My Christmas tree stood in the corner of my little basement room. Upstairs little feet ran the length of the hallway overhead, a sixteen month old little girl and her parents chasing her back and forth, happy laughter. I felt like an intruder. I looked for an excuse to drive somewhere. The supposedly ice covered roads didn’t make a difference, I had to go. I needed to by a couple last minute Christmas gifts anyways, so there was the excuse. But it wasn’t good enough. I looked at the tree. No ornaments. Who knew where all mine were? In some box in a house I didn’t live in anymore. I knew they were mine whenever I wanted them, but I hadn’t cared at all about them, about Christmas in general this year. Bah Humbug.
Instead of ornaments, big streamers meant for pike and bass and maybe even walleye hung by their hooks on fake tree branches, back lit by LED snowflake lights. I emptied my streamer box for the tree. Dug out of my stored fly tying materials, bunches of flashabou still stapled to their packaging in reds and greens and blues hung on random branches. My tinsel. Ironically, the actual Christmas tinsel in my fly tying drawers I left right there, off the tree. A couple tippet spools speared through the center by wire branches finished it out.
My friends had erected the tree while I was out one day because they said I had to have one. I left it up for my kids, nothing to do with me. A whiskey bottle served as the tree topper. No real meaning to its placement, just handy at the moment of needing the finishing touch. And there seemed to be plenty of empty whiskey bottles to choose from. I plucked three huge streamers off the tree. If I was going out to drive in these junk road conditions, I was going to make it worth it. I grabbed my 9wt, my neoprene waders, the ones I hate with the rubber boots sewn permanently on, and headed out to the Jeep.
Everything was encapsulated in a layer of ice, and I wondered if any of this was really going to be worth it as I chiseled at the windshield. I had a fly rod tube, waders over my shoulder, and streamers the size of squirrel tails hanging from my ball cap. There was no turning back.
The roads were fine. Everyone was once again making a big deal out of nothing. Somewhere over the past few years people have forgotten that they live in Upstate NY and that this is just winter. We call school days on account of two inches of snow, we declare snow emergencies when there might be some lake effect coming, we broadcast winter advisories… when the first and only warning we really needed is that this is NY, and yes, it’s winter. Those of us who still fish how and when we can all winter view it as a huge farce mostly. I guess we’re a dying breed. Fine with me. We’re all dying anyhow. May as well do it with a fly rod in your hand. Let’s get this over with I say.
Everything that wasn’t a road was indeed covered in a sheet of ice. I’ll admit that actually needing a little ground clearance and four wheel drive to get into an unplowed parking area that would normally allow every family sedan in the country access makes all the gas I go through on a daily basis in a mud tired, lifted Jeep that I don’t really need almost worth it. Almost.
While I’m stringing up the 9wt it begins to rain. Lightly, but it’s still rain. I realize I don’t have a rain jacket, just a light winter jacket. And I don’t have gloves. I probably have gloves buried in the back of the Jeep under all kinds of other buried crap, but I don’t feel like climbing in and leaning over the back seat to dig for them. I don’t plan on fishing long anyway. It’s pretty miserable weather for much of anything, let alone standing in a river. I’ll just quit when the rain sucks all the heat out of my hands and I can no longer pinch the fly line between my left thumb and forefinger. Done it before. Who hasn’t?
I’m just about ready to walk into the woods as a state DEC officer drives in, tires crunch through the top layer of ice covering the snow, windshield wipers traveling across the windshield on a delayed setting. He rolls his window down. The look on his face is something of bewilderment and searching for words, I can see it and I’ll admit to feeling a little taller at that very moment. He thinks this guy with the fly rod standing in the snow with rain falling must be a little crazy. I can see it.
“Merry Christmas, how’s it going today?” I answer him with a grin, wiping a jacket arm trying to shed rain water before it soaks through. “Not bad under the circumstances. I could be inside staring at a fake tree. Figured with the temperatures dropping into the single digits and negatives in a couple days that today a little rain and ice didn’t sound so bad. It seems like a now or never deal to me.” The DEC officer smirks and nods. “What are you going for?” He asks still with that bewilderment on his face. I tell him pike if I’m lucky, but I never know. There’s always walleye and bass with the same amount of luck. But I’ll probably just be casting for the idea more than the fish themselves. He chuckles. “Pike, on a fly rod? That’s pretty interesting.”
