Photos by Jim Leedom
Sometimes you should just take the day off. May 12, 2017, was one of those days.
If I had not, if I had let that May 12 slip away, if it had become just another workday where I woke up, fought traffic, sat in meetings, and answered emails and phone calls before fighting some more traffic, getting home, eating dinner, watching TV and going to bed, well, let’s just say it would have been a mistake.
I took the day off after I saw an approaching high-pressure system settling in with temperatures rising into the low 70s. As Morgan Freeman’s character Red said in The Shawshank Redemption, “May is one damn fine month to be working outdoors.” The same can be said of fishing — particularly in the Northeast, where options can overflow like an all-you-can-eat banquet. Where I live in New Jersey, stripers are hot on the tails of arriving schools of menhaden, while bluefish have invaded the shallow bays, ready to blast anything that chugs, pops or skips their way.
But it was the call of freshwater streams and rivers that had me loading the car. Mayfly hatches neared their seasonal peak on local trout waters, and American shad were reaching prespawn critical mass in the Delaware River. I planned for a long day, packing several rods along with assorted tackle bags, fly boxes and waders; a cooler with lunch, snacks and drinks; and my camera for fish selfies. I told my wife not to expect me for dinner, then hit the road at 9 a.m., after rush hour subsided.
My first stop was a small trout stream that tumbles past a state road. I hit it once or twice a season and then save it for the next year like a prized thicket of blackberries. This was the harvest part of May 12, and my quarry was stocked trout that, hopefully, would wind up in my smoker. I pulled into a dirt turnout, grabbed my ultralight tackle bag No. 1 and my canvas creel. No fly rod or waders here; this would be drive-by fishing. A 50-foot walk down a funky trail leads to the stream. Though the road is only yards away, once I reached the first pool, I entered a little world unto itself. The sound of rushing water, punctuated by a few scattered songbirds — yellow warblers, waterthrushes and vireos — replaced the noise of traffic. A green canopy shaded the stream and blocked the highway. And it smelled like spring, earthy and dewy and peppered with new growth.
The pool was just how it always has been at this time of year: clear and flowing, and with a little knot of stockers holding at the tailout. And, true to form, they grabbed (or at least followed) my spinner on nearly every cast. A limit could have come easily from here if that’s what I’d wanted, but I chose instead to take just three rainbows, cleaning the fish streamside and leaving.
After a stop at a nearby convenience store to ice my catch, I continued westward, where more water beckoned. At noon, I stood in a grassy parking area along the Delaware River, eating lunch while leaning against my car with the hatchback up. I had already rigged my 7-weight, and my stripping basket and waders stood at the ready. A yellow-billed cuckoo called above me as warblers chatted in an adjacent thicket. The sun felt good on my face. Two cars already were parked there, but I felt no need to rush on this leisurely day.
When I eventually made my way to the river, I came upon three retired guys standing knee-deep, 30 feet apart, all fly-fishing and all hooking shad on every third or fourth cast. I gave them a wide berth and walked 100 yards upstream. I waded out and stripped a bunch of line into the basket. Then I roll-casted the shooting head past the rod tip. A quick double haul, and the chartreuse shad fly shot out and touched down on the edge of the current. I let it settle for a few seconds before stripping it back quickly with sharp pulls.
Almost immediately, a fish bumped the fly but missed. On my next cast, something took solidly. It turned out to be a good-size buck that jumped twice and took some line before a quick release. The next fish stayed deep and turned out to be a large roe — probably 5 pounds and as deep as my outstretched hand. A few casts later, I caught its twin sister. Back they went, too, along with another buck.
By 2 p.m., the wind began picking up, and I walked back to my car to swap the 7-weight for an 8-foot light spinning rod. But despite another half-hour of casting, I couldn’t get another hit. Meanwhile, the retired guys continued to pick at shad with their fly rods. One was clearly in the zone and landed at least a dozen. On another day, this might have made me slightly jealous. But on this May 12, I was genuinely happy for him.
You see, I had plenty more fishing to do. I walked back to the car and stowed my tackle before eating an apple and drinking some water. It was time for my next stop: a wild trout stream that flows into the Delaware from the Pennsylvania side of the river.
