Eleven Degrees of Fly Fishing by Mark Usyk

You’ve got to live your own life. Someone at work said that the other day. I saw the irony immediately. They were telling someone they needed to live their own life, while standing next to a machine tied to work, effectively making it possible for the owner of the company to live theirs. I know life is a series of tradeoffs and compromises most of the time, I get it. You’ve got to work for someone else so that they can make money so that you can make money, I get it. But I have to say, I’ve seen it before. Every day really. And over the past few years it’s made me question everything I’ve been taught over the past forty-three, and everything I thought I’d learned on my own along the way.

If I’m working for a paycheck to pay my bills for someone else who’s using me to pay theirs… Am I actually living my own life? Or am I allowing them to live theirs and getting the scraps of what’s left for mine? I think it’s a rabbit hole we all need to go down every now and then. The answers you come up with are probably the most honest to yourself. What you come up with, those answers will tell you who you really are. So when my alarm went off on a Thursday morning I picked up my phone before my feet ever touched the floor. There were only two work days left in the year and I still had a vacation day left. One I’d lose if I didn’t use it. That was basically someone dictating what personal time I had to “live my own life.” I made the call. “I’m using my last vacation day today.” I put my phone down, pivoted my body, and then put my feet on the floor.

When I stepped out onto the front porch the thermometer I’d hung there at eye level was reading about thirteen degrees. But I’m a fly fisherman and we love to exaggerate. So just like adding an inch or two to a fish story, let’s say it was eleven degrees. It sounds more impressive. I had eyed the creek from the kitchen window but couldn’t quite tell if there was ice and slush riding the current, but it didn’t matter either way. The next day would be warmer and rainy. With the rain and melting snow the creek would rise in level and drop in temperature, not to mention the opaque brown that was sure to replace the clear. Today was going to be perfect, if for no other reason than it was the best of the only two days I had. And I’d chosen to live my own life.

I crunched through the weeds and tree line behind the house in my bulky neoprene waders with my fly rod, leaving boot prints in the snow. A couple thoughts ran through my mind. One, it was cold. Damn cold. And two, the fact that I was thinking about how I kept having to force myself to live my own life a day or a few hours at a time all the time seemed pretty pathetic to me. I wasn’t feeling sorry or depressed about it, I was actually feeling a little angry that it had come to the point of me forcing myself to take time for myself. I believe the actual word I used was the description of the waste that comes out of a male cows rear-end. I smelled wood burning and looked over to see smoke rising from the house next door, and my neighbor’s face in his back window staring out at me. He didn’t fish. He didn’t do anything unless it was watching the Green Bay Packers on TV. He probably thought I was crazy. The feeling was mutual.

The creek was clear, a little higher than I’d hoped, but all in all it was pretty fishable. As fishable as a creek in December on a thirteen, I mean eleven degree morning could be. I made casts and drifted a bead headed bugger through all the likely places ending at the spillway a few hundred yards upstream, then walked back home. I was satisfied that I’d fished it well even though I’d come up empty handed, and decided to drive to another stretch of the creek about twenty minutes away. I drove in my waders, the rod still assembled in the rod vault on the roof, because I hate having to get dressed and rig a rod once I get there. It makes for awkward glances at convenient stores when I walk in for the in-route breakfast sandwich this time of year, but I’d don’t mind. It usually leads to one of two things. One, someone in the store, normally the clerk, asks if I’m going up to the Salmon River because most people who don’t fish in the winter time think it’s the only place anyone goes this time of year. Or two, they believe that the only kind of fishing to be done in the winter is through the ice and they learn that this simply isn’t true. That as crazy as some people may be to go out on the ice where there’s always that chance of someone breaking through somewhere, there are those of us who may be considered even crazier. After all, we’re the ones willing to go stand in a river on a thirteen, I mean, eleven degree morning.

I pulled into a fishing access parking lot and was pleased that there were no other vehicles there. Of course looking back on it now, it was thirteen degrees. I imagine it had warmed up at least a couple degrees by then. Normally I fish my way upstream, but in this particular stretch it’s easier to fish moving downstream. You just have to change the way you approach the spot you want to fish, and watch your shadow being cast by a pre-noon sun. I’d cross where I could to keep my shadow off the water, but it’s just not always possible. Of course that’s one of the great challenges of fly fishing a stream that brings most of us to them in the first place. I think it goes along with the old saying, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. Of course, there are somethings in fly fishing that are easy, yet we all want the rest of the world to think it’s way more difficult than it really is. I guess that’s one way we work to keep the rivers as least crowded as possible, and it goes right along with that whole exaggeration thing fisherman can’t help but do.

I made some casts and drifted an olive nymph with a tungsten bead through a run that I almost always catch a fish in, but again found nothing at the end of the swing. After a couple dozen drifts and a fly change back to a bugger I moved down stream. Here the sun was hidden in the trees and much farther downstream it wouldn’t matter at all as the creek cut deep into a ravine. I loved that stretch. The ravine was a beautiful run. At first glance it looked fishy, really fishy. But once you were in it you realized that there wasn’t much trout holding water. The bottom was a smooth green shale, sometimes the only structure were the random cracks forming miniature canyons in the creek bottom hardly big enough to wedge a wader boot in. There were only a couple spots were there was enough gravel and bottom structure to hold and produce food for a trout in the ravine, but I still wade it and make occasional casts every time anyhow. It’s too beautiful not