Author’s Note – To be clear this isn’t an actual hatch or anything resembling one. There are two ingredients – when the grass on the banks grows high and thick and the water warms up to prime fishy temperatures. In late spring when these things coincide it’s time to grab fistfuls of deer hair and start spinning. The amount of mice occupying these fields and barns isn’t massive, but it’s enough to make the elder statesman of the creeks near my parents house take special notice. The poor rodent bastards have no idea until it’s too late. Shark week in the high Sierra is a brutal reminder of the terms of nature, and one of our favorite to attempt to exploit. It took those of us who grew up here a long time to notice this phenomenon, but since then it’s been a mind fuck to put it in mild terms.
When we were boys we’d go hopper fishing with our Zebco spinners. This was an event we all looked forward to and it usually coincided with school clothes shopping, my older siblings attending practices for various fall sports, and a subtle dip in night time temps. This marked the beginning of the end; that painful time when we left the boundless fields and mountains we freely roamed all summer for the confines of the smelly and crowded classroom. Hopper fishing on these creeks is amazing in the late summer, and we’d spend the cool mornings gathering the still lethargic and half-frozen grasshoppers into a coffee can aerated with pellet gun holes. In the afternoons we’d slide small hooks just behind their heads and just under the torso armor, coming out the back at the top of the fleshy abdomen. If you did it right the hoppers would still jump and try to fly for awhile. You’d have to open the bail and pinch the line, poke your rod tip just over the edge of the bank and drop the poor bastard into the shark tank. When it hit the water it would try to jump and twitch as it drifted downstream, sometimes fluttering its wings on the surface. We would wait for the almost inevitable violent splash, set the bail, then the hook, and hold on. We’d creep through the dying grass on the creek banks speaking in whispers and hand signals, crawling like army soldiers. We knew all of the holes and lairs of the resident creek sharks and how to fish each spot without seeing the water. If you could see the water, they could see you, and you wouldn’t get anything but an invisible boat wake traveling across the water at high speeds to the deepest, nastiest cut bank in the area. Game over. We knew every snag, every rock, and unfortunately every damn thistle. It was the pinnacle of boyhood precision. I once caught an albino brown during one of these missions. I had watched him and attempted to catch him since the previous spring, and he was always too clever for us.. until an above average hopper season. I can’t describe to you what an albino brown trout looks like. I wish I had a camera and the ability to operate it at that age, my capacities in electronics being very limited in all of my 8 or 9 years. But you can use that beaming imagination, can’t you? What I can tell you is it tasted just like it’s non-pigment challenged brethren, and jokes of toxic waste fish were bandied about by my brother’s dim friend.
One evening we were wrapping up one of these hopper sessions and walking to my buddies house with a stringer full of meat. We passed some old timers drinking beer in front of the local general store. These were real old timers, sons of old world parents who came from Ticino Canton in Switzerland and settled this place.
“Looks like you boys did alright for yourselves today.”
“Yes sir, we did alright.”
“You catch them on mice?”
We looked at them much the way a puppy looks at the source of a new noise – mouths cracked, eyes wide, and heads cocked.
“Trout eat mice?!?”
They went on to explain how they went about catching the true creek monsters that seemed to shun our hoppers – the ones we saw when we were scouting or messing about but never took a hook. (Author’s Note – The following is not 100% accurate, but I’m going off of what I remember being told of this practice a few times in my life and filling in the rest until corrected by an aforementioned old timer.. so don’t get interbent about it. Thanks.) The old timers would make box traps and put them in the barn at night. They baited them with feed and molasses. In the morning a few field and barn mice would find themselves gorged on grain and stuck in said box. They were too fat to get out the way they came in – a tiny funnel they barely squeezed through to get trapped. The farm boys would plug the box to prevent any escape or barn cat thievery and go about their daily chores until the evening closed in. Then they’d grab a roof shingle and chop it down to a boat fit for a mouse, with a slightly tapered and rounded point on one side, much like a silhouette of a church with a single steeple. They’d grab the mouse box and walk down the creek. When they reached a point well upstream of their desired fishing hole they would firmly put a few wraps of twine over a mouse’s midsection, careful to leave the legs free. These loops of twain held the fishing line in place that ran down the rodent’s spine to the hook at the base of its tail. Then they would lightly wrap the fishing line a couple of times around the mouse and the base of the steeple to keep it from jumping ship too soon. Then they would sail this forlorn vessel down the current into one of the dark cutbank holes, and the fisherman would jerk the line so the mouse came off of the shingle and into the water, swimming like it normally would until a high elevation shark would jutt out to claim it. Utter carnage on a farm engineer level.
It sounded like Siren-wrecked sailor folklore, but after asking other more respected adults we found it to be as good as gospel. This was our reality, our tiny and sheltered rural universe, and inside of it was an aquatic predator whose tastes were mammalian and whose surname was Salmo Trutta. The very next night we began our attempts to catch mice in a way that they wouldn’t be harmed, but it never panned out.
Years passed and this deeply marked imprint slowly faded and only reemerged once we began catch and release fly fishing. Whenever we caught a large brown on a big streamer in the late spring or summer it always had a bunch of mouse sized lumps protruding from its belly. It finally came to a head when one of my friends dads caught and kept a double digit weight 31″ brown on a rainbow Rapala. When he cleaned it the stomach contained the following: Two young muskrats, 5 field mice, one brook trout, and a host of undigested mouse parts. From here on in it wasn’t wantoned folklore any longer, it was business.
