The First Keeper of 2015 by Mark Usyk
The Trout season of 2015 got a late start. It was an extremely frigid winter, days above zero were outnumbered by the days below, and I'm not just talking a couple degrees below zero either. To see twenty and thirty below on the thermometer failed to register any shock finally at some point, it had instead turned more to just plain resentment. My loathing for the extreme cold had wiped out any shock and awe that the sub zeros had brought on in the beginning of the season. The creek out my back door is one of only a few in the state that's open to catch and release Trout fishing year round, but it was frozen over solid all winter. By late March I was a ranting lunatic, permanent brain freeze had set in. So in the beginning of April when Trout season opened and the ice was still hanging as shelves off the banks I found myself on the creek out back jumping from ice shelf to ice chunks casting to fast, high, brown, still too cold water, the occasional ice burg floating by. But the water was more or less open, so with a fly rod and a small white streamer I hit the slow water along the banks anyways in protest to the horrendous early season conditions.
Later when the water level finally dropped and the ice was melted away from everywhere but the most shaded bends and banks I found myself on a Saturday wandering the stretch of creek I call my backyard with a my fly rod, assessing the changes to the creek done by the massive ice flows at ice out. Huge ice jams of epic proportions had ground their way down stream, changing both the contour of the bottom and the width of the creek in a few places. The creek I knew like the back of my hand would have to be relearned for the new year. When ice jams full of over foot thick chunks scrape their way downstream from surface to river bottom and bank to bank the aftermath is all you need to see the true strength of nature and realize how small and powerless you really are. Ten foot tall straight cut sand banks were lined on top with small trees that had been flattened to the ground like a steam roller flattening a stand of cattails and the trees strong enough to stand against the bullying ice where stripped of their bark. A combination of shredded and polished tree trunks stood as evidence to the height of the ice flows at the peak. I wondered how any fish big or small could survive such an ordeal without being crushed and scraped downstream against the bottom.
I hadn't figured I'd catch anything, and I hadn't caught anything. Not even a tug. Not even a flash of scales as I walked carelessly along the bank actually hoping to scare a fish just to see something move. I'd made my way about a mile up the curving and meandering water way inspecting new downed trees and new cobblestone skinny water flats. I stared in amazement at a stretch that was once a slow run with overhanging Willows on the far bank, now not a tree remained. The creek must have been a few feet wider, all the Willows washed down river leaving a barren and featureless run. I witnessed the damage the ice had done under the train bridge in town where it peeled and bent a piece of 1/2" thick plate steel backwards in the current, which now looked to me like the most perfect current break for Smallmouth Bass to wait in ambush behind. I finally found myself standing below the concrete spillway directly behind my house, the orange canoe resting on its side two hundred yards away in the back yard now in view.
I stood there and made a few casts letting a Wollybugger wash down the concrete and get pushed to the bottom in the rolling froth, hoping as it bumped it's way across the rocky bottom that something, anything, might decide it was a meal. Nothing did. Still not a bad day by any means, but a fishless day no less. I hooked the bugger into the hook keeper above the cork and as I began to wade across the creek to make my way up to the house gravel popped as a car pulled off the road. A young guy probably in his mid-twenties got out, gathered a spinning rod and a bait bucket and made his way to the water’s edge. I waved, he nodded, and I continued across the current to the far bank.
That's when I saw it. In the open, where almost anyone could see it, from the road even, was a large set of antlers resting on the rocky bank. I looked back, there was no way it couldn't be seen from where the car was parked, let alone where he was baiting his hook. If the water was lower, if it had been easier to get to than having to cross the creek, I was sure what I had just found would have been found and taken home as a prize by now, someone else’s trophy from a day on the water. But it was mine.
The deer must have washed down river with the ice flows judging by where it came to rest at the high water mark. A skeleton held together by stiff leather and sinew and not much else, I inspected it for some kind of evidence of what could have caused the animals death. There wasn't enough of a hide left to find a wound, and without digging around, from what I could see there were no arrow heads or bullet damage on any of the ribs or front shoulders where a hunter’s aim would have mortally wounded it, so it was all guess as to its final moments. Had it been shot and never found during the fall, only to die next to the creek and be washed away with the rising water levels of spring? Did it attempt a crossing during the winter only to break through and drown, caught in a frozen watery grave? I'd never know.
I grabbed an antler thinking the skull would fall away but nature hadn't had enough time to finish the job. I looked over my shoulder at the young fisherman. If he'd seen what I was looking at he wasn't showing it. Probably caught up in the whole "Come on, just one bite, just one fish please" thing in his head. I had to give nature a little more time with it before I could take the gorgeous rack home, but surely someone else would claim it if I left it where it laid. Or the other chance would be the water would rise again and wash it downstream, lost. I dragged it higher up the bank and behind a large log, then using the only thing I had, 6lb tippet, I tied the antlers off to a sapling thinking that if the water rose it would have a chance at least of remaining.
The next week I walked the hundred and some odd yards from my back door to find that the skull had separated aided by time and scavenging rodents. I turned over rotting leaves with my boot and buried the skull, leaving it to the worms, bugs, and beetles to finish cleaning it up and left it there, checking it from time to time over the next month or so. When I finally brought it up to the house I pressure washed it and soaked it in bleach for a couple days. Then I gave it it's new home. My writing and tying room is full of things I've found while out fishing. An old Horrocks-Ibbotson fiberglass spinning rod found broken and propped against a tree on the Mohawk River leans in the corner against a beaver chewed tree dragged up and out of a ravine in another place. A cedar tree trunk hauled out of the Oriskany Creek on my way to work one morning. Another cedar trunk figured and smooth pulled from the Schroon River in the Adirondacks. Pieces of drift would and relics litter the room, all telling a story to me.
I don't have any fish mounts in the room, which some people would think odd since I'm such a fanatical angler and have a room dedicated to it. I do however have a ten point buck skull with a beautiful rack on a shelf surrounded by fishing paraphernalia. A visitor to our house said to me upon seeing the skull in the room "Oh, I didn't know you hunt too?" To which I replied, "No, you're right I don't. That's a fishing trophy. It was a keeper from this past spring." Henry David Thoreau said "Many men go fishing all of their lives not knowing that it is not fish that they are after." Now I'm not sure that it's ten point bucks resting in peace after the spring floods have receded that we're looking for, but I'm not saying they don't have something to do with it either.