It isn’t those first, crisp, mahogany-spinner mornings that get me, the ones ending with a warm afternoon and a few straggler hoppers still clicking. It’s the days that come a couple weeks later, after the onset of frost, when the first nasty cold front under low-lying clouds makes you hustle through the wadering process because it’s painful not to. You can only hope, on mornings like this, that the day might warm by afternoon. But it’ll probably snow instead.
The details we tend to romanticize when we think of fall—which may have described the place just a few weeks earlier—no longer apply. The ambers and magentas are mostly gone, and the rich smell of decay that typifies the season can still be found aloft, but only by inhaling large amounts of air and sifting through the minimal contents. What we are left with, primarily, is a cold and sterile smell signaling the beginning of the end. This is what gets those big browns moving. And it has a similar effect on me.
In the water they are starting to get aggressive, undergoing physiological changes, frequency adjusted to a new channel. There are parallels between this and what is happening in the mountains. Deep-rooted ties bind the stubborn drive of obstinate, kype-jawed brown trout with the elk’s clashing racks and pheremone-laced snorts echoing off the ridgeline across the river. These are not the lively spring rituals of reproducing cutthroat, or bluebirds twittering on the cusp of an awakening world. This is a ferocious autumn desire to reproduce. Anyone who’s ever seen an October brown come screaming across a forty-foot river bottom to hit a fly knows their mental state: “I’m going to breed before winter—now get out of my way or suffer the consequences.”
I think about the profound effect temperature change has on some species. So much of the world is driven by this, from salmonflies to elk. I wonder if it still applies to us, in some way that we’ve tried to bury, along with so much of what it means to be an animal. Or, if it only applies to some of us. Regardless, I love its unromanticized nature and undeniable vitality—the last-ditch, final charge before holing up for the winter. Glory be to those who heed it.
I’ve tied on something that would make a 3-weight double over, and I’ve fallen into the rhythm of swinging and stepping, flinging snap-t’s across two thousand cfs of river, the fly approaching the far bank before settling in deep for the swing. Let it fall too much to one end of the spectrum or the other and the critical balance is destroyed. A finger remains lightly on the line to sense anything out of the ordinary, like putting an ear to the train tracks.
There is no hard strike. No blistering run. No line flying off the reel as so often happens in stories, and only occasionally in reality. Instead, the fly just stops dead for a good, long, delicious moment of stalemate, which leads to a couple head-strong males with more hormones than brains, duking it out on either end of a line.
His colors are in stark contrast to the steel-gray and dull brown landscape. A numbing chill crawls up my arm as he slides out of my hand and disappears. It works its way up through my circulatory system, from digits to core, like some sort of frost vine creeping up my scrawny trellis. I know I’ve been at this too long today, and that I should leave now for somewhere warm, as it will take time and effort before my temperature returns to normal. The cold hurts but also feels good. This is training for a winter just around the corner. I’ll be thinking about this last brown of the year through the short, dark days; an ember at the core of an ebbing campfire that refuses to die. It is still fall, but not for much longer.