An ominous haze encircled the moon over the Shenandoah River last week when Jack Lorenz turned his canoe toward the bank, ending one of the finer evenings of fishing he could remember.
In the days before weather satellites, such a ring around the moon meant a storm was coming. With Hurricane Gloria roaring up the coast, "This could be the last good day of the season," Lorenz reckoned.
Not too likely.
Hurricanes notwithstanding, we are entering halcyon times in the mid-Atlantic region -- October, when days are cool, dry and bright, nights brisk, the rivers generally low and clear and the fish and game more abundant and bold than at any other time of year.
Lorenz, executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America, had promised wild sights on our float down the Shenandoah, but even so I wasn't prepared for some of the things we encountered on the silent ride downstream from the Rte. 50 crossing.
"Look," he said at one point, and I glanced left where I'd heard the "Peep! Peep!" of wood ducks alarmed into flight.
"No, to your right," whispered Lorenz, and he pointed to a fragile fawn wading out from the bank, intent on crossing the river 75 yards from us. So innocent was she, unhunted and in her first year on earth, that it wasn't until we were practically upon her that she turned and scampered back into the woods.
Half a mile farther down the broad river, a great bird erupted off a gravel bar and crossed the river, its wing tips barely touching the slick surface as it flapped along.
Then came another. Then three more. Then two more. The seven took up station at river's edge, clucking and bobbing pale blue heads as we advanced, and they let us draw within 50 yards before vanishing into the brush-like smoke.
Oh, there were plenty of ducks, too, and herons; hawks and buzzards soared around. The weather was perfect, dry and cool, and the fishing wasn't bad until dusk, when it became spectacular.
It reminded me of a drift four or five years ago, down the Potomac from Edward's Ferry to Violet's Lock, just 25 miles or so from Washington.
That was during early October duck season. We'd hunted most of the day with minor success, then at the end of the float brought out fishing rods and laid waste to the smallmouth bass.
On that trip, too, we saw wild turkeys and deer, quail and doves, songbirds, mallards and wood ducks, and fish aplenty darting from the rocks as we drifted with the current.
But that seemed like some strange gift. Having seen it again, it's beginning to look as if that's just the way float trips go this time of year.
The Shenandoah, the Rappahannock above Fredericksburg and the Potomac above Swain's Lock are all fine rivers to drift-fish by canoe or johnboat in the fall. The foliage is spectacular, the routes uncrowded, the fish willing and the wildlife unafraid.
By picking gentle stretches, even novice boaters can navigate drifts, and if you do capsize, the water's not cold yet.
Lorenz wishes more people would fish his Shenandoah stretch from Rte. 50 to Lock's Landing, which is quite gentle. He believes there are too many smallmouth in the river, and the competition for food is stunting their growth.
Lorenz is a big-fish fiend, anyway.
He made that clear Wednesday, after I'd figured out what seemed to be the proper combination for catching little bass and hand-size bluegills. They were gobbling up my rabbit-hair Mepp's spinner as we slid along the shallows, but Lorenz kept tossing a three-inch surface lure, on which he got rare strikes and even rarer hookups.
Then came dusk. "We're in big-fish country now," said Lorenz. "My favorite spot." He began flinging the big popper purposefully, and the bass began responding.
All around on the darkening water dimples appeared where bass slurped up hatching insects. Lorenz drew his popper along, glugging it noisily past the dimples, and the bass hammered it. "This is when I get excited," he said, but I was too busy rooting around in his tackle box for another lure like his to pay him much heed.