We take it for granted, don't we? Even though it is the well spring of our shared obsession - the vehicle that daily conveys our collective distraction - we rarely stop to consider the water in which we wet our lines. In recent months, I've come to appreciate my rivers - and the water that shapes them - in a way I previously had not.
Late last summer, Tropical Storm Irene struck my area with, "great vengeance and furious anger," and rivers that usually flow at 150 to 300 cubic feet per second, were flowing at over 40,000 cfs.
Try to imagine the volume and ferocity of the water as it blew its banks, and the implications of what has been described as a 500 year flood on the river valleys and adjacent communities. One hundred year-old trees snapped like so much kindling. Bridges and roads disappeared. Homes - and the lives and memories they represented - were simply swept aside. In one case, part of a cemetery was washed away; the receding river left caskets strewn along its length. Damage estimates ranged from one billion to two billion dollars. Naturally, these estimates did not account for the impact of the storm on angling and other recreational activities.
For well over a month following the storm, the rivers that we collectively call our home water were tinged with silt, and like a plague this silt had the effect of infecting all it touched. Grey-green grime covered everything. Every inch of river bottom took on the chalky whiteness of sun dried clay; low growth vegetation along the banks withered and died as a result of having been covered with a thin layer of muddy death. In certain spots, one could clearly see a mud line cutting across trees - 15 feet or so above the river's surface. This line marked the spot at which the rivers crested.
The result was that the autumn's hatches generally failed to appear. Nymph fishing usually proved fruitless, and even ripping a streamer through likely runs rarely drew a follow. Usually, high water through the summer is a boon, but at the close of last season the prognosis was bleak. The mood among the river's anglers was both pessimistic and forlorn. What would the spring bring?
Early April helped to alleviate the worries of bug chuckers and gear heads alike, but while the rivers' fish appear alive and well, the mood is guarded. Much of the silt from last fall remains. In a normal year, routine spring floods would have cleaned the previous season's crust from the river bottom. This year, however, we've witnessed record lows in the same rivers that were well over their banks just seven months ago.
With the water this low - and several days experiencing air temps near 80 and 90 degrees - we've been fishing dry flies during a hendrickson hatch that likely began mid March. Hennies don't usually make their first appearance until the last week of April or the first of May. If the season continues as it is, we might be fishing sulphurs come the third second week of May. The two pronged assault of excessive siltation followed by extremely low water does not portend good things to come.
Our recent trips to the river - however successful as they've been - have each ended with a certain sense of foreboding. As low as it is now, where will the water be in another month or two? Where will the water be come July and August? What will happen to the trout if the springs aren't refreshed? What becomes of a river if she hasn't any water? Perhaps even more to the point ...
What becomes of a bug chucker if he hasn't any water in which to chuck bugs?