Two mallards, drake and duck, plop off the bank and paddle unhurriedly out toward the fogbank. I pause on the rutted trail, shoulder-deep in poison ivy and brambles, to watch them go. In the magnifying pallor of first light, they look the size of Canada geese; when they reach the fogbank, they seem bigger than swans. When they emerge from it, no doubt they will appear to be as big as pterodactyls.
The water is warm and greasy to the touch as I step in. No fancy, felt-soled waders are necessary at this time of year, just cheap sneakers and Levi's, a faded work shirt and a stained fishing vest shaggy with dry flys. Polaroids and a straw hat (for later in the day when the sun burns through), plus a 6-foot, ultralight fly rod—two ounces of whippy glass mounting a five-weight line—complete my outfit. Now I'm ready to go schlock fishing.
Most serious anglers would never demean their tackle or sully their reputations with so frivolous a sport. Indeed, the word "angler" denotes a ponderous dedication to the pursuit of nobler quarry than I have in mind. A proper angler seeks the Waltonian verities: trout and salmon, bass and muskellunge, tarpon and permit, bonefish and billfish. Though I have fished for those species, I would rather fish schlock any day. And during the early weeks of summer I usually do.
The schlock (Pisces Americanus Lowbrowii) comes in many shapes, sizes, colors and habitats. More often than not he looks like a bluegill, but occasionally he might be confused with a pumpkinseed or a redbreast sunfish. At other times he assumes the form of the popper-busting black crappie. Now and then, particularly if taken from the edges of a submerged stone wall, you would swear he was a rock bass. The one thing consistent about him, the aspect of his piscine personality that keeps my interest in schlock fishing at a rolling boil year after year, is his unfailing voracity in the presence of a dry fly. He will drift up under it like a miniature, gaudily painted hot-air balloon, eye it steadily for a moment or two as if checking for booby traps, and then snap it up with a sound resembling a small boy popping bubble gum. Crack! The tiny barbless hook sinks home and the fly line tautens under the forefinger, sometimes stripping out line during a sideways run. Now and then the fish may even jump. Always there is a flurried circling as he nears the fisherman's feet. In the presence of young nieces or nephews, I often kiss the fish goodby when I release him. This inevitably draws the shuddering accolade: "Yecchh! Gross!"
Now the sun is about to rise behind the fogbank, which is rapidly thinning as the light grows in strength, and a long chain of northbound geese honk overhead; I am about to go schlock fishing again. I may as well reveal my hot spot, seeing as there are more schlocks in it than the entire U.S. angling population could remove in a century of hard fishing. It is the Croton Reservoir, about 40 miles north of New York City in upper Westchester County. The whole reservoir is a hot spot. I release all the schlocks I catch, though not out of any humanitarian motive. It's just that I hate to clean them—too scaly, too small to get a good grip on. In fact, I'd be doing the reservoir good if I killed them. There are too many schlocks in it, and when they over-populate even so large a body of water as the reservoir, which is 20 miles long, they get runty. That's what is happening to my schlocks. The half-pound, bluegill-type schlock, once a common catch, is hard to find now except in a few sand-bottomed cuts and bays on the west side of the reservoir. You can find those spots for yourself, but look out for the sinkholes and the copperheads.
My plan this morning is to fish my way around the Point, a heavily wooded promontory that extends into the reservoir from Route 100 and Moseman Avenue. I start at Sunny Corner by wading out in knee-deep water to the edge of a submerged stone wall. (The reservoir covers what was pastureland until the high dam at Croton went up early in this century.) All around me shimmer the pale disks of schlock nests. In the late spring the various types of schlocks come up out of the deep water where they wintered to fin out their nests in the sandy shallows. The female schlock drops from 5,000 to 15,000 eggs into the shallow nest, and the male fertilizes the eggs and then stands guard until the young hatch out five to 10 days later. Like the large-mouth bass, the male guards the hatchlings for a while longer, darting fiercely at would-be predators. Then one day he suddenly turns on his brood, scoffing down hundreds while the survivors flee out into the real world.
I pick a likely nest, work the fly line out through the guides, and then drop a white mosquito pattern over the head of a circling, concerned male parent. He must have seen it falling, because he is there the moment it hits the surface—pop! He's on, and I strip him in under my finger, unhook and release him. One fish in 15 seconds. Another cast, another schlock. At the end of five minutes, my count is up to 18. But I'm not out for a record today, so I wade east along the point, blind casting into the edge of a milfoil bed in the deeper water. Big bass cruise along this bed and on a few occasions I have had one surge up out of the gloom like a green and black Polaris missile and wallop me weak-kneed with his savage strike. But not today. The bass are on their nests and uninterested in anything on the surface.
I ease my way gingerly over a stretch of mucky bottom, nascent milfoil tangling my ankles, then hit firm sand again. A random cast with a "drowned" fly produces a powerful hit. The line burns under my finger, and I let whatever it is strip looped line back down to the reel; the ratchet clicks as more line skids out, then—bip!—the leader snaps. I feel the point of the break. The leader is rough, chewed, nicked. Had to be a pickerel, and a big one at that. The drowned dry fly, having lost its floating capability, must have looked to the pickerel like a tiny fingerling.
An Eastern painted turtle clambers onto a nearby log, settles itself in a sunny crotch and is joined by two smaller turtles. One of them climbs on the first turtle's back. Not a bad life. Tranquil. I can't hear the traffic on Route 100. Looking north and south, I can't see a single house. I might be on a flowage in northern Wisconsin or a lake in southeastern Maine; an hour's drive to the south of where I sit people are rushing to work.
As I slowly fish my way back toward the highway, the sound of traffic increases with each fish taken. So does the bankside litter. Along a drowned stone wall angling out into the reservoir, I pick up one last schlock—a plump, six-inch redbreast sunfish look-alike.
Now, with the wind kicking up white horses and not a single niece or nephew on hand to say "Yecchh! Gross!" I unhook this peppy little schlock and kiss him goodby. I lower him flat on my hand until the water cover his gills. With a sudden flip of his tail, he splashes water into my face and disappears into the greasy depths. I'll look him up again, maybe tomorrow.