It’s that time of year… Again. I’ve heard it almost a dozen times now. “So I guess you’re done fishing for the year now huh?” I don’t drink coffee anymore, because my insides are tore up and ulcers don’t get along with coffee, or beer for that matter. Not even a high ball glass of bourbon at this point. I suppose it’s not all bad though. Because if I could have any one of those, chances are one of them would’ve come out of my nose when I was caught off guard the first time the statement was uttered about a month ago. And it’s always spoken as a statement, not a question. The people who don’t fish, they’re pretty positive that once they hear trout season is over, and once they see snow on the ground, us anglers, we must pack all our fishing gear into a closet. Done fishing for the year? Like hell I am.
Of course it slows down, but there’s not an end to it. As long as there’s weekends, as long as there’s vacation days and sick days, there’s time to fish. We just dress warmer. I definitely don’t get to go out as often as I’d like to. Most winter days I’m not out there slinging fly line, I’m only wishing I was. But I have been out three days in the past three weeks, so it’s not all lost. The biggest problem for me is the early setting sun. If I can’t fish on the weekend, and if I don’t call into work, there’s no time before or after work to go, because there’s no sun. You’ve got to be willing to brave super cold temperatures, super cold water, or willing to make any day between Monday and Friday become a Saturday with a phone call and a fake cough this time of year. Luckily, I’m willing.
I met JC Clark on the Salmon River a couple weekends ago to chase steelhead. It was not warm. If you wait for warmer days, you’re going to miss most of your opportunities, and life is too short for regrets. Don’t get me wrong, my life is full of them, but out of the couple dozen regrets I carry with me, only one or two have to do with not going fishing. So when I woke up at 4am on a Saturday morning to see the thermometer in the teens and knowing it wasn’t supposed to go above twenty-four during the day, I just layered up. Pulling out of the driveway the Jeep’s power steering pump was screaming like the lead singer of Judas Priest, and I felt as though it was riding a couple inches taller than usual. No, no one had added to the lift kit overnight, the seat was frozen solid. The foam had no give at all, I was actually sitting a couple inches taller. The first time I depressed the brake pedal I had to push extra hard. Did I mention that there were still twenty days on the calendar before winter would officially begin?
I met JC in a motel parking lot where we hooked up his trailer and inflated the floor of his raft by the red glow of his taillights. Normally something all lit up in a red glow looks warm, but not that morning. I have an idea what hell looks like frozen over. It looks like a white raft covered in snow in the red glow of a Ford’s tail lights.
On the river the water most likely was in the mid to upper thirties if I had to guess, which is all I ever do in the winter time. Let’s face it, sticking a thermometer in a river this time of year is going to tell you what you already know… It’s friggin cold. And seeing the actual numbers on the thermometer starts pitting your brain against you. In those temperatures, everything is already against you. At least if you can keep your brain on your side, you’ll have someone to talk to.
We floated the river and pulled the raft to the side to fish the runs JC liked, and it was honestly a beautiful day. By eleven o’clock Saturday morning I’d just about lost all feeling in my toes, I’m pretty sure my boots were too tight. I’ve got neoprene waders, but their rubber boots are an unplanned swim waiting to happen on the smooth rocks in the Salmon, so instead I wore my summer weight waders with my felt sole boots. But I think my socks were too thick and cut off the circulation to my toes. Once I couldn’t feel them anymore I figured the feeling was lost, so I had nothing more to lose. We fished all day.
I’m not used to fishing nymphs. And I hate casting with split shot a couple feet up the leader. And I’d never fished with an indicator before. So my excuses were all in place as to why I didn’t catch or even feel a steelhead the first day. Not that I cared, but I always say the fish are the excuse we use to experience everything else that goes into a day on a river. So to have excuses to cover excuses is some kind of bullshit in my mind. But it’s my bullshit. I figure I could come up with worse excuses for worse things than getting skunked.
Sometime around ten or so JC hooked and landed a really great looking chromed up steelhead. It was like a perfect two-tone 1979 Chevy pick-up, green on top, silver on the bottom, the dividing line running the length of the body in all the right places. I was more than happy to net the fish for JC. I think the netting part is almost just as exciting as the fight. Realistically it might even be a little more stress packed into a shorter amount of time. Simply because you’ve just watched your friend fight the fish for a couple minutes knowing that they made it this far, gotten the fish in close without allowing it to break off or dislodge the hook and all it’s going to take is one missed scoop to destroy everything they’ve worked for… Then it’s your fault the fish wasn’t caught. All yours.