Half an hour later, I parked along a quiet, wooded road. I put on my vest and grabbed my 5-weight. After a 10-minute walk, I reached the river, which looked perfect: clear and with a good head of water thanks to rains earlier in the week. I skipped the first large pool and headed upstream to reach my favorite spot, a long run that starts swiftly and slows gradually — but never too much — as it deepens. Lots of submerged boulders and grottoes make it look like a place to hook a truly large trout.
There was a warm sun and blue skies, but it was still too early to expect much by way of hatching bugs and rising fish, so I tried a nymph under an indicator. I am no fan of the technique, but it beats sitting on the bank, waiting for something to happen.
On my first drift — one I made to pay out a little more line — the indicator jerked under. I lifted, thinking the fly was hung on a boulder, and a football of a brown trout greyhounded out of the water and threw the fly. That fish could have been 20 inches or larger. I wish I’d gotten more than a half-second glimpse. And despite my best subsequent drifts with the nymph, followed by a streamer, then a big attractor dry, I could not buy another strike.
I decided to rest the spot and sat on a streamside boulder. The sounds of running water combined with the sweet calls of more warblers, catbirds and thrushes. I may have dozed.
Then, splash — a fish rose maybe 30 feet downstream. I waited, and it rose again. I couldn’t see any bugs on the water except for a few black caddis buzzing around.
Another rise. I tried a Hendrickson. Though the hatch was long over, I figured the trout would still mistake it for food. It did; it crushed the fly on the first drift, flashing pink and silver before tearing off downstream. A nice rainbow.
The trout stopped, then held in heavy water for what felt like a long time before tearing off more line. It never jumped, but it did an admirable job of beating me up as best it could. Finally, it yielded to rod pressure and turned on its side, and I slid it toward me. It was a lovely wild rainbow trout, 16 inches and thick, with an electric steelhead-like blush on its cheeks, a brilliant pink stripe running down muscular flanks and flashes of white on the tips of its fins. I twisted the fly free, held the fish in the current, beholding its perfection for another moment, and let it go.
I basked in a fishy afterglow for a while, but then a long time went by with virtually no action. A couple of fish rose just once, and before I knew it, it was well after 6 o’clock. When I got back to my car, two other anglers were preparing to fish a series of pools downstream from the road. Sweaty and spent, I began taking off my waders. I chatted with one of the guys, who was just finishing rigging his fly rod. He told me the fishing had been very good the night before: a late bite with sulfurs hatching just around dark.
On any other day, I may have said “next time,” thrown my gear in the car and driven home. But by God, this was May 12. I had taken the day off to fish, and fish I would until the day was done.
So back on went the waders. I wolfed down a granola bar and guzzled the last of my water. I clipped my headlamp to my hat and headed back to the creek. Ten minutes later, I found myself at the first pool. The creek looked even fishier in the soft evening light. And as if on cue, a trout rose, followed by another.
I stuck with the Hendrickson and cast it to a narrow bubble line directly across from me. A trout came up in a confident rise. It turned out to be an even larger rainbow at 17½ inches and just as beautiful as the first.
A few minutes ticked by with no more rises, so I walked to the run upriver. A few catbirds worked above the stream, periodically flying out and delicately grabbing mayflies on the wing.
There were no rises, so I sat on the same boulder and waited again. A few minutes later, a fish rose below me. It came up a second time. I cast to it, straining to watch the fly track through the current in the silvery glare of the evening light. I made another cast. The Hendrickson drifted a few yards before the trout slashed at it violently but somehow missed the fly.
I waited a minute before casting again, hoping the fish would forget what had just happened. This time, it took the fly hard, throwing water. I set the hook solidly and felt the deeply satisfying weight of a very nice trout in swift water. It took line in one long, powerful surge, and for a second I thought it would blow out of the pool. It stopped and sulked in deep water for a few moments before it swam toward me, then screamed out a bunch of line for a second time. Finally, it swam into slower water and allowed me to bring it closer, closer still and, finally, into my hand.
Another fine, wild fish: an 18-inch brown trout with scattered, dark, no-nonsense spotting. I released it and was absolutely ready to leave. Though it was still before dark and the sulfur hatch, I had gotten my fill.
And I did leave, but not before enjoying a fine fisherman’s feast at the nearest drive-through. At 10 o’clock, some 11 hours, 120 round-trip miles and three streams later, I walked through my front door, tired, stiff, sunburned and deeply satisfied.
My advice to fellow anglers is take a day off in May. Don’t let the season slip away.