Sometimes it pays to stop and smell the...
- By: John Gierach
Back in 1995, my friend Bob Scammell of Alberta, Canada published a great little book called The Phenological Fly. Phenology (not to be confused with "phrenology," which is the examination of bumps on the skull to determine character and intelligence) is the science of simultaneous natural phenomena like mating, nesting, blooming, migrations, insect infestations and such. Of course in a context unfamiliar to fly fishers, a mayfly hatch could be considered and "infestation" and what Bob did, simply enough, was to time the major trout-stream insect hatches to the blooming of specific wildflowers along his local rivers.You could use other things that happen at more or less regular intervals, like the arrival of migrating birds, but flowers are good indicators because they depend on two of the same things that affect insect hatches, namely, temperature and the length of the daylight. It's one of those brilliantly simple concepts that have fallen out of favor now that we have hatch charts, Web sites and fishermen with cell phones, but Bob reintroduced it as a way to fight what he calls "the malaise of modern fly-fishing" where everyone fishes in the same places at the same time. The book's premise is that if you're even moderately observant, you can use phenology to predict the hatches and slip in early, or even to find unknown hatches on uncrowded streams that other fishermen don't know about. This is the kind of knowledge that all people living in their own natural habitat once had out of necessity-what William Least Heat-Moon calls a "deep map"-but that we've now mostly lost by spending too much time inside. I thought of Bob and his book early last spring when I went to a nearby river to see if the Blue-Wing Olive mayfly hatch had started yet. I went when I did because it was early April, when this hatch is known to begin at that altitude, but also because I'd noticed that the aspens and choke cherries around my house were beginning to bud. That was one of two things I'd figured out on my own in the decades before I read Bob's book and learned what phenology was. The other was that the bluegills would be spawning at some local warmwater ponds when the cottonwoods were beginning to bud out and the Canada geese were on their nests. Both of those notions evolved over time as unquantifiable feelings that could pass as intuitions-you know, it feels like the fish should be biting-but then after 20 years or so of being hit over the head with them, the particulars gradually emerged. I actually felt a little cheated when I learned that what I thought of as my own discovery was in fact an ancient science, but then as an old philosophy professor of mine used to say, "There have been no new ideas since Aristotle." I went to the river on a day when you might not expect much of a mayfly hatch. It was bright and sunny and almost shirtsleeve warm at 7:30 in the morning, while Blue-Wing Olives prefer to hatch on cool, cloudy, drizzly days. But some mayflies were coming off anyway. It wasn't what you'd call a blanket hatch, but there were enough bugs to get the trout feeding, and I caught several in a few hours on a size 20 parachute dry fly. Also, there were almost no other fishermen on the river, and this is one that can get crowded during the well-known hatches. That may have meant that my natural observations had given me a head start, or it may just have been that it was a mid week workday and not good enough Olive weather to make anyone want to call in sick. When the hatch petered out at around 11:00, I went downstream to check out some faster pocket water. There were no Olives and no rising trout, but I fished the water with the same fly-casting to where I thought trout should be-and caught a few more. The usual explanation for that is that the insects have been hatching for a while, the trout are used to looking for them and they'll eat one if they see it and it's convenient. (As a fisherman, it's your job to make it convenient.) One fish on any fly can be a fluke, but several on the same pattern begins to look like either proof or at least a clue. I went to the river that day to scout the Olives because the timing was about right for the hatch, but I hadn't heard anything and I think I would have. I don't have e-mail, but if you've lived and fished in an area for more than half your life and have some equally technophobic friends, a telephone and the local cafe will still keep you on the grapevine. When I got home that afternoon I checked The Phenological Fly out of curiosity and found that the spring Blue-Wing Olive hatches in Alberta are also associated with opening aspen buds, even though that part of Canada is a thousand miles north of here. I even went to the trouble of keying out the Latin name (thank god for guide books) and found that it's exactly the same species of tree: Populus tremuloides, or what we call quaking aspen. But then maybe that's not so surprising after all. Alberta is a long way from northern Colorado, but we're still at opposite ends of the same bio region in the same continental range of mountains. Michigan or Pennsylvania would probably be a whole other story and Bob is careful in his book to point out that you can't use his keys unless you live in his part of the world because your local plants and bugs are likely to be different. It only took me a few minutes to compare The Phenological Fly with the index in a guide book to regional wildflowers and my own knowledge of hatches to learn that we have some of the same combinations here: Western March Browns and clematis, Salmon flies and dogwoods, Golden Stoneflies and wild rose, Green Drakes and marsh marigolds. That is, we have the bugs and we have the flowers, but I didn't know if they had the same associations or were even found on the same rivers. I've always been more of a bird guy than a flower guy anyway and the only blooms I know are the most common and obvious ones. Columbine is the state flower, monkshood looks like a monk's hood, Indian paintbrush sort of resembles a brush dipped in