. Black, dun, blue, iron: the prefixes contain a spirit of color reanimating itself—barren woods veiled in snow, a groggy sun nudging the shadows. Like grass pushing through concrete, spring hatches are resilient marvels, putting the lie to winter and filling our veins with possibility.

It’s vexing to consider how many April hatches we detect retroactively through breath-fogged car windows. With antifreeze blood and other adaptations, insects are far better suited to harsh conditions. Yet cruel weather will afflict many, providing low-hanging fruit for anglers fishing stillborn or emerger patterns. Of late I’ve channeled Johnny Appleseed, scooping chilled duns from the surface and ferrying them ashore.

Having bested the worst of spring, hatching bugs now enter the food chain: fish of every species, salamanders, snakes, toads, frogs, myriad water- and songbirds, weasels, even red squirrels relish them. Recently I watched several grackles across a pool I was sketching, periodically seizing and shaking something in the shallows. Crossing to their bank, I found the shore a scum line of emptied caddis shucks.

Living among and painting Catskill trout streams for two decades, I mark seasonal transitions by the rivers, a pleasant myopia practically compelled by the narrowness of those valleys. Ice forms, weakens, and finally roars off in the annual thaw, altering the colors of streambeds, refashioning the streambeds themselves. A violent runoff might burnish spring cobble and ledge-rock into gemstones, at least until algae mutes this radiance. A few years ago, a beloved fl at I’d fished and painted for decades was literally erased by a vast ice dam driven by a late winter flood. A team of bulldozers plowing downstream could have done no worse.

According to the paradigm, when a river course naturally redistributes itself, one reach’s loss becomes another’s gain. On pristine watersheds, perhaps this is true, but given the heedless way rivers are treated and the accelerating severity of today’s weather, the old formula appears as hollow as so many stream banks. A great beneficence of spring is its renewing effect upon our senses. Once the thick skull of winter is lifted, we possess, if briefly a child’s intuitive wonder. Like the intensity of a first kiss or the immediacy of a fight, we experience the pungent earth smells, the stern fragrance of wet stones, the disorienting abundance of a shift of mild air. The Oriental tracery of a sycamore’s button-balls, an overgrown farmstead’s daffodil woods, frenzies of blackflies harrying duns, the ribald comedy of horny songbirds, lampreys dervishing stones into spawning redds.

In the Springtime, Beaverkill

Spring is the only time of year when the rankness of decay summons not revulsion but possibility. I once worked a busy fish in a brimming May river for perhaps half an hour. Inching closer, searching for casting stability, I edged onto a pale rock that canted unexpectedly. It was the scapula and lower section of a deer’s leg—polished and moon white, hoof intact, it undulated in the current like some macabre weed.