I can remember a few fall days when I wished I’d stayed in bed, but most of my memories of fall days are good. So good, in fact, that fall is my favorite season.
I grew up in Skagit Valley, north of Seattle. One fall day when I was 8 or 9, I saw my first grouse. I was standing under a tree in the woods when I heard a sound from above me. I looked up and saw the underside of a bird that was smaller than a chicken and larger than a pigeon. I’d never seen anything like it. It looked down, saw me, and exploded off that limb in a startling eruption of frantic wing-beats, scaring me out of my wits. I later learned that it was most likely a ruffed grouse.
While I was walking through the woods in later years, and a ruffed grouse would flush from cover unexpectedly, I’d sometimes catch a glimpse of a noisy blur jinking through the trees and bushes, but I never again saw one sitting still. Over time, this bird became the practical joker who jumps from behind a tree and yells, “Boo!” It also became an icon for my favorite season.
Ruffed grouse are common in many states, including parts of Alaska, but not the Kenai Peninsula, where spruce grouse are common. While the spruce version isn’t as large as the ruffed, it too can startle you when it breaks from cover with a wild flapping of wings.
Fall days also remind me of fishing for cutthroat trout, another species that doesn’t inhabit the Kenai Peninsula. One fall day when I was 10 or 11, I was at the Samish River, a stream in western Washington that’s about the size of the peninsula’s Anchor River. I had no fishing gear and very little experience, but that didn’t stop me. While walking along the gravel shoreline, I found a snarl of fishing line that someone had discarded. Incredibly, a few feet away from where I’d come across the line, I found a fly. Today, finding discarded fishing tackle along an easily accessible stream is expected, but in the late 1940s, it just didn’t happen.
My dad had a few fishing flies, so I thought I knew what flies looked like, but the one I’d found looked nothing like his. Huge and ugly, it was a caricature of a fly. It looked like a baby crow having a bad-feather day. If I hadn’t been alone, this story would’ve ended right there, but no one was there to scoff, so I tied one end of the line to my “fly,” and the other end to a broom-handle-size stick. Voila! I had a fishing outfit.
A few feet from where I’d found my fishing gear, the river dove under a log jam. The water looked dark and mysterious there, and that’s where I decided to fish. I dangled my “fly” on the surface of the swift water, just in front of the log jam, occasionally giving it a little twitch. I don’t know where I got that idea, and I’ve never tried it since, but I kept trying, and eventually a fish came out of the dark water under that log jam and grabbed my fly.
The fight, if you could call it that, was over in a heartbeat. There was no “playing” that fish, no letting it “give a good accounting of itself.” The git-’er-done method of fishing was more my style — and is to this day. One, swift yank of my “rod,” and a black-spotted fish was flopping on the gravel bar behind me. The big trout — I later learned it was a cutthroat — was the biggest fish I had ever caught, as well as the most beautiful. I took it home, and we had it for dinner that night.
It’s no wonder grouse and cutthroat come to mind when some sight, scent or sound reminds me that it’s fall.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.