red paint and so on. It became clear that if I wanted to dabble at this I'd have to learn more about wildflowers and that, the aspen/Olive thing notwithstanding, I'd have to pretty much start at the beginning. The beginning was the Indian paintbrush and columbines I noticed later in the year when I saw the first Flavilineas mayflies on the water. The Flavs are a long and productive hatch here. To a fly tier's eye they're a Green Drake, only two sizes smaller (or maybe a Blue-Wing Olive only two sizes larger.) The duns peter off in the afternoons for weeks at a time, sometimes building into huge Red Quill spinner falls in the evening, and they work their way upstream in creeks that can drop 5,000 feet in 30 miles. The bugs move upstream slowly, so they're on somewhere for the entire high-country season which, in a good year, lasts through July, August and a little bit of September. The wildflowers also bloom progressively uphill, possibly at about the same rate, although I've never paid much attention. On the other hand, the flowers I knew the names of were the ones I saw the most, and I saw them the most because I was on the water during the hatches. It was another one of those things that felt like intuition. In years past, on especially good days of dryfly fishing, I would sometimes come to a spot where I could see 13,000-foot peaks at the head of the valley through a gap in the woods and the banks were carpeted with wildflowers. I'd think, Well, here I am, catching trout in the most beautiful place on earth. I have paid attention to edible wild mushrooms, though, or at least the precious few I'm sure enough of to eat. I know that at some point when the Flavs are on there can also be a flush of boletes mushrooms and, rarely, a little golden patch of chanterelles. The chanterelles are the most valuable and you can sell a bag of them to a fancy restaurant for a small fortune. The firm, nut-flavored boletes are more blue collar, but they go better with brook trout. I'm thinking of two or three small, pink-fleshed brookies lightly salted and peppered and fried in butter with some sauteed boletes on the side, cooked in the same pan. You gut the trout and hang them in the shade for half an hour so they don't curl up in the pan-just long enough to get a spruce-twig fire down to coals. The mushrooms you want are the smallest, freshest ones. If they're much bigger than a doorknob, they'll be wormy. I spent the rest of the season making some observations that were just a little less casual than the ones I make anyway in the course of trying to pay attention. I started carrying a wildflower guide in my daypack, although I used it more when I was off by myself than with company. After all, a fisherman who's seen "ooh-ing" and "ah-ing" over wildflowers when the trout are rising could be thought to have gone a little soft. I learned the names of some new flowers by re-identifying them a dozen times until they finally began to stick, but my private nomenclature crept in with others. There are the tall, spindly red ones and the little white ones with yellow centers that grow in bunches near the ground. That kind of thing. It's the same way I privately think of the hatches: the little gray mayflies and the big tan caddis, never mind the genus and species. I sort of knew what to expect with flowers because I'd gone through the same thing at least twice before with fly-fishing and bird watching. When I decided to learn how to fly-fish it didn't occur to me that I'd still be learning better than half a lifetime later and still sometimes screw the pooch as definitively as I did on my first day. When I took up non-competitive bird watching I thought I already knew most of the birds-you know, robin, crow, blackbird, blue jay, sparrow, hawk, barn owl and a few others-but it turned out there are well over 600 species of bird in North America. Who'd have thought? In other hands the wildflower business could have turned into a full blown, multi-year project with interlocking hatch, bloom, season and altitude charts and color photos like the lovely ones in Bob's book showing the actual insects perched on the actual flowers: impressive examples of both photography and bug wrangling. In my hands it quickly became like bird watching, which is something most of us do as a way of becoming more familiar with the details of a place, but with no other profit motive in mind. That is, it's fun to know the birds you find along Western trout streams, but I can't think of a single instance where a bird has helped me catch a trout, although I can think of times when birds have messed me up. Once a raven threw his threatening shadow over a skittish brown trout rising in shallow, clear water and the trout (which I'm now certain I could have caught) bolted for cover. I knew it was a raven without looking up because of the size and speed of the shadow and the guttural "honk." I also knew that some ornithologists speculate that ravens are intelligent enough to have a rudimentary sense of humor. For that matter, I now know that if you cook yourself that rare treat of trout and mushrooms and leave it to cool for a minute while you go look at the creek, you can come back to find Canada jays-also known as "camp robbers"-eating your lunch. I didn't go too far with mushrooms once I learned the common handful that are edible and that I like, as well as a couple of poisonous ones like the fatally psychedelic Amanita. Now and then I'll find one of these with little chew marks from pine squirrels. That seems odd, but it could explain the hyperactivity and the constant chattering. This stuff sinks in slowly, but it does sink in because I've always liked the idea that everything is connected, even if most of the threads are too long and tenuous to make any difference. Season, altitude, weather, mushrooms, flowers, insects and trout do make for a tidy and maybe even understandable little chain of events. Beyond that, maybe it really is true that a butterfly can flap its wings in Indonesia and two weeks later there's a tornado outside Wichita. Someone should probably look into that.