Even for heat-crazed types who love our local summer swelter and live for weekend meltdowns at the beach, the season just ended will not be missed.
It was record-breaking hot and at least several weeks too long. It was the kind of summer that kept you slinking between air-conditioned refuges, and sticky with your own frailty when trapped between.
"It's hard to think great thoughts when you smell like a goat and bugs are biting you on the nose," said my friend Fishbait, an outdoorsman of great girth who seems particularly favored by mosquitoes, green-headed flies and other blood-loving creatures. "The only good thing I can say about summer is that it leads to fall."
Last week, after summer had finally died, Fishbait and I packed our fishing gear into my canoe and paddled down Virginia's Shenandoah River in search of autumn.
Both of us knew it was too early to see any fire-bright blaze of foliage. But the temperature was suggestively cool and we hoped the smallmouth bass this river is famous for would be frisky after a summer laying low.
Fall is a great time for almost every kind of fishing. In freshwater rivers and lakes, the cool water provokes fish into a modified feeding frenzy as they fatten up for winter. In saltwater, fish that migrated north during the spring are now making the return trip south.
During the next few months, until winter's first cold front puts a chill on the action, bluefish and sea trout should be plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay. The number of people fishing for them, however, will be unaccountably few if past patterns repeat. For reasons that have more to do with habit than fishing sense, a great number of local anglers abandon the bay at summer's end, just when the fishing is about to heat up again.
This is a good time of year to make a date with a charter boat captain, who should be more eager to please than during midsummer when bookings were easier to land.
In the Atlantic, from Lewes, Del., to North Carolina, bluefish, flounder, channel bass, spot and drum are feeding offshore. For surf anglers, who suffer all summer the barbed inquiries of sunbathers wondering why they never catch fish, this is the season of reward.
If you want to fish in a more traditional autumn setting, surrounded by trees bleeding primary colors, find a freshwater river, lake or stream. Even small fish look majestic coming out of water that mirrors the bright splash of leaves.
There are too many good rivers and lakes within 100 miles of Washington to list. You could choose to fish a separate one each day for the next two months and never see half of them.
Because large bodies of water are slower to cool than rivers, fish in lakes such as Deep Creek in western Maryland and the Tridelphia Reservoir in Montgomery County are still likely to be summer sluggish. On the other hand, the fishing in those lakes remains consistently good for weeks after it has slowed elsewhere.
Two years ago, for example, Keeny Lee of Mount Rainier, Md., caught a five-pound eight-ounce smallmouth bass in the Tridelphia Reservoir on Nov. 22.
One of the best rivers for a variety of fish is one that is closest to home, the Potomac. In the shallow, rock-bottomed waters north of Washington, the Potomac is rich with smallmouth bass and sunfish. Below Great Falls, largemouth bass and catfish are now more active.
Most of the trout that were stocked in area rivers and streams last spring have either been caught or killed by too great a rise in water temperature this summer. A few of the best and brightest have survived, however, to join a small but hardy population of natives. If you can catch trout this time of year, you have earned the right to brag. Big Hunting Creek near Camp David and the Patuxent River in Montgomery County are two of Maryland's best trout streams. In Virginia, the Rose and Corsica rivers, both of which support native trout, are within a few hours drive of Washington.
The most consistent freshwater game fish in local waters during the fall may be smallmouth bass, which thrive in warm water that is fatal to trout. In the fall, when the great insect swarm has thinned, the hungry smallmouth is forced to roam greater distances for food. This is a great advantage to the angler. Another seasonal advantage for both fish and angler is the increased clarity of river water in the fall. With local agriculture dormant, there is less runoff from plowed fields finding its way into rivers.
On the Shenanadaoh River, which begins in the Blue Ridge Mountains south of Harrisonburg, Va., and ends 192 miles later when it empties into the Potomac at Harper's Ferry, the smallmouth fishing is rarely worse than good.
Parts of the river suffer from industrial pollution, but most of it looks as if it was laid out by a postcard designer. The river, which once supported a fleet of commercial riverboats called gundalows that were nine feet wide and up to 90 feet long, flows past old flour mills, crumbling iron furnaces and deserted sawmills.
Our trip began at Bixler Bridge, a few miles west of Luray. This may be the most popular section of the river to fish and canoe, both because of its natural beauty and the fact that it is serviced by a local canoe rental outfit.
"You know something," said Fishbait, with a cool breeze blowing through his hair and not a bug in sight except the artificial one at the end of his line, "a person could get mighty fond of this."