Fall fishing on the North Platte is one of the worst kept secrets in fly-fishing. People know that, by floating an All-Day-May and any variation of a zebra midge, you can have wild success in October. You don’t need a PhD in entomology to catch these fish. What you need is a few days off where you can drive the sandy two-tracks and find some public water that hasn’t been thoroughly flogged. Autumn is the time of change. The sunlight in autumn is different than it was just a few weeks back. The blue goes on and on. The essayist Joan Didion called this time of year “blue nights”. She writes, “As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.”
The willows yellow along the river, and the evening quivers with the sounds of waterfowl beating up and down the North Platte. The humming birds are gone, replaced by colonies of quick finches that hide along the river. There is an ache of nostalgia as you hear the year’s first geese overhead. I was surprised to wake up one morning to an inch of fresh snow, but the sun burned it off before noon. To kick off the reading season, I started John Graves’ book, Good Bye to a River, where the author paddles down the Brazos with his Dachshund he calls “the passenger.”
Recently I floated the river with my friend Dave Brown. Along with ample boat food and an assortment of “hot flies”, we also brought my overweight, black Lab, Henderson. Rocket, now sixteen-years-old, is Henderson’s father. Yet it’s hard to see any resemblance. And these days I leave Rocket at home because getting in and out of the boat is hard on him. Besides, Rocket has his own projects. Last year a diseased apple tree died and toppled over in my backyard. Rocket spent the winter excavating the roots. I believe he eats the pulp for nourishment. I can’t tell. He spends an extraordinary time out there with his head plunged into the ground, searching for something only he believes in.
My buddy Dave Schick from Laramie used to preach that there was no such thing as a good fishing dog. He thought they were best left at home.
Rocket was the perfect sized fishing dog. He never weighed more than sixty-five pounds. Henderson goes at least ninety; you feel the boat tilt when he repositions himself. While Rocket remained taciturn, and hardly ever barked or whined, Henderson talks all day. He’s afraid of nearly everything, Henderson is, from cows and calves watering themselves along the river banks, to the sound of slamming truck doors, to guides and clients in passing drift boats. The only thing he’s not afraid of is birds. Songbirds put him into a trance, and if we see a few mallards feeding in a back channel, Henderson trembles with delight.
Fall: A newish fishing dog. Beer iced down in the cooler. Sunshine and a light breeze. Flocks of geese squabbling on the shoreline. It should have been perfect. But a mile into our float I realized that Dave and I hadn’t gotten a single bite. Other boats were eddied up with both anglers into good fish. Guides netted plump rainbows and nodded to us as we slid past. For a river that boasts 3,000 fish per mile, I was beginning to get nervous that we hadn’t encountered even one.
Eventually, we pulled over and anchored the boat. Henderson leapt out and went exploring up the bank. I let him roam because I think it encourages confidence and character in a bird dog. We re-rigged. I tied on a fresh nine-foot leader. I used a pink San Juan worm and a red Copper John in size sixteen. This combination has never failed me. I’ve made my career on it. Dave tied on a flashback scud and a tiny hare’s ear. We adjusted our weights to make sure we were getting our flies down. I whistled for Henderson. He crashed out of the willows and jumped in to his spot by the cooler. Soon we were back in the main current, not catching anything. Dave rapidly dug through his fly box, while I stayed with the worm and the Copper John.
I recall a particular trip to Port Mansfield, Texas one windy March with my friend Jason. Jason’s dad, Ken, owned a flats boat and a bungalow he rented to visiting anglers. He had been catching sea trout and redfish for over thirty years. Jason and I flew to Austin, rented a car, and drove down to the extreme southern limits of Texas to catch some fish. Right away Ken and I began to land trout on a gold spoon, but Jason wouldn’t switch over. He liked the silver spoon. He kept insisting that it ought to catch fish as well as the gold spoon. He was determined to prove something. While I ate one of those enormous Texas grapefruits and worked over a pod of feeding trout, Jason’s father urged him to try a gold spoon. Yet, the more the father suggested the son switch over to the right lure, the more the son resisted. I was witnessing one of those low stakes feuds where there are no clear winners. Only losers.
Each day we filleted our fish at a public facility. Jason and Ken were accomplished cooks with hard Texas and Louisiana leanings. Although Jason did not excel in the flats boat, he reenergized in the kitchen, creating a blacken trout Etouffee that I still can’t quite forget. With a few beers and a full stomach, there was no acrimony, no resentment. It was good enough just to be in Texas along the coast. Still, even as the days passed and it was clear that the only way to catch a fish was with a gold spoon, Jason never switched over. He seemed happy casting away, catching nothing. The lesson, I suppose, is that there are other ways to excel, other ways to participate. There are some people who, when they say they don’t mind catching nothing, are to be believed. I’m not one of those people.
Back on the North Platte things were grim. Dave changed flies a half dozen times as we drifted closer and closer to our takeout point. Time was running out. In desperation, we anchored a final time. We seined the river with Dave’s homemade screen. I kicked the rocks upstream while Dave held the contraption tight to the riverbed. The water rushed by. Henderson went ashore. When Dave lifted the screen it was wriggling with life. We identified thousands of mayfly nymphs, inchoate caddis pupae, grotesque cranefly larvae, and some dandy scuds. Two crayfish scuttled along the mesh, their claws wide open in defensive posture. We were admiring the liveliness of the crayfish when Henderson swept in and ate the largest. I never really got a good look. The dog crunched it once and swallowed. Then he eased his round body into the icy current for no reason, just to be in the river and feel the water move around him I guess. With his eyes slightly closed, he entered a state of nirvana reserved for bird dogs and bacchantes.
“How’d you guys do?” asked a smiling guide near the takeout. He, too, had a dog in the boat.
“Not so good,” I said. “I’m considering retirement.”
The guide threw back his head and laughed. He said something cheerful about how we all have had those days when the fish just don’t bite. Then one of his clients hooked a giant rainbow and the guide dipped the net under the thrashing fish. I’ve caught thousands of fish out of that river. Isn’t being skunked once in a while part of the charm? And in that vein, can it be that it’s enough joy to float down the river with your dog catching nothing? We’ve been through this before; by now disappointment shouldn’t be so surprising.