Uppermost House: Catching the late show

PeterLewisTreehouseCMYKBy S. Peter Lewis

BN Columnist

I’m no fawning entomologist. There, I said it.

But if I was a bug-lover, I would have a huge crush on a certain regal mayfly that breeds in local waters named Hexagenia limbata, a gigantic (relatively speaking), pale, golden-yellow beauty, ephemeral, crepuscular (verging on nocturnal), and mysterious. And, I have on good authority, delicious.

A recent evening found me creeping slowly down a certain dirt road toward a certain backwoods pond, laden with fly-fishing equipment and full of anticipation and coffee. There were four vehicles parked where the road quits the water’s edge, all SUVs or pickups, each dragging an empty trailer. Far out on the glassy surface, I saw four boats, one quite fancy, and heard the familiar commotion of the distant bass-hunters, yabbering on in their fisher-jargon while flinging enormous chartreuse rubber worms with high hopes toward the weedbeds.

I would not be joining their fiberglass and aluminum regatta; instead I would be using what is often referred to (with just a hint of derision) as a “belly boat.” This is an inflatable raft-thingy that you wear around your waist. It sits you in the water, your butt in a nylon sling, your back and arms supported on pneumatic tubes, and your legs and flippered-feet dangling below (providing both locomotion and a certain intimate vulnerability). There are zippered pockets all around, a backrest, and a mesh nylon shelf that straps over your lap (where you admire your fish, just before release). Clumsy to waddle around with on land (you have to walk backwards, because of the flippers), a belly boat morphs into something quite elegant and graceful once afloat. And it’s horribly stealthy and efficient, putting you nearly at eye-level with your quarry: “death from above,” one prominent fisher-writer wrote.

So out onto the pond I paddled, silent and with a low profile. Ready for action, but not too ready. For, you see, nothing was happening…yet. And nothing would happen, I estimated after looking at my watch, for 57 more minutes. So I bided my time by aimlessly cruising, swishing my fly-line out and back with a certain detached ambivalence, loosening up my arm and dropping a hideous buggy creation of my own design here and there, expecting nothing, and getting it. The pond was an empty mirrored disk. Formless and void. Not a ripple anywhere. Apparently fishless. But both I above and my finning cohort below knew different: we were all waiting for the show. For H. lambata has a very particular schedule: when the sun goes down, the curtain goes up.

At 8:25 the boats came in, a flotilla of sun-burned and hungry folk, those with full bladders eagerly looking toward the woods. Said they’d done okay. Out for hours. Gotten a few, no really big ones, though. Wanted to get in before pitchy dark so they wouldn’t wang their shins on their trailer tongues. “You’re gonna miss the show,” I said, hinting but not divulging. But they just wearily left, dragging their boats behind them. Headlights flashing through the trees. Tires crunching on gravel. Disappearing tail lights. Dust.

I was alone now, motionless under a darkening sky shading from purple to black, as a thin pale mist began to hover over the water. The pond went pewter, and stilled. The air dampened, pregnant with the sweetness of pine and fir. I looked again at my watch. Eleven minutes.

At 8:49, the first squirming H. lambata nymph broke the surface film a few feet from me. It quickly shed its nymphal husk, stood dimpling the water on its damsel legs and tiny feet, dried its lacy wings with a few flaps, and fluttered off to mate. A lucky one. Then another, a bit farther off. Then more. Then everywhere.

And so the show began. The surface of the pond suddenly haywire. From lifeless to chaotic in three minutes. The sound as of toilets flushing from every cove and bay and seemingly from behind every covering lily, as big bass launched up from the depths, slurping every H. lambata they could find. Great sucking implosions, as if debris was falling from space, glinting metallic in the day’s last afterglow. A feasting. A gorging. A mayfly massacre.

And I hooked up. One after the other. The biggest fish pulling 40 yards of line from my screaming reel and nearly cracking my wrist. I had to leave before the encore (because of the coffee), but after nearly an hour lathering the pond, I was pretty well spent anyway. Muscles would ache tomorrow.

The great H. lambata show goes on each evenfall this time of year, right at dusk (you can set your watch by it). And the pond is nearby in a town that’s named after some far-off country: Norway, Sweden, Poland, Mexico. Something like that. More detail I will not freely divulge, although I can probably be bribed.

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