We started plying the creeks on full moons in the spring and summer with mouse patterns. The bigger the mouse the bigger the fish being the logic. We had a few boils, a few slashes, but no solid takes. Around this time I took a self-imposed hiatus from fishing, which was well warranted and long in the making. While I was away my buddies kept trying for the mouse hatch and eventually struck gold using smaller patterns. They were casting under moonlight and pulling fish that most people would hang their fisherman hats on as they walked into their studies or dens, whatever one an accomplished old school fly angler would chose to call his man cave. Fiberglass wall hangers, in the flesh.
I eventually came out of my funk and joined these lunar fishing missions. In the past several years I’ve hooked and lost over a dozen on the mouse fly. I’ve spent those years tormented by the fate of bad hook-sets, faulty tippet, and streamside obstructions. It made me justify my short absence from fishing. It made me feel like the gods I don’t believe in were trying to prove something to me. No country for young heart-ached fools. But last Friday my cards finally turned, and I’ll never forget it. Not the shaking hands. The spilled beer. The dobson fly bites that drew blood and swoll up my arms and legs like water balloons. And especially not the batshit insane explosion that occurred when my little puff of deer hair first made contact with the water.
My folks are getting older. Getting older living in a secluded and proudly self-sufficient place takes an unwarranted toll on the still young minds and rapidly depreciating bodies of my parents. My mother is happy for me to offer help doing back-straining chores on the property, although she relents to any excuse she imposes for me to not act on helping her. My father would preferably lose a limb before he asked for help from me in a direct fashion. These are the people who raised me, dog help any children I may have running around after my wild years. And dog help their mamas too.
I spent the day landscaping: moving sand, gravel, and cinder blocks. Digging holes and sidehill scrapes in an effort to make this indescribably beautiful place more so during a family reunion a month hence. Eventually it was dinner time and we ate a hearty meal. My father wanted to show me a fishing show he DVR’d, but the light was fading so I told him to cork it, grabbed a beer, and set up my mouse pattern on my most prized fly rod, a Sage ZXL 5wt. If you’ve had the pleasure of casting this mastercraftsmen piece of graphite, I won’t spare you. It’s the greatest fly rod I’ve ever casted, the Mona Lisa stare reflected in it’s ability to keep your emotions while casting a #24 midge or a 2/0 bass popper. I’ve landed 6 ounce brookies and 10 pound bass on this rod and it’s never made me feel over or under gunned. Marvel at my product placement for an extinct relic that still goes for sticker price years later on eBay. If you have a ZXL, I’ll buy it.
I tied the mouse on with a Rapala knot using 6 feet of 20lb Maxima as tippet. I tricked the dogs to stay and eat instead of barging down the screen door to follow me/ruin my stealth fishing and walked down to the creek in the fading glory that is May in the Sierras. I’ve been scouting and prodding the creek since March – I knew all of the lairs and holding spots, all of the resident brown trout that held a vicious court in these places, and how to approach them. Things haven’t changed much since my boyhood, aside from my ogre like stature and the fact I was wielding a fly rod instead of a Zebco or Ugly Stick. The first spot had a spooky 18″ brown that would take off the second you casted if you approached it wrong, and after I set my mouse on the water nothing moved. I waited to twitch it till the current pushed it to the bank. I twitched it and waited some more. Silence. No water bursting. No stirring of ripples.
I moved down to the ragged old growth stump that has a cut bank on the other side so deep I can’t feel the back of it with my three foot arm and a one foot stick. I stopped upstream and put the mouse perfectly at the base of the roots on the first cast. I twitched it and stripped it at swimming mouse speed all the way up the side of the cut bank and to my rod tip. Not a flash, not a boil.
I walked further to a place that always holds large trout, the box car hole. On my first cast a boil came under the mouse. It sounded like jacuzzi jets starting. I couldn’t see the water and I didn’t feel anything, so I gave a half hearted set and the mouse flopped to my knees in a less than dramatic fashion. I tried a few more times but the water and fading light remained calm, buddhist, and tranquil. That was it on the upper creek.
Below me lay the waters of giants. I didn’t prod these waters on my scouting trips because I already knew what was lurking under the banks – browns capable of eating rodents, birds, snakes, orphaned limbs – anything deemed capable of fitting down their throats. It’s not good to poke the bears down here very regularly so I only fish these waters a handful of times all year. I want to keep my fish big, dumb and happy. There’s some sort of parable to be made with our government in that last sentence but I digress.
I approached the final hole of the rapidly falling night. I crept on my knees through the grass while it whacked me in the face and I remembered past mouse excursions in this hole. Two break offs, one thrown hook. I set up and cast into the top of the long pool. The mouse snagged the far bank and caused me to expose myself to the water to get it back.
“This hole is toast” I thought as I stretched my body and rod across the stream. I worked the mouse free of the brambles and backed off to the hinter of the tall grass. I contemplated cold carne asada burritos and good wine at the house. A hit of bourbon with my old man. The couch. But I knew I hadn’t hit the money spot 20 yards down stream, and I hoped I didn’t ruin it retrieving my snagged mouse. I sipped my warm beer and crept toward a prime casting spot.
I ripped a few pulls of line off the reel and shot a one timer to the back corner of the hole. The mouse fell gently to the water off of the far bank. Before I could even start stripping a volcano erupted and all hell broke loose. I was too shocked to think but my instinct somehow put my right hand and rod high into the air. Was it on? I snapped out of it and found I was tight to a large brown.
When the dust settled a few minutes later and the silence kicked in I took a couple of hand shakingly shitty pictures and quickly made sure the beast was revived before it shot back into the darkness.
I went to take a victory swig of my beer but it unfortunately had been a casualty of the battle, face down in its own mud. I muttered “Holy Shit” about 50 times like some tourettes syndrome monk as I walked back home in the dark, wide eyed and primal. “Bourbon me..” was all I could say when I got to the door.