Thursday, July 02, 2009

Out of the office, into a stream

Out of the office, into a stream

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Summer is here, but the people I want to catch up with for stories are not. Phone calls get me voicemail, and emails bring out-of-office replies. Perhaps some first-hand research into the health of local waterways is in order.

The equipment list for this foray is short: binoculars, check; camera, check; fly rod, fishing vest, and waders, check. Away we go.

First stop, a stretch of the Salt Fork in Vermilion County. On the drive there I’m reminded of the massive fish kill that occurred on the river back in 2002 when workers at the U of I released ammonia into the system. Note to self: find out what happened to the $450,000 the University finally paid to settle that case last year.

At the bridge where I intend to get on the river, I find it still high and muddy from the extreme rains of June. Is it worth a shot? Not likely. My enthusiasm for this spot is dampened further by some new posting. The roadside trees here bristle with signs: “PRIVATE PROPERTY” -- “Keep Out” -- “NO TRESPASSING HUNTING OR FISHING: VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.” It seems to me computer games aren’t the only thing keeping kids from spending summer days down by the old fishin’ hole.

[Photos: Silt-laden water and heavy posting discourage a stop on the Salt Fork River.]

Maybe a smaller stream would offer clearer water and better opportunities. Up the road there’s access to a tributary I’ve always meant to fish but never gotten around to. I park in the lot at a high school with grounds bordering the creek and get into my waders.

As I cross the lawn toward the woods I catch the music of water tumbling over rocks before I am able to glimpse the creek through the trees. The emphatic calling of an Acadian flycatcher, which often nests over streams, assures me I’ve come to the right place.

The creek here is even more attractive than it appeared to be from the road. Water plunges from one well-defined pool to the next over rocky riffles and through deeper, narrow runs. It’s like the Pennsylvania trout stream I’ll be fishing soon on a smaller scale, although here the fish I’m after are smallmouth bass.

The pools I cast to first are shallow, and yield only a few shiners. But as I make my way downstream I get into waist-deep water now and then, and that’s where the bass hang out. Over the next couple of hours I catch four of them, none trophies, but all worth the effort.

For the angler who’s a birder, too, the intervals between fish hold their own pleasures. I enjoy listening to the rising, buzzy trill of a northern parula, one of those songbirds that’s so eagerly awaited by birders in the spring and then forgotten once the trees leaf out. A kingfisher barrels upstream intent on her own fishing. At the sight of me she banks sharply and climbs higher, then drops back down toward the water once she is safely past.

The only heart-stopping moment of this trip comes when I flush a doe from the streamside brush. She thrashes as she rises, springs across the creek and clatters among the loose rocks there before disappearing into the woods.

I’ve substituted coffee for the lunch I didn’t pack, and by mid afternoon the impulse to eat overcomes the urge to explore one more stretch of creek. It’s good to know there will still be water that’s new to me when I come back again.