May is my favorite month.
Here in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, May is when spring arrives in earnest. Over the course of the first week a wave of new green covers the fields, ice retreats from the lakes, and budding sugar maples on the hillsides give the mountains an effervescent golden shimmer.
Brooks and rivers run clear, clean, and cold in May. Apples bloom, and wild leeks spring from the forest floor. Songbirds return to Vermont. It feels as if the whole earth is exploding with joy.
Trout feed heavily in May, making up for the long cold months of winter torpidity by feasting on hatching insects. At first, the Vermont fisher sprints gleefully into the long sunny days, fishing everywhere, and feeling both overjoyed and overwhelmed. For those like me, who also love to hunt wild turkeys, the month of May is especially manic because it coincides with turkey season, and spring turkey hunting in Vermont involves waking up hours before dawn.
Sometime in the second week of May, sleep deprivation and joyful exuberance combine to create a magical and dreamlike state. After a week or two of waking up at 4 am and returning home from fishing in the dusk hour of 8 – 9 pm, the fisher will finally have to acknowledge a deep tiredness, and sleep through an entire weekend of blue skies, strutting gobblers, and hatches of Hendrickson mayflies.
I was deep in the dream magic of May one recent evening when I found myself thigh deep in the Browns River, a tributary of the Lamoille River, just downstream from a covered bridge. A few tiny insects, fuzzy and white, drifted on currents of air. It was evening, and I was exhausted, but trout were rising all around me, and the sight and sound of their splashes and the shock of cold water made me hyper alert, attuned to every texture of the gathering dusk.
They were brown trout, feeding voraciously, swirling, splashing, and gulping. At first I was cautious about spooking them and kept a low profile, inching slowly over the muddy bottom in my sneakers and jeans. Soon, though, it became clear that the trout were too far gone in their feeding frenzy to pay me any mind. As I tied on a caddis nymph and checked my knots, two trout swirled at the surface, so close I could see every red dot on their buttery sides, the ripples from their rises lapping against my belly. Hands shaking, I dropped my fly right above the fish and held my breath while it drifted downstream.
For over an hour the brown trout ignored me. I changed flies. I made lovely casts. I mended the line so that my nymphs drifted naturally through the pool. I floated dry flies through the rise forms of feeding fish. Desperate, I even stripped a purple Wooly Bugger.
Changing flies one last time, I remembered knot tying advice from Chris, the helpful owner of Green Mountain Troutfitters. “After a while it becomes more about muscle memory of how to move your fingers than about what the line is doing,” he had said, helpful advice given that it was now too dark to see the line.
I cinched a knot tight in the eye of a tiny white-hackled fly, and false cast over the dark pool and splashing trout. When the rhythm felt right, and I had enough line, I settled the cast onto the surface, the leader unfolding, the fly and tippet landing in a gentle curl. Eyes straining, I followed the steady drift of the tiny fly. The feeding frenzy seemed to be reaching a new height of intensity. In a backwater across the river a large trout slapped surface as loudly as a beaver. I was late for dinner with my fiancé, and my phone had lost its charge. Every trout in the pool was rising. The fly drifted perfectly downstream.
Fish swirled. In a meadow, a woodcock called for its mate and spiraled down into the grass. Eventually the fly reached the end of its drift and, acknowledging the dark and the cold, I left the river and drove home to food, warmth, and dreams of rising trout, and of a summer of catching them.