Friday, June 3, 2016

Chasing off the Sunday Scaries at Bennett Spring

What is the magic ratio of drive time to time on the stream that makes a trip worthwhile? Is a fishing trip with a ratio of less than 1:1 of drive:stream time worth it? How does one calculate the ratio accurately? Individual trips? Or can you collectively measure both drive and stream time over a period of time, say a month? Back in April, I pushed the ratio as far as it could go, and may have found my limit of how long I'm willing to drive for a relatively short day of fishing.

I crossed the St. Louis city line at 5:20 AM, and tried not think about the things I left behind at home, namely a sick dog with an ear infection, a stack of vinyl I'd bought the day before, and the warm bed I'd dragged myself out of mere minutes earlier. It was Sunday morning, and I was driving fast westbound on I-44, keeping a keen eye on the rear-view mirror for the state police, and the Sunday Scaries. My destination was Bennett Spring, and my target was rainbow trout. If everything went according to plan, I should be geared up and casting away by 8:00 in the morning, but that's only if the weekend didn't catch up to me before I got there.

Despite working a full day of work on Friday, my weekend kicked off on Thursday morning at 6:00 AM when I dropped Emily off at the airport for a weekend long bachelorette party in Mexico. Friday night resulted in midnight bowling and 2:00 AM pancakes. Saturday morning was Record Store Day, and I found myself standing in line at the Music Record Shop at 7:00 AM with a thermos full of coffee. By 8:00 the coffees turned to beers and they didn't seem to end that day. Saturday also included a Cardinals day game, a St. Louis Soccer Club night game, and boozy slushies in Soulard. It was a perfect storm of lack of spousal supervision or better judgment and an abundance of sunshine and day-drinking. In total, I was going on about 7 hours of total sleep for the weekend when I set course for Lebanon, fueled only by coffee and crappy energy drinks, but ready to throw caution and driving regulations to the wind and make my stand, officially kicking off the 2016 trout fishing season.

I always seem to underestimate both my travel time and the time it takes to gear up. By the time I park the Prius, find a toilet, squeeze into my waders, and string up my rod, it's always 20 minutes past when opening bell has rang. In my short time practicing fly-fishing, I have found that the first 30 minutes or so on the water will set the tone for the rest of the day. Running even a few minutes behind schedule can drastically alter your mood and throw you into a funk. The 5-10 minutes of silently standing in the stream, slowing your thoughts, reading the water, and practicing patience waiting for the bell to ring is crucial, and it has always been one of my favorite parts of any day of fishing. Some of my most vivid memories of past trips are standing above the dam at Montauk before dawn, watching the fog rise above the water and seeing the trout begin to rise underneath.

By the time I drove through Bennett Spring, the bell had already rung and I could see people already crowding some of my favorite spots. Being late, the frantic rush of urgency sets in too easily, and it's a difficult vibe to shake. I bought my daily tag and a few odds & ends from the park shop, and started my day below the dam.

At the April 2016 meeting of the Ozark Fly Fishers, Wesley Swee, the hatchery manager at Maramec Spring was our guest speaker. He went into detail of the devastation caused by the January Missouri floods, and the damage caused to the trout parks in the state. Whereas Maramec Spring was able to save all of their growing trout, Bennett Spring lost tens of thousands of fish in the floods. The number is hardly fathomable. Fishing there, I don't know if I noticed a sharp decline in released fish, but even a novice such as myself could distinguish dramatic changes in the stream bed.

I know that biologically, it's not called "moss." I know fishermen are often criticized for misidentifying the thick, spongy, green plant-life on the bottom of the stream as moss, but either way, Bennett Spring was full of "moss" and I don't remember it being like that in the past. It's pretty normal to see the type of plant build-up at Maramec Spring, but it was surprisingly burdensome at Bennett. It made deep water nymphing a true mess. Not only would the flies be covered with the moss every couple of casts, but the moss would stain the thread color too, a puke pea-green color.

Even more devastating than the moss was the gravel in-fill. I've heard old-timers say that if you've never fished a river after a flood, then you've never fished that river. That proved to be true. All of the deep holes and reliable spots were filled in. My go-to hidden spot was DOA. Now, I've heard rumblings that the MDC will use a back-hoe to clear out some holes, but that seems like cheating to me (yes, I realize the irony of saying that on a stocked stream). Even if short-term fishing suffered, I'd rather nature take her (slow) course and let new, natural holes develop, as opposed to having to follow around a tractor all summer.

So how was the fishing? Despite getting to the stream late, I was able to find my core, or chi, or center, or whatever and capture whatever the hell that feeling is that I get from standing in 18-30 inches of freezing cold water - a feeling that drives men like myself to cart across the state for three hours on barely any sleep, put on rubber pants, and try and catch a fish that is typically smaller than your average burrito. It doesn't make a ton of sense on paper, but just because I write about fly-fishing doesn't mean that I'll suddenly act rationally about it either.

I stood in the shallows between the dam and the stone bridge at Bennett Spring, with the sun slowly rising in front of me. There was an abundant hatch on the water, and the rings on the surface told me that the trout were hungry that morning. Maybe it was the sunlight and the spring air, but I swear the bugs were golden yellow. The size? Maybe #22 at their largest - a mere fraction of the size of anything I had in my fly-boxes. I tried my luck with the dry flies I had on hand, but couldn't cast my line far enough to where it looked like the trout were rising. I changed it up and used a variety of underwater nymphs until I finally set my hook on what was admittedly supposed to be a back-cast.

To be honest, as I lay in bed next to Emily and write out this entry a few weeks later, I don't recall which fly finally did the trick that morning, but looking through my phone's camera gallery, I see a Zapruder film, or maybe more accurately, a Patterson-Gimlin-like blurry outline of a root beer dry fly emerger in the trout's lip. Between the two of us, I don't know who was more surprised when I set that hook. I do recall that the trout gave a decent fight with a few good, picturesque jumps sprinkled in to make the story better. I finally netted him and grabbed a snapshot.

Very quickly, and not to be too big of a corporate shill, I recently upgraded to the new, water-resistant, Samsung Galaxy S7 after I broke my old Galaxy S6 by leaving it on my truck bed in some March snow flurries. It's been a dream phone so far, taking clear outdoor shots, and good close-ups of my fly-tying. Best of all, I'm not nervous about it breaking or being water damaged when I keep it in my wader pocket on the stream. Excellent upgrade.

The rest of the morning I bounced around Bennett Spring, but didn't have a lot of luck. I did end up hooking another rainbow, but the whole time I was reeling him in, I could tell something was off. He just wasn't putting up the fight I would expect, and it seemed like he was having some difficulty swimming. Sure enough, when I netted him, I discovered that I had in fact snagged his dorsal fin, and not his mouth. Whoops. I did the sportsman thing and released him back into the stream.

Down near the Whistle Bridge, I watched a middle-aged guy who was wet wading pull fish after fish after fish, dead drifting in the shallows. I asked what he had on, and of course it was a fly half the size of what I was using. I mimicked his technique as well as I could, but still no luck. At this point, the Sunday Scaries had caught up with me, and I was ready to bail and head home.

I will never say a short trip like that isn't worth it, but I will say that it was taxing. I'm about to embark on another brief trip with a long drive. I'll be driving over seven hours to central Wisconsin to fish at brother-in-law's father's cabin. There, at least I should get a solid 12-14 hours of pure fishing before having to turn around and come home. I've been prepping for this trip for a while, tying up a mess of Pink Squirrel Nymphs, so hopefully the long drive won't kill me. So long as I can catch some nice browns or brookies, I'll still be in an acceptable drive:stream ratio range.

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