The year is over, 2020 is dead. And while it seemed to be a year of constant confusion and drama if you followed the media, both professional (used loosely anymore by me) and social, I’ve chosen to ignore most all of it. Instead while the majority of our country and the world seemed to be running in circles screaming with their hands frantically waving above their heads, flaming papers fluttering down from the buildings, and bricks and picket signs held in aggression with clenched hands in front of angry faces, I like many of you, just kept keeping on. And somehow, here we still are. Here I am, my life virtually unchanged. I still have bills to pay. I still have the same responsibilities I’ve chosen to take on as an adult, and I still try to shirk those responsibilities to go fishing as much as I can. Sure, I could drone on about all the crooked politics and pandemic conspiracy theories. But there’s enough of that out there, you don’t need my opinions, and I don’t feel the need to give them. Instead… My 2020 year in review, from the experiences I choose to chase.
The year started out well enough, or did it? Maybe I should’ve seen it as a sign that this wouldn’t be a normal year when I had to use a sick day on the very first day of the year because I was actually sick. Yep, that’s how I started the year. As a matter of fact, it was the first two days of the year. But using two sick days right off the bat to stay home sick is probably what had me fighting so hard the rest of the year to take time off to fish. Ok, that’s a plausible excuse, but I know that not using sick days right away wouldn’t have changed a thing. I’d have carried on using up days at work no matter what.
I took a road trip in February to Pennsylvania to meet Brenna and fish a couple of her local trout streams. The fishing wasn’t great, but the weather was perfect and the company was refreshing. I never made it back, because things changed overnight and suddenly we were living in some alternate universe or a bad movie. Either one made more sense than reality. But no matter what, because of fly fishing I’d gained a real friend. We’ve stayed in touch ever since. The year was off to a great start.
Next, the government decided that since things were getting tough for us, they’d give us a few bucks of our taxes back. I wasn’t out of work thankfully and decided to stimulate the economy. I almost bought a bed, snapped back to reality in about ten seconds, and started looking at pedal kayaks. I ended up ordering a 2020 Hobie Compass from Austin Kayak at the end of April, the only place I could find at that point as anything outdoors was beginning to be stripped from the shelves and to not be restocked anytime soon in the foreseeable future. I ordered it at exactly the right time, or the last minute depending on if you looked at it from my point of view or the industry’s. I got it the third week of May. I’m still sleeping just fine on my couch. What a bone head move that would’ve been.
Within a couple days of receiving the kayak I was floating six different lakes over the next six days that I would’ve otherwise probably not fished this year. I most likely would’ve stuck to walking rivers. Now, there’s nothing wrong with walking rivers, it’s what I’ve done for quite a few years now. But the decision to buy a pedal kayak instead of a bed was the best decision I made in 2020. It opened everything up to me that I’d previously considered water too big for paddling a canoe with any efficiency. I found myself crossing lakes and standing and casting streamers to bass on waters I wouldn’t have ever attempted with my canoes. In a canoe it would’ve taken too long to get there, and when I got there I’d have been too tired to stand and cast the 9wt and battle the waves and wind with a paddle. That Hobie changed everything and shaped the rest of my summer.
All summer I pushed myself to fish places I’d never fished before, or to go farther on the waters I had, because it was so much easier to do everything from covering distance to fishing with my hands free.
But it wasn’t all lakes, and it wasn’t all with a 9wt. If I wasn’t fishing big streamers the size of pork chops for bass and pike, nine out of ten times I had a 10’ 6” 4wt in my hand. JP built the rod a couple years ago as a prototype and the hours of fishing I put it through in 2020 have me excited that he decided to add the model to his lineup. It’s called the Peacemaker and he’ll be releasing it on the website sometime in January, if the current state of sluggish supply chains doesn’t delay it any longer. Imagine a 4wt that makes delicate casts with dry flies, but has the back bone to throw streamers and fight big fish too. A true “everything, all you need” rod. Between that rod and the 7’ 5wt Wild Card, it was a good year for JP Ross as I see it. This was the year that people needed to unplug more than ever, and I really enjoy the thought that we’ve helped people do it.
I fought hard against everything going on by doing my best to ignore it all. I wore my mask in the stores, but spent as little time in stores and as much under open skies and open waters as possible. I hiked a good eight miles, the better part of it bushwhacking in Adirondack back country, in sandals on one brook trout trip with a couple good friends, and on another I tried to carry my heavy kayak on my shoulder down a short trail and most likely broke my ankle… but I walked it off over the rest of the summer because I wasn’t going near a hospital. On one of those trips I witnessed the proof that all we really need to be is connected to nature and our friends and family and nothing else will matter until it does.
I’d been fishing one of our favorite brook trout streams all day with my good friend Chris and about an hour and a half before I was going to leave his father showed up. Ken is a doctor, so you can imagine the blur the year has been for him. When he first arrived, straight from a hospital shift the stress on his face was apparent. It had been a long year so far. You could read it like a book. But as we moved upstream, I hung back and watched a father and a son fish together. Not as a teacher who’d been working remotely, or a doctor who’d been sleeping uncomfortably where he could when his mind would allow it while working long hours, just as a father and son. The world we all lived in was literally a couple hours away, but it may as well have been a couple days away.
I watched Ken cast to some midstream rocks and hook a brookie, and then I watched his son net it for him. The rest of the world didn’t exist anymore. Completely unplugged, but so completely connected. Ken’s body language changed with the dissolving stress right then and there. And there was an excitement to Chris as he netted his father’s brook trout that hadn’t been there quite like that while fishing with me. He saw the change in his father right then as well, which affected him at that very moment too. It couldn’t be ignored, and you couldn’t have held it back with an army.
I caught a lot of fish this year from that kayak and while walking rivers and streams. I found out who true friends were and who were just acquaintances as well. I saw a lot of true colors this year. A year like this will do that I suppose. And the best ones were the greens in the trees, the pinks, reds, yellows and purples of the summer flowers and the changing leaves of fall, and the blue of the sky. Throw in some of the spectacular sunrises and sunsets too. Oh and the stars in the sky that Monday after I left work and drove back up north to camp for the night, because I didn’t get enough over the weekend. And the color of the sunrise reflecting on the water as I washed my hair in the river before driving back down for work the next morning was pretty badass too.
It’s true, we lost people we knew and loved in 2020 to all this madness and chaos. But I’d like to think that if there’s an afterlife, that they watched me trying to live the rest of mine the best I could while nodding in approval. “Yeah…Usyk gets it.” I can only hope I’m right until someday I know. But we sure as hell aren’t going to get that answer from the news or Facebook. You’ve got to ignore it all and find out for yourself.
Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod and Carp Are Jerks, both books full of stories about life, where fishing happens. They’re available on Amazon in both paperback and e-book, and signed copies are ready for purchase right here on jprossflyrods.com. He’s currently working on his third book, which, maybe now that winter is here might get finished before spring… since pedal kayaks don’t work so well on iced over lakes.