I drove home Saturday evening thinking about how many casts and drifts I’d made during the day. I could still feel split shot ticking along the bottom being transmitted through leader and line and fly rod in my hand as it rested on the steering wheel. But I couldn’t feel my toes. I knew they were still there, because I could see the end of my boot lift when my mind told my toes to move. But I couldn’t feel them touching the boots, or each other, or my fingers once I got home and removed my boots and socks. The next morning I could feel them again. Or, I could feel something at least. Pins and needles in the tips of my toes anyhow. I choose different socks and stopped at the gas station in town on my way out and bought some toe warmers off the rack by the bright safety yellow work gloves and the beanie hats.
Sunday was a much warmer day. So you’d think that would’ve been nicer, and it was. But the only thing was the precipitation overnight had become rain instead of snow. Which was melting all the snow. Which was raising the river. We left the raft on the trailer on Sunday and waded instead. The water wasn’t high enough yet to make much of a difference to us, we just had to cross a little more carefully. I love wading. If standing in a river is some kind of Zen thing, then standing in a river and casting a fly rod is about as high on the Zen scale as you can get. I wasn’t completely at the top of the scale because I was still casting with split shot, but Sunday morning was up there still.
As I rigged up my rod I realized I didn’t have the indicator JC had given me the day before. I knew exactly where it was, it was on the floor back at home next to a pair of sneakers and an adjustable wrench. I wished I hadn’t forgotten to put it in my chest pocket, and I hoped I wouldn’t need that wrench for anything on the ride home. The Jeep is nineteen years old now. That’s like eighty in human years. Old enough that you should always carry a tool box with at least the basics, which includes an adjustable wrench.
I managed to hook into a nice fish, and it was on for a total of about twenty seconds. Half of them were seconds in which I wasn’t sure if I was snagged on a rock, and the other half were seconds that I had the rod bent. About the time JC spotted the bend the fish came up and rolled on the top making a sound something like someone lobbing a bowling ball from the bank. He had his arms raised in celebration, and as soon as the fish rolled and the tippet broke he turned from my quick defeat and kept casting. It was a really nice fish, what I got to see of it anyway.
JC eventually came up and worked the area I’d hooked up in and managed to connect with an absolutely beautiful steelhead. I got to see what it looks like when someone who knows how to fight one of these fish is in their element, and it’s impressive to say the least. The fish would take line, JC would take it back. The fish would use the current to its advantage, and then JC would turn the tables and use it to his. The fish must have been ten or twelve pounds once he was able to hold it for a picture. I think it’s amusing that we refer to trout by length until they grow to a certain size, and then we change to referring to them by weight. I don’t know why we do it, it’s just a simple observation I’ve made. But it was a really good fish. We referred to it by pounds after all.
My lost fish I chalked up to a bad knot. One I’d tied. There was no use in making excuses, nothing other than a bad knot anyways. But I hooked up and saw it for a split second. So the fish didn’t haunt me that night, it was just part of the bigger story of the weekend.
Driving through town on my way out I stopped at Burger King for something to eat. Another thing that I shouldn’t have been eating. The grease doesn’t do anything good for my acid reflux, which in turn does nothing particularly good for my ulcers. I bought a ten piece chicken nugget meal and ate them plain, because ketchup or barbecue sauce will just about kill me these days. There was a drift boat in the parking lot across the street, and a truck covered in fly fishing stickers with a rod rack on the roof pulling away from the drive through. I wished I lived just a little closer, then wondered what it would be like to live in a fishing town. Then I thought better of it.
Here in this town I’d be normal, just another sheep in the flock, another zombie in the horde. Back home an hour away, I was a loner, an outsider. In most circles I didn’t feel I fit in a lot of the time, and I’d come to like it that way. I almost appreciated it for whatever odd reasons. It left me with more time to myself. When I pulled the ten dollar bill from my wallet at the counter it was wet, like everything in my wallet, and I looked at the cashier and apologized as I handed it to her. “Oh, don’t worry about it Hun, we’re used to it here.” Yep, living in a fishing town just might suck.
Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod, available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and signed copies ready for purchase right here on this web site, jprossflyrods.com.