I feel the days getting shorter and the sun preparing to take its seasonal furlough as I arrive at the lake. Rising trout break the glass surface. I drop my pack and piece together the sections of my fly rod. The sun is out but it’s too cold to wet wade, so I pull out the chest waders I packed with my lunch and water. My dog observes this ritual prologue to the cast with an interest that belies his familiarity with it.
The four-mile trail to the lake follows a stream banked by devil’s club. Only a few pools in this skinny creek looked deep enough to hide a fish. I picked a few blueberries and salmonberries, most disappointingly bland or tart. Recent rains made the footing slick in spots. Shackleton trotted casually over the skid marks of wobbly hikers, proving four legs are better than two. A hint of purple appeared among the cedar and hemlock, a wildflower I couldn’t positively identify. A caddisfly with an orange creamsicle hue hitched a ride on my arm.
Fish continue to slurp bugs off the surface as I string chartreuse line through the guides. I hold the tippet between thumb and forefinger, then open my fly box and select a Parachute Adams, number 14, the Goldilocks size, not too small, not too big. From the small bottle on my lanyard, I apply the last drop of floatant to the Adams to prolong its buoyancy. I wade gingerly, moving forward with the slow deliberation of a tightrope walker. I’m knee-deep and feel the bracing cold of alpine water through my waterproof gear. When I reach a partially submerged rock, I take a left-lead stance and cast 30 feet toward the lunch counter. The fly lands with adequate finesse so I let it sit on the surface and wait for the take. Often, it comes right away. Not this time. I change positions, looking back to the gladed shore to avoid snagging my backcast, and cast again, and watch again for as long as patience allows.
On the east coast, fall was my favorite time of year bringing cool, sunlit days and color to hardwood forests. In the Northwest, autumn is a middle child struggling to find its own identity unrelated to summer’s end or an overture to winter. The third season is loved by steelheaders and mushroom hunters, but for powderhounds it’s just a whistle-stop to winter: time to sharpen the edges and wax the bases, time to condition the core and legs. Crowds thin on the trails, even before the first dusting of snow below treeline. Summer hikers who sit out the shorter days miss some of the most spectacular Cascades scenery, the turning of larches, idiosyncratic, leaf-shedding conifers whose golden and amber needles stand out against a monotony of evergreen.
I hear my two friends coming up the trail.
“No fish yet?” Dee Dee asks.
“No. I think I’m going to change flies. I’m switching to a soft hackle,” I reply to Dee Dee, who packed a spinning rod.
As I clip the spurned dry fly from my line and pull out the standard second offering, Dee Dee and Sue take off their boots and socks, roll up their trouser cuffs and tiptoe in the shallows to a good sitting rock, broad and flat. Shackleton curls himself into a ball, tail coiled neatly against his hind legs, and closes his eyes.
If I don’t catch a fish, my only disappointment will be not discovering which species of trout inhabits the lake. My first guess is cutthroat, based on catch from other high lakes in the area. There’s only one way to know for sure. I false cast and shoot line, appealing to an angler’s fuzzy logic that distance improves the catching odds. My attention strays for a second and the soft hackle tied with peacock herl and partridge feather draws a strike. The line goes taut. I lift reflexively, but my trout has already shaken the barbless hook, leaving my rod with a sad feeling of weightlessness.
Autumn summons the jet stream back from northerly latitudes and with it the rains, the puddles and the smell of wet dog in the car. Bibliophiles indulge in a cloistered existence of a hot drink and a good read unburdened by guilt that they should be doing otherwise. Poachers flock to the mouth of the Cedar on Lake Washington where sockeye are still silver and feeding. Upriver, spawning males have turned scarlet and green. Dead sockeye float downstream on their sides.
“I hope I get another chance,” I say to Dee Dee and Sue, happily eating their burritos and watching me fish. Hunger starts to beckon but I cast again. A fish takes the fly. Shackleton barks. I lift the rod, strip line and play the trout whose silvery profile flashes just below the surface, a rainbow perhaps. The bout is brief and I pull the fish out, revealing its red spots and white edging of lower fins: an eastern brook. I measure its length with my left hand: the wingspan, thumb to pinky, in a hang ten stretches eight inches and this fish surpasses that by an inch.
“Nine inches, not bad,” I report to Dee Dee who snaps a few photos
I remove the hook from its mouth and bend down to release the brookie.
“You’re not going to keep it?” Dee Dee asks, sounding a little disappointed.
“Nah, I catch and eat sometimes when I backpack.” I submerge my hand and relax my grip.
On the hike down, I find three mushrooms in wet soil as I stop to tie my bootlaces. Golden with trumpeted caps, they smell sweet and earthy. Chanterelles, I think, recalling something about tell-tale false gills, the wrinkly skin folds on the underside of the cap that run continuously to the stalk. I put them in a plastic bag and stash them in my backpack.
The sun slips low onto the horizon. No signs of an evening caddis hatch. I mourn my smaller ration of daylight. I bushwhack through the spiky salad of devil’s club to access a few promising pools. Wary of the thorns, Shackleton hangs back and whimpers, then returns to the trail as I clamber over zero-friction logs to gain the right bank. I nearly punch through a false floor in the understory, into the drink. My dog is much more sensible, I think, as I thread my rod through the brush. I cast the fly into fishy water and prepare for a strike. Nothing. I cover all the water within casting range with similar results. Treading gently over swordfern, I regain the trail and look for Shackleton. I call his name and listen for the metallic jingle of his tags. Typically, when he’s in voice range, he comes. I hear nothing but the sound of the stream, the seductive sound of water. I assume he has pushed on, nose to the ground, sampling the forest floor. Further down the trail, I spot his black coat, stopped at a bridge, and Dee Dee and Sue waiting.
We reach our cars before dark. I listen to Bob Dylan on the drive home while Shackleton sleeps. His hind leg twitches, running to the rhythm of Blowin’ In the Wind, chasing pikas.