By William G. Tapply.
[Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. So, once a month, I post a piece of Bill’s outdoors wisdom or angling know-how. If you are not familiar with Bill’s work, I encourage you to check out his website and the links below.]
The Littlehorn River begins at the outlet of a small cottage-rimmed pond, follows the old Boston & Maine railroad tracks behind gas stations and strip malls and suburban backyards, passes under three highway bridges, and ends several aimless miles later in another pond. In April, when the hatchery trucks make their deposits, the bridges swarm with fishermen, who cruise red-and-white bobbers through the pools.
By June, the rocks in the riffles begin to rise above the sluggish currents. Perch and bluegills and an occasional largemouth bass move up and down from the ponds into the pools. Except for the kids from the condominium complex, who hunt turtles and frogs there, nobody pays any attention to the Littlehorn after Memorial Day.
Except me. The Littlehorn runs less than a mile from my house. For better or for worse, the Littlehorn is my home water. I wish it was better. But at least it’s mine, and if it were better, it probably wouldn’t be my secret.
You won’t find any blue line on a Massachusetts road map to represent the Littlehorn River. It’s on the topographic map, but it’s got a different name.
The Littlehorn is my name for it. It’s got pools and riffles and runs, exactly like Montana’s Bighorn. Except it’s in Massachusetts. And it’s a lot smaller. There are holes in the Littlehorn where a careless step might send water sloshing over your hip boots. You might need more than a roll cast to reach from one bank to the other where it widens and slows below the third highway bridge. Mostly, though, it’s little. Its trout are smaller and scarcer, too, and the hatches are considerably sparser and less dependable than they are on the Bighorn.
But I’ve caught trout from the Littlehorn in every season of the year. As far as I know, nobody else in the world can say that. But then, nobody else has spent as much time as I have probing its depths, monitoring its temperature and its insects, drifting flies through it, and just sitting on its banks watching it go by. Over the years, I’ve discovered where the springholes and deep undercuts are, and I know that these are places where some of those hatchery browns go to escape April worms and July droughts. They learn to elude herons and minks, and they learn to eat insects and minnows, and gradually they become wild trout.
I know these things. So I feel I’ve earned the right to keep the Littlehorn a secret. I share it with nobody. If you were to ask me about the Littlehorn, I’d tell you, “Oh, they dump in some stockers in April. Good place for kids with worms. Otherwise, fageddaboudit.”
* * *
One evening in mid June a few years ago, I made an exception to my rule. I was working my leisurely way upstream, floating a small white#winged Wulff through the riffles and against the banks. I was catching nothing, nor did I expect to. For now, the company of the Littlehorn was enough. I expected some Light Cahills to come off toward dusk, and I had planned it so I’d arrive at the pool below the washed-out milldam at the right time.
When I rounded the bend, I found another angler standing knee-deep in the middle of my pool. She wore baggy man-sized hip boots, a long-billed cap that flopped over her ears, a blond ponytail, and a pink tee shirt. She took turns slapping the water with her fly line and slapping the mosquitoes off her bare arms.
She was in my river, fishing in my pool.
She was about eleven years old. I sat on a rock to watch her. She cast awkwardly and grimly. But she kept at it, apparently unaware of my presence.
Soon the sun sank behind the trees and a few cream-colored mayflies began drifting on the water. Upstream of the girl I saw a swirl. Then another. Exactly where I knew they’d be. I couldn’t stand it.
“How’re they biting?” I called.
She jerked her head around. “Oh, gee, Mister. You scared me.”
“I never catch anything. It’s fun anyway.”
I got up and waded in beside her. “Let’s see what you’re using.”
She stripped in a Mickey Finn streamer, big enough to frighten a northern pike, tied to a level 30-pound tippet.
“Want to catch a trout?” I said.
She grinned. She wore braces. “Some day I will,” she said.
“Why not tonight?”
She shrugged. “Why not?”
I told her my name. Hers was Mary Ellen. She insisted on calling me Mister. I cut off her leader and replaced it with a seven-footer tapered to 4X. Then I tied on a Size l4 Light Cahill. “Cast it up there,” I told her, pointing with my rod tip to the place where the riffle flattened and widened at the head of the pool. “There are three hungry trout there.”
She managed better with the tapered leader. On her third try the Cahill landed lightly, drifted barely a foot, then disappeared in a quick, silvery flash. She turned to look at me. “What was that?”
“A trout,” I said. “You’ve got to set the hook.”
I showed her what I meant. She watched me, frowning.
They were nine-inch browns, survivors of the spring hatchery deposit. And they were naive and cooperative. Mary Ellen hooked the third one she rose. She derricked it onto the bank and fell upon it with both hands.
I helped her unhook it. “Want to bring it home?” I said.
“Oh, no. Let’s put him back.” I helped her revive her trout. When it flicked its tail and darted back into the pool, she waved and said, “Bye, bye, fish.”
That was one time I didn’t mind sharing the secrets of the Littlehorn.
* * *
Last July, a three-day gullywasher raised the water level of the Littlehorn nearly a foot. It was still drizzly the morning of the fourth day when I waded into the head of the pool below the first bridge.
I tied on a smallish muddler and drifted it through the currents. I cast absentmindedly and without expectation, not even moving, just fishing that pool, happy to be there. I caught a small bass, and a little later a hand-size bluegill. The hum and swish of trucks and cars passing over the bridge behind me was muffled by the damp, heavy air, and as I got into the rhythms of the water, the traffic sounds subsided completely from my consciousness.
It took the big trout half an hour to decide to strike. When he engulfed my muddler, I glimpsed the golden flash of his broad flank beneath the stream’s surface. He turned and bulled toward the brush-lined opposite bank, and I knew it was a heavy fish. I raised my rod tip and let the line slide through my fingers. Then he jumped, and I saw that he was bigger, by several dimensions, than any brown trout I’d ever seen in the Littlehorn. He was as big, in fact, as worthy browns I’d taken from the Bighorn.
The sounds of traffic filtered back into my consciousness, and I was suddenly aware that I was standing there, in plain sight in the middle of my secret stream, with a monster trout on the end of my line. I considered the consequences. Then I snubbed the line around my finger and lowered my rod to give the fish a straight pull. I felt the leader tighten, stretch, then pop.
“Bye, bye, fish,” I said.
* * *
For a list of great books by William G. Tapply (many available on multiple formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.), click here. Don’t miss Sportsman’s Legacy: A Rich Memoir of a Man’s Life with His Great Sportsman Father, His Beloved Family, and His Adored Brittany.