Falling for an old friend: First fly fishing trip of the year ends with a dunking instead of a trout
According to my pickup, which only lies to me occasionally, it was 64 degrees Monday afternoon here in Rapid City.
Which was good, because if you’re going to fall in the creek in February, it’s best to do it on a really nice day.
It was even a little too nice for my comfort level as someone who worries quite a bit about climate change. You know, climate change, a warming of the earth’s overall temperature that, among other effects, increases the volatility of weather patterns.
It was 64 and gorgeously sunny on Monday when I fell in the creek. As I write this late Tuesday afternoon, warm and dry in my den, it’s 28 degrees outside with a 40-mph wind driving tiny pellets of sleet against the window.
It’ll be clear and about 25 tomorrow, then back up over 50 by Friday.
Sure, we live in a land of up-and-down weather. Always have. But it’s getting more up and down, in worrisome ways, here and across world. Our world. The only one we have.
On the bright side, though, Monday was definitely a falling-in day, if you’re going to have one. And I usually do, sooner or later during any year of fly fishing in Black Hills streams.
It’s usually not on the first day I go out, however, which is good, because my first fly fishing trip in any calendar year usually occurs in January or February.
I’m sure that seems early to some. But if you live in Rapid City, like to fly fish and the forecast on any winter day is for the 60s, it’s pretty tough to stay away from the water. It flows right through town, for heaven’s sake, with all those trout in it.
And on any warm winter day, the chances of catching a trout are pretty good, if you know the spots and the flies.
So I was hoping, during my first fly fishing trip of 2023, to catch a trout. Not just for me. Also for Don. Especially for Don.
Remembering that last time together on the water
As I write this, on Valentine’s Day, it has been a month to the day since Don Polovich died. Don was 80 and succumbed to a variety of health challenges that had limited his activities in recent years.
High on the list of lost or diminished loves were photography and fly fishing.
A native of Michigan, Don was an old-school newspaper photographer who came to the Rapid City Journal in 1970. Over the next 36 years he captured some of the most newsworthy events in western South Dakota history. And as he showed Journal readers his gifts with a 35-mm camera, he also mastered the fly rod and came to be one of the better fly fishers in the Black Hills.
He inspired me to take up the sport when I moved to the hills in 2002. And he offered guidance for years after that.
In return, I provided entertainment for Don, which included accounts of mishaps — dry and wet — during my fly-fishing trips.
We shared some time on the water, too, including what I believe was Don’s last trip up into the Black Hills for trout. At least that’s what he said a few months later, when I went to see him in a convalescent center. There in his room, I scrolled back through the pictures on my cell phone and found the ones I shot that day in the hills. Don smiled at each one, nodding.
I smiled and nodded, too. It was a beautiful early October day in 2020 when I happened upon him up on Pactola Reservoir. He was fishing alone in a bay not far from the north boat ramp on the reservoir. He could barely walk on his own by then, although he still insisted on doing it, holding his fly rod in one hand and his landing net in the other, using it as a cane when necessary.
Whatever his ailments, Don could still figure out the trout — where they were, what they wanted to eat and how to present it. And in a half hour or 45 minutes of fishing, he caught and released several nice rainbows from 15 to 20 inches long.
I helped him a little bit with those fish, but not much. And the last picture I shot of Don in the outdoors was as he walked alone amidst shadows back toward the parking lot, with a sunny stretch of shoreline up ahead.
We spoke about that day a few months ago when I saw Don for the last time. It was during his birthday party here in Rapid City arranged by his daughter, Moira. Don had been spending most of the last couple of years in Mexico and New Mexico with Moira and her husband, and enjoying himself as much as his condition would allow. Moira brought him back for the party. And Don’s many friends were delighted that she did.
After he died, Moira said in a text exchange that her dad was much his old self at the end, even talking cheerfully about fishing. I like to think of Don drifting off that way, fishing rod in hand, walking through the shadowy end of this life toward a light we can’t yet understand.
Before the bridge project, it was my most reliable spot
And what better way, I figured, to honor him than with my own rod in hand, catching a wild brown trout on my first trip of the year.
A few things went wrong with my plan, beginning with my best fishing spot on Rapid Creek here in town. It’s no longer my best. A just-finished bridge project that I’m sure was necessary for safe traffic and pedestrian-bike travel altered the 40-foot-long run coming off the end of a riffle just above the bridge.
In case you don’t fly fish or know much about creek talk, a “riffle” is a rocky, shallower stretch of creek with faster-moving water. Trout can and do feed in riffles, although they often rest and feed in quieter water behind rocks or logs.
A “run” is a place with deeper-but-still-moving water, a generally smooth surface and consistent or uniform flows. It’s generally not as deep as an eddy or pool, but it’s deep enough to give trout some protection and sense of security while still bringing them food — insects at one stage of development or another — on or in the current.