He then asks me if I have my fishing license on me which of course I do, and for the next fifteen minutes I lean on his passenger door and we talk about what this spot is like during spring through fall, all the people who come to this place and leave their trash behind. How so many take everything they catch regardless of what it is, seasons, or sizes. He says he’d love to just close the area to fishing and I can’t hardly disagree. As convenient a spot as it is for me because it’s close, I’d much rather see it cleaned up and stay that way, and let the fish, whatever they are, live to grow bigger and only get pressured by the Ospreys and the Herons.
We end with a short conversation about my cousin’s bar in Holland Patent because he notices my hat. He says he passes it all the time but hasn’t stopped in yet. So I tell him if he ever sees my Jeep to stop in and we can tell stories. The truth is he’s probably seen it there quite a few times if he passes it on a normal basis. The 16 Stone Brew Pub has kind of become like a second home to me. Not a bad thing I guess unless you find yourself sitting at the bar wishing you were fishing, when in fact you actually could be. But lately the flies stuck in my hat spur conversations at the bar with strangers, it’s something new for me. Getting out and socializing. But it’s still about fly fishing, don’t get me wrong.
As I walk off through the trees I dodge the tip of the 9wt around and under tree branches and naked bushes. If this was summer I’d have tangled up the rod tip and the line coming off the reel a dozen times by now and used a dozen four letter words in the process. There aren’t a dozen four letter words? Trust me… I invent pushing through areas like this with an assembled fly rod in hand.
The rain is more of a steady mist when I find myself standing in the river. I’m not more than a couple feet from the bank, but it’s as far as I dare go. The river is high. There’s been a lot of snow melt apparently with the rain. But the water is still clear. The nine inch gray and black articulated streamer looks great in the water. If nothing else happens I can be happy in the fact that I tied up something that looks like it should work, even though I realize that what I think doesn’t make a difference. It’s whether a fish thinks it looks good enough to eat. Or attack. Or kiss for all I care. I cast for the better part of an hour. Apparently there are no hungry fish. No angry fish. And no fish “in the mood.”
It’s been a little while since I’ve fished the 9wt, and although the line wants to coil at me feet in the cold weather, I’m happy with my casting, especially with the large streamer. I manage to keep it out of the trees behind me for one thing. Which is where I figured they’d end up ironically when I plucked them from the Christmas tree in the basement. Out of one tree and into another. I’m happy with the distance, with my loops, with the clarity of the water, with the rain soaking through my jacket. I can now feel the cold and the dampness on my shoulders and back, and in the crotches of my elbows and at my wrists. My hands are getting cold as the rain sucks the heat out of them. And I’m perfectly content.
Then the rain begins to fall harder. My surroundings begin to sound like bacon sizzling in a pan as the rain falls on the snow and ice covered branches. I make a few more casts and then reason creeps in and ruins everything. You’re only going to end up wet and cold to the bone, with a painful walk back to the Jeep, trying to get warm for the rest of the day. I reel in the line for the last time and start my walk back. It was a nice change for an hour anyhow.
In the woods the rain is falling hard now. On the thick crust of ice covering the several inches of snow the sound is something like the white noise between radio stations. At that moment deep, heavy thoughts begin to form in my head. Maybe most of life is white noise. Then I snap back out of it. No need to get all heavy out here. It’s just fishing. It’s supposed to be the opposite. But then again maybe the fishing is the heavy part. Maybe it’s the only thing worth going down the rabbit hole for. I don’t know. I used to think I could see the whole picture. Now I don’t even know what the picture is of.
Then I realize, that DEC officer… That’s the first time in my forty-two years on this planet that I’ve ever been checked for a fishing license. It was almost exciting. And I met another cool person because I put a fly rod in my hand on a shitty day. Pretty cool. Then I wonder, I guess I should find out, if I’ll need to purchase a fishing license in Argentina in May? I dodge the rod tip around another tree branch. White noise fills in everything around me.
Mark Usyk is the Author of Reflections of a Fly Rod, available on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, and signed copies available here on JPRossflyrods.com.