Summers are fleeting. Those big, fat sweet spots of the year, when the living is comfortable and the fishing is good—they drag on, slow and steady, until they’re gone, in a flash of amber light and frost. But we’re given warning. Today I was greeted at the front porch by brisk morning air and a gentle breeze that smelled like September—my favorite month, and a period of change in the natural world.
Smallmouth fishing—one of the pursuits I live for—is still in its prime. In fact, prime is yet to come. The buzzing in the trees lets me know that. When it ceases, its artists will be dead, upon laying the eggs for next year’s chorus, and next year’s feast. For when the dog days cicadas cease to sing and live, many of them will end up in the water, and the smallmouth, feeling winter in the cooling water, will go on the feed, often taking advantage of the easy, protein-packed meals the cicadas provide.
The local mountain trout are marching to a similar beat. As summer climaxes, the population of terrestrial insects—grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, and ants—so too reaches its peak. In the heat of the mid-day sun, these bugs are their most active, and all too often end up in the creek, where opportunistic trout slash at them—their best chance at living calorie-positive in the warmest water of the year.
There are still two very full months of these wonderful patterns that make big fish so wonderfully catchable on topwater flies, but these patterns are nevertheless inherently fragile. Should an early frost come—should the waters rise—the terrestrials will die, the water will be chilled, and the fishing will change. Fall will be upon us.
September ushers in fall gently. It means squirrels to me—the first of the hunting seasons, and an opportunity that I can’t turn down. A departure from a life ruled by fishing. I’m reminded of the proximity of the opener as I crawl up a gravel Forest Service road on the way to a brook trout stream. A hefty fox squirrel sat in the road peacefully until my gravel-crunching tires pushed it into the safety of thick summer growth. In just a few short months, it’ll be musky season, and I’ll keep the shotgun close on my lazy days on the river, my eyes constantly monitoring the trees while hunting the toothy fish and watching the world transform, the crisp air whetting my need to collect meat.
But still now, it’s summer, and there are berries to pick—blackberries and blueberries that grow in the shadow of the state’s highest peaks. There are campfires to be enjoyed and easy outdoor living to be had.
The brook trout, in the rhododendron-choked valley, will take a dry fly readily, but they mean the most behind the rusty filter of October. A grouse flushed from the fringes of the gravel Forest Service road gives me a quick glimpse into that rust—the height of fall.
Between now and then, the apples that fill the scraggly odes to mountain homesteading will ripen. They’ll require their own trip to collect before they fall from the trees and become food for wildlife. They’re part of the reason why mountain deer grow so large, so thick. Shortly after the expiration of September, those whitetails will become fair game. And so a trip to collect apples turns into an extended stay to secure food for now, and to scout opportunities for food for later, because my romantic sensibilities cannot turn down a few days’ hunt in the mountains in the fall, and because nothing makes musky season like a venison shore lunch to shave off the edge of hopelessness and discomfort.
We’ve two months of summer behind us—less than that ahead. August, many would say, is still the height of summer—prime time—but summer is waning. August is a mid-life crisis in the life of the year as a human—a yearly reminder to be thankful for the exploits enjoyed so far, and a gentle warning of the oncoming of winter. Fall is a shoulder season, and just like spring, there is so much to do, and so little time to do it in. In the blink of an eye, summer will be gone. And in another half of a blink, the opportunities autumn brings will be buried in the dust.