Back Stage Passes by Mark Usyk

Winter never really showed up this year, but for some reason spring wouldn’t either. We’ve been stuck in that weird, in between twilight zone where the temperatures hover right on the edge of snow and rain. When we’d get snow, the ground was too warm for it to stick, and when we’d get rain, it was cold and damp like a late Fall day, and the lack of any leaves or green ground cover only intensified the feeling during those days that this was still not spring, even though winter was done with. And then almost out of nowhere this past weekend Spring arrived like a rock star strolling down the red carpet. “Everyone look at me, I’m awesome, and I’m who you wish you could be.”

Holly told me to go fishing. When your wife says go, you go. So I went. I flirted with the idea of heading north like usual and hitting a Brook Trout stream, like usual. But the sun was so warm on my face, the sky so blue, it felt like we’d almost skipped spring and moved right into summer. And to me summer means Bass. I had Bass on my mind. After a long, odd winter dreaming of not much more than chasing Brookies in the spring, only interrupted by a quick foray to Florida salt water, I was abruptly skipping over Trout, rushing past the opening of Walleye and Pike, and diving straight into Bass. I’d waited 6 months for Brookies, only to then want to skip ahead two more for Bass. It’s true, humans can never be happy with what they have.

Like a left hook out of nowhere I was on my way to a still water with the canoe strapped to the roof and a 7wt rigged with a heavy leader and a streamer. If spring was the rock star, then the anglers were the concert goers. Pulling the Jeep to the shoulder of the road was like pulling into the parking lot at the concert, all that was missing was the ticket line. Cars and trucks lined the shoulder, fisherman lined the road side shore line, and boats bobbed and weaved on the water, scattered, moving in all directions. Like ants swarming over a giant chocolate chip cookie left on the sidewalk, not knowing where to begin the feast, but wanting to get it all at once.

It took me about two hours of paddling, trolling, casting streamers both to structure and blindly to open water, and just sitting, bobbing in the wake of the plethora of bass boats cruising the pea green tinted water to figure out that I should move on. This was just not to be today. Most of the concert goers had figured it out too, that the rock star had turned out to be Axle Rose, coming in with a long, shrieking wail, but ending up being just another washed up celebrity who took himself way to seriously. Returning to the shore, I saw that only a handful of trucks remained, the diehards who refused to believe that Guns-N-Roses wouldn’t make a comeback. Me, I’d come to terms, I was ready to move on. I heard that Tom Petty was playing down on the Mohawk River right around the corner from the house. And Tom Petty never gets old.

Pulling into the lot sandwiched between the Mohawk River and the Barge Canal, I was greeted yet again by concert goers. I pulled into the last open parking spot. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who knew Tom Petty could still hold a tune. As I pocketed my fly box and inspected the 7wt I suddenly remembered the glass 5wt in the Rod Vault on the roof and thought to myself, glass seemed more “Tom Petty” speed. It was smooth and packed a lot of power and emotion, without being as over bearing and brutish as the 7wt. I stowed the 7wt back in the Jeep and removed the glass rod. I looked over my surroundings. Right was the path to the canal. I could already see from here the lawn chairs and fishing rods propped in the crotches of sticks poked into the ground. Left was the path to the Mohawk, the grass path had been beaten to a muddy pulp from the hordes of partiers looking for the beer tent, and straight was woods, then a field, then more woods, and somewhere in there was the Mohawk River. Upstream and away from the parking lot, from the easy access foot paths. The back stage pass.

I made my way through a tree line, a field where I stopped and paused as gun shots rang out while three young men tossed clay targets into the air and blasted them, and then into another tree line. The river wasn’t far, and before I knew it I was surveying the flows, inspecting shadows, deciphering what were logs and rocks and what might be fish, hoping that I’d spot them before they spotted me. Hoping my intrusion back stage wouldn’t be found out until I’d gotten to meet Tom Petty or at least had a glimpse close up. It wasn’t long before I spotted movement in fish form. Three Smallmouth hung just up in the mouth of a very small stream feeding into the river, and I crouched on dry leaves above the muddy bank side an easy eight feet above them, trying to figure out how to make a cast from such an odd angle within a stand of close trees, and what I would do if I actually hooked one and had to get down to the water. The last part was easy, I’d do what I had to do to shake Tom Petty’s hand back stage. I’d slide down that muddy bank like a skate boarder owning the half pipe and stop just inches short of getting wet. I’d worry about getting back up after the deed was done.

The black Woolly Bugger drifted right past all three Bass not once but three times. Dead drift, a slight twitch, an all-out fast strip break for freedom. The three Amigos guarding the mouth of the stream inspected my imitation, and called my bluff. On the fourth attempt I let it pass them by without hardly a glance and continue into the main river where I thought I had snagged a branch or something unseen in the slightly deeper and hazing water where the stream and river mixed. And then the line tightened and moved downstream. Hello Tom Petty, nice to meet you. It was so worth the effort of sneaking back stage. I highly recommend it. You should try it some time.