Æfansang — Fishing the Evening Light

“And then the sun goes down, and long the afterglow gives light.

And then the damask curtains glow along the western window.

And now the first star is lit, and I go home.”

-Henry David Thoreau, Journals, January 7, 1852

Above photo: The author on Silver Creek at sunset, by Bert Lindler, summer of 1967.

The East

I learned to fish in bright sunshine during family summer vacations in the 1950s. Everything we children did on the water began after the sun had risen well into the southern sky. After breakfast, Daddy and I would take turns rowing the rented boat on Douthat Lake in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, the sunlight sparkling on the lake nestled among the woodland hills.

We could see things in the daytime – how to put worms on a hook, the patient stare-down contest with the red-and-white bobber, waiting for the tug, the bounce. We could untangle the backlashes on cheap level-wind reels and tie knots to Jitterbugs in hopes of a bass. Daytime was when we fished.

Douthat Lake – photos above and below by author’s mother, Elizabeth Gochnauer Church

Not until my teenage years, when I learned to fly fish, did I tarry on the water until dark. Besides the extra hours and relief from daytime crowds, this yielded a dividend, not valued by me then but cherished now — fishing the evening light.

On the Rapidan River in Shenandoah National Park, the summer evening arrives early, the shade of the mountains and dark green forests thick upon the stream. As the air cools and the shadows deepen, you linger, enjoying the rush and gurgle of the stream — vespers of the Blue Ridge — securing your fly and climbing to the rocky road for the walk back to camp, jumping deer along the way, staying alert to skunk and bear, those prowlers of the night. Darkness comes soon, as you light the gas stove for a late dinner with your campmates.

Wading for stripers (rock) in the Upper Chesapeake affords a longer day — the sky there vast. I recall an October fifty years gone. A bright moon rose over low shores to the east while I fished on, casting and retrieving my skipping bug by feel and sound. Skittering it on the surface or giving it long pulls beneath, with a liquid “floop” as it dove, its trail of bubble, rising to the surface, and catching the last light reflected from the sky. Skeins of geese sliced the sky to the horizon, one wave close on another, debating which fields to raid. From behind me, just above the tall loblolly pines on the near shore, flocks broke overhead, silhouetted against the sky, the last light burnishing their bronze wings. The wade to shore was unhurried — holding the sounds and the sky in my heart for memory.

When the rock are slashing baitfish in the York River near Williamsburg, and you have but one fly rod to share with your friend, you stay late enough in the small Jon boat to worry parents. You leave the chop at last and move up Queen’s Creek toward home. Cock your ear in the dusk, and you might hear the splash of Powhatan’s paddles, or the rattle of musket fire across the water, echoing still from day-end skirmishes centuries past. Last shafts of light cast a green glow on the wet meadows of Spartina swaying in the evening breeze and turn your boyhood friend’s face to amber as he mans the helm — that light and that young face fled as quickly as the last rays of the sun.

Dragon Run, Virginia – photo by Marvin T. Williams

Stay late to fish Dragon Run by foot in Virginia’s Tidewater only if you dare. Before you know it, the muted greys and greens of the swamp have gone from dim to black. Do not tarry to admire the pastels. Trails disappear in the dark, and you risk a wet wade back to the car, praying that the thing that moves beneath your foot is just a rock — not a thing with hooked beak and savage jaws attached. And, if you lose your way, hope your friend at the car can honk you home.

The West

Sunsets on Idaho’s Silver Creek are gifts of gold. You linger for the late hatches and the slurp or slash of feeding fish, catching the rings of their rises reflected in the afterglow above the western mountains, changing flies by holding fly and tippet to the sky or down to catch the light reflected from the stream. Gold fades as blue and violet steal the show — the high desert spring creek sliding into night.

The shadows slide across the river and climb the eastern canyon walls, the boundary between daylight and twilight a clean abruptness in the thin high-desert air.

Sundown light on the Absorakas above the Yellowstone can dash across the hills, coming fast and leaving faster. A slash of gold or vermillion, sometimes a sliver between layers of clouds, splashing the mountains above the river — another adornment of Paradise. Time to reel in, count it as the end of the perfect day, and dream of tomorrow.

Dusk drops quietly on Nelson’s Spring Creek as tired anglers wend their way through the cattails and brome back to cabins or cars, the busy hatch-matching of the day a jumbled memory of tiny flies and tippets and of wary trout, won or lost. Now is the time for the earnest angler to find a rock or log, to relax and enjoy the swirl and swish of waxwings and swallows harvesting the last bugs of the day from the cooling air — and to learn from herons what patience and stealth truly are. The evening light helps you reflect upon the lessons of the day.

At day’s end on the Deschutes, you wait for the sun to dip behind canyon rims before wading out to try for steelhead. You don’t have ten thousand casts before darkness falls, so make each one count. Time for a dark fly against the sky, perhaps a waking Skunk or a black Wooly Bugger.

Moss Hole, Deschutes River, Oregon, M. Robbins Church

The shadows slide across the river and climb the eastern canyon walls, the boundary between daylight and twilight a clean abruptness in the thin high-desert air. The march of light on sage, cheat, and rimrocks draws your gaze from your fly. Then a questioning tug brings you back. Remember why you are here — but never forget.

Sometimes I have stayed too long to enjoy the day’s end. Years ago, I waded Oregon’s Siletz with a friend one evening for summer steelhead, hiking down one path from a favored pullout to fish downstream to another trail, less familiar. We fished deliberately, alternating runs and pools, enjoying the Pacific light soft against the firs and alder, reeling in at dark to begin the climb from the gorge. Thirty steps up the trail, flashlights failed. I urged us on through the dark coastal rainforest, hoping our feet would find the thin path. One-hundred feet more found us lost in deadfalls, seeing neither the way up nor the way back down. Spend the night in the woods? I was cozy in my neoprene waders and with a soft organic forest floor. But my friend had a wife — one waiting near the phone. With the stream not far, we struggled over and under fallen trees, lowering each other over ledges in the pitch. At the stream, we found moonlight through the open canopy. Retracing our way to the trail down did no good. Another dark mystery. We stumbled upstream through unfamiliar water to where a bridge brought us to the road and a hike to the car. A dash to the remembered phone booth by a country store and a late call home.

Bulkley at sunset, photo by Gordon Ferlitsch

Once, on the Bulkley, in a late September dusk, my single steelhead of the week came to the fly on my final evening as guides called “just one more cast, please” from the busy takeout across the river — entreaties turning to cheers as the rod arched, and the fish flew skyward.

But seldom are last casts answered. You yearn for a strike as you focus on the final swing of the fly — come on! — then reel in as day is done. You’ve had your time and chance. Shadows follow fast as you leave the water to make your way home, recalling the gifts of the day — and of the years.