Runs are also outside of the strongest flow, so trout don’t have to work as hard to make a living there. And the location of runs directly below riffles, where the fast-moving moving water is highly oxygenated, offers most of what trout need to live.
Before the bridge reconstruction, the water in my favorite run was 1 to 4 feet deep before breaking into a shorter riffle with a few large rocks and then reforming itself into a shorter, shallower run below. Sometimes I’d catch a fish or two in the lower run. But the main run always produced, especially if fished mid-morning until noon.
And I mean always. I can’t remember a time when it didn’t.
Now the run is shorter and shallower and not nearly as fetching to me or, I’d guess, to the trout as it used to be. The run below it is virtually gone, changed into a riffle leading to a tangle of pools beneath the bridge. The pools are snaggy and difficult to fish. They’ve only gotten worse with the construction work.
On top of all that, I couldn’t get there until the afternoon, which has never been the best time of day on that stretch of water.
I fished without enthusiasm for a while, then gave up and went downstream to a pretty good spot that hasn’t been changed by the bridge work. But there was already someone fishing it.
On fighting moods and a good run sometimes spoiled by ducks
So I went upstream a couple hundred yards to a place below a railroad bridge where I’ve sometimes done well. But there were two or three fellows on the bridge who had clearly been drinking. They were shouting at each other and appeared to be in a fighting mood.
Fighting moods and fly fishing don’t mix well. So I moved to another spot, this time about a half mile upstream. That spot can be very good, except for the ducks. Oh, the ducks. They love that stretch of stream. On a given day, anywhere from 50 to 100 mallards can be found there.
And while I love mallards at almost any other time and place, I resent them deeply when I’m trying to fish a stream section they occupy, especially when there are a lot of them.
They mess up runs and spook the trout, particularly when they make a commotion on the water, as they often do when disturbed.
Sometimes you can sort of “herd” them if you approach them smartly, from the right direction, in the right way. And I tried to do that at my targeted fishing spot, I did pretty well, too, persuading the ducks on the water to paddle slowly to the other side.
Most of the ducks were already resting on the opposite bank. And I didn’t want them fluttering onto the stream at my approach. So, from a spot back away from the bank — far enough to not spook the fish — on my side of the stream, I raised my arms above my head and waved them back and forth, as I sort or ran back and forth at the same time.
I must have been quite a sight. And I guess the mallards figured that a deranged-looking creature with odd-looking legs trying to fly on skinny wings didn’t mix well with a relaxing afternoon on the stream.
In twos and fives and 10s and 20s, the ducks flew away from the stream, not over it. I was delighted. The run might not have been ruined. Don’s trout might soon be caught!
Still keeping away from the bank, I walked to the bottom end of the run where the water got shallower. The footing on the stream bed below looked good. The bank was only a foot and a half or so high. It looked like an easy entry.
Often in my outdoor adventures things aren’t as easy as they appear.
Everybody’s got a plan, until they fall in
I crouched, lowered my left foot down over the bank and settled into the water, where the flow was trickier than it looked and the stream bed not as stable as I thought.
Immediately I started to tip sideways, tried to catch my balance, almost caught it, dropped my right foot down into the creek for stability, almost found it, but then fell over backward into the creek.
Kasploosh! Or something like that.
Then, another almost. I turned quickly on my right side and pushed myself up to a sitting position almost before the water poured over my wader tops in the back. Almost.
And speaking of almost, an hour earlier I had almost taken the time to look around in the basement for my wader belt — which helps keep water from pouring into your waders if you fall in — before I headed for the stream. Almost.
But I was in a hurry to get in a little fishing before heading to watch my stepson Padraic coach one of the middle-school teams — East — in a 7th-grade basketball game. And what were the odds that I’d take a dunking on the first trip of the year?
Whatever the odds, without the belt the water poured over the back of my waders quickly. Even if you haven’t been in that situation, you can probably imagine how cold that creek water felt, despite the unusually warm air temperature. Maybe you can imagine, too, how quickly it found its way down my back, over and around my butt and down the insides of my wader legs and into my boots.
In this case, most of the water went down the right leg into the right boot. I guess that’s because I had pushed myself onto my right side as I sat up, got to my knees and crawled up the bank and out of the creek.
Standing upright along the creek, I was relieved my performance hadn’t attracted a crowd on the nearby bike path. And after I checked my rod and reel and gear, I thought ever so briefly about walking a bit farther down the creek, stepping back in and working my way up to the run for a few casts. It was still duck free and looked promising, after all.
But even on a 64-degree day, the creek water felt awfully cold and was feeling colder by the minute.
So I went sloshing and squishing back to the pickup, without a trout but with a falling-in-the-creek story that I’m pretty sure Don would have liked even better.