I’d planned to creep into the Brandywine River a week earlier, but rain had seen to that. A storm moved across the state from the south-west, plodding it’s way out to sea and leaving behind buckets of rain. It would be a near two hour drive north an an overnight with my parents who live nearby, the river would be high and cloudy, and I wanted better conditions. A week would do it, and by the following Tuesday I was winding through the back roads of Chadd’s Ford on my way to rendezvous with Terry at A Marblehead FlyFisher, the best place to pick up word from the river, and to my knowledge, the only surviving fly shop in the state of Delaware. Terry had just returned from a trip up north to cast at False Albacore. He had fished for three days, casting a two-handed rod and hooking up with several Albies on just one baitfish imitation which he now kept in a Ziploc bag to show curious customers, it’s hook shank bent and dressing crumpled and abused – a spent fly.
After a round of fishing talk and an examination of his terminally damaged waders, Terry was digging through shelves of flies and pointing out what had been working on the Smallmouth Bass I had come to chase. From streamers to poppers, the only common theme was rubber legs. Anything with rubber legs. I loaded up on crayfish imitations, poppers with enough rubber legs to strangle themselves, bait fish imitations, and woolly buggers with……rubber legs. Armed with tips, directions, information and ammunition, I thanked Terry and promised to send saltwater reports from down south, and set out for river.
After parking in the wooded lot and throwing on my waders and sling pack, I picked up the trail Terry suggested I follow to a good drop-in point on the steep banks of a low running Brandywine. I found the narrow confluence I was looking for and stepped down onto the rocky creek bed. Only a few feet in, the river reached in to the alcove and I waded in ankle deep water as juvenile panfish scattered in every direction in the gin clear water. Targeting smallmouth, I started on the surface. A blue heron was at rest on the far bank, and, taking him as a good omen – not to mention an indication of fish – I cast a sneaky pete popper onto the faster moving water along the bank – a process I was to repeat in several pools and runs along the banks for the next 30 minutes without so much as an indication of feeding bass.
I waded downstream and, looking ahead, noticed an area of light ripples on the otherwise glassy river surface. The glare prevented me from identifying what structure lay ahead – it turned out to be several large boulders – but casting the popper just before the ripples and letting it drift over the turbulence prompted a soft, slurping take. The rod bent and I thought I’d hooked into a smallmouth. Yet to catch one on the fly, and having never tried, I was anxious to hook up early, but as the fish came to hand I could see I hadn’t hit my target. None the less, I had a Rock Bass on the line. I’d also somehow managed to avoid catching one of those before, too.
I walked a good length of the river that afternoon – casting to downed trees, rock piles and rips, and still haven’t managed to check the smallmouth bass off of my list. I know they are there. I usually walk away from such an event with some inclination, or excuse, if you like, about why I didn’t catch what I was fishing for. Usually there is a condition to consider, a case of inappropriate equipment, an unavoidable obstacle. On this day, I was out of ideas. It is my inclination to blame user error, or just one of those days, but in hindsight I can’t think of anything I’d have done differently. I cast floaters, slider, poppers, streamers and bugs. I fished deep and high, fast and slow. I exhausted my options, and eventually, my time on the river. I burned the remaining light of day casting poppers to a stack of bluegills I’d found while probing for bass earlier in the afternoon. I caught plenty of fish, but the smallmouth remains unchecked. A matter of time.