Predatory ballet on cobblestone dance floors

Following a series of fits and starts, it appears the Adirondack spring has finally arrived. It’s been quite late this year, as the new season typically shows its true colors by Mother’s Day weekend.

There are already numerous signs, with plenty of birds in the air, trout in the creels and wildflowers in the woods.

However, the ultimate confirmation of the Adirondack spring occurs when the first black fly finally draws blood. It happened to me last evening.

Even though I didn’t feel the bite at first, I noticed blood behind my ear when I attempted to slap away the additional scavengers who had arrived to visit the site of the wound.

Although black flies are rarely bothersome on the water, especially if there’s a bit of a breeze, they are hell on earth when you’re hustling over a carry with a boat on your shoulders.

I swear they know you don’t have a free hand and call in reinforcements. There is very little relief at such times, other than wearing a full head net, gloves and picking up the pace.

Fortunately, it will be awhile before mosquitoes arrive on the scene. For now, all we can do is cover up any exposed skin and put up with the winged devils.

Over the next few months, outdoor travelers will have to suffer through a host of similar all-natural annoyances as warm, muggy evenings bring out the no-see-ums and the summer swelter that beckons deer flies to orbit your noggin.

Fly fanatics

While most Adirondack travelers tend to curse the bugs, beetles and flies, there is one peculiar faction of the local population that continues to revel in their arrival.

In fact, these folks have been know to wait patiently along the banks of local streams and rivers while searching for the first sign of a mayfly or caddis fly hatch.

However, this strange sect of river-watchers does not actually worship the flies. They pay homage to the fish the flies tend to attract.

Experience has taught them when and where each particular species of flies arrives, and each year they are willing to travel great distances in all sorts of inclement weather in an effort to return to the exact location of previous prolific fly hatches.

And so they come like bees to honey, adorned with strange vests dangling all sorts of contraptions and wearing rubber pants and clodhopper boots.

In one hand they’ll carry a long, willowy rod, and in the other, a wading staff. They will stand on the riverbanks and wait for hours, watching for the first flies to take to the air.

Then when the first trout gently sips a fly from the water’s surface, these folks will move quietly and gently into the rushing waters.

This scene usually unfolds in the low light of dusk or morning. At first glance the stream-walkers will appear clumsy as they walk on wobbly legs over wobbly stones into the cold, rushing waters.

They may lean heavily on a “third leg” they grasp in their spare hand, yet at all times they will protect the long willowy stick they carry in the other.

At first, the flies may be imperceptible, but soon they will appear as small clouds that hang low over the waters. The first signs of fish feeding will be small sips, which bring small rings to the still water sections of a river.

But then the number of sips will increase, and soon there will be a slash of water, and the splash of a fish as it catapults completely out of the water.

This will signal the folks dressed in funny pants to advance. They will shuffle along silently and carefully, and yet their river dance still seems awkward somehow.

One by one, they will slow down and finally stop. They may shuffle their feet for a bit as they search for traction. But by and large, they’ll be still for a bit.

Soon, their long rods will begin swaying back and forth like a metronome on a piano and they’ll begin to send great lengths of line off into the watery mist.

The tip of each line will hold a miniature fishhook wrapped completely in feathers and fur which is intended to mimic flies that are already in the air.

In order to catch fish, the clumsy looking folks must first learn how to deceive them. It begins with a dance of sorts, with movements that are slow, meticulous and precise.

It may also include a few false steps, as they struggle to get solid footing on a watery, cobblestone stage.

But soon, the angler will tend to bend and sway as if in rhythm with the line in the air.

It’s a process that’s been described as a “predatory ballet,” and it plays out nearly every evening on the cobblestone dance floors of numerous Adirondack streams and rivers.

It is a slow, cautious and careful process that engenders a calmness in both the participant and spectators alike.

The oddest element of the entire performance occurs when a predator finally connects with the prey. It is the antithesis of the entire calm, gentle and rhythmic process.

The first sign of contact can range anywhere from a gentle sip to a slashing, flashing, cart-wheeling performance which is typically followed by a mad dash downstream.

Of course, there are many variants, including a desperate run that strips line off the reel in a humming, “zzzzzz” fashion, as well as the ever popular tail-walking tiptoe in which a trout literally tap-dances across the surface of the water.

The contrasts are stark when the calm, deliberate actions of an angler are interrupted almost immediately by an episode of slashing, clashing and splashing pandemonium.

Likewise, the fury and wrath of the capture are the antithesis of the release.

With the battle won and a fish in hand, the graceful and grateful angler will promptly slow down the entire process in order to gently resuscitate the trout by holding it in the current until it can swim away, which is often the finest reward.

The process may slow down, but it does little to calm the spirit of the angler who usually remains “on the beat” due to a recent dose of adrenaline.