There we were. Two teenagers, in the middle of the woods, well below freezing, early in the morning… surrounded by snarling dogs.
I can’t remember exactly where we were, but I do know that it was a medium-sized stream on the west side of the Shenandoah National Park. Alan and I had been canvassing the better part of the park throughout the fall and winter, fishing and doing some research. We both chose our science fair projects on the basis of how we could parlay our energy and efforts into time on the stream. It was a great lesson in false humility and concealing motives from authority figures.
In exchange for some stream monitoring data, we had an all-access parking pass from the US government. We never tested it out in front of the White House or anything exciting like that, but it did let us leave our car in front of locked park gates and other equally clandestine locations. That blessing, as it turned out, directly led to the curse of the two enormous wolf-dogs prowling around our subcompact.
Even without Cujo and co., hopping out of the car on that morning wouldn’t have been a terribly appealing proposition. I love to fish, don’t get me wrong. But there is something about a warm car before 7:00am that is about as luxurious as the tent of a sultan. And it wasn’t like I was about to get right to some spectacular brook trout fishing. We had about eight hours of macroinvertebrate surveying ahead of us. It involved donning the neoprene waders (this, by the way, is the perfect application for the 3mm neoprenes), sliding across frozen rocks, kicking up sluggish nymphs and other critters, and then cataloging them. The cataloging took place in ice cube trays, which was awfully appropriate for that day.
The best part of the whole ordeal came before we could even go in the water. To standardize the data, the park service placed markers so that all the various experiments and samples were consistent from year to year. These markers were pipes placed 50 to 200 feet from the stream bank.
200 feet. In the woods.
Thank heavens it was winter, otherwise these things would have been impossible to locate. As it was, they were only practically impossible to locate. Imagine looking at a map that had been photocopied on a low-level government Xerox machine, attempting to align yourself with a dot on said map, and then casting your gaze at 360 degrees of trees. All you have to do is find the one, tiny vertical object in the woods that isn’t a tree or branch. To be fair, they did inconsistently apply a dot of orange spray paint to about 25% of the pipes. This did provide a nice sense of false hope.
With all of this in mind, no one would have blamed us for slowly backing out of there. But we couldn’t. Fishing was still on the docket. The bugs, the pipes, even the rabid pack of hellhounds couldn’t deter two teenage fishermen.
The fishing really was great on those days. I think it had everything to do with literally studying the stream for hours on end without a rod in hand. We saw what the fish were eating, where the fish were lying, how the current was flowing, and all without the distraction of trying to catch trout. When the time came to get a few casts in, they came well-executed and aptly-informed.
I’ve tried this a few other times on some other streams, but it has been much harder without the goal-oriented distraction of putting hours in for the science fair. Hunters scout, and it pays off. Fishermen should too. The fly rod is an amazing thing, but we can’t resist putting it to use when it is in hand. As soon as we cast, the procedure changes from observation to experimentation. We become variables and the control is, at least for a few hours or a day, gone.
I owe much of what I know about mountain freestone streams and brook trout to that year’s macroinvertebrate and water quality research. I saw bugs that I never knew lived in the park, or Virginia for that matter. I came across trout in holding water that I would have overlooked 99 out of 100 times. I began to appreciate acidity mitigation, and see how pH made a real difference in stream ecology and the trout I was after. Plus, it was time in nature and time with a friend.
There are other, clearer memories from that day. Falling flat on my back and breaking my net. Fingers unable to grasp anything but the largest stoneflies and hellgrammites. But how we were able to allude the dogs is fuzzy. Maybe we threw the remains of a McMuffin into the woods and made a break for it. Maybe we harnessed some primal instinct, staring them down and triggering hard-wired memories of the very first domestication of canids. Most likely, we opened the doors slowly to dogs that just sniffed and licked us eagerly.
Regardless of how that morning began, that day and season were integral to my early fly fishing education. It taught me to slow down, focus, and, above all else, heed the warning of each and every “beware of dog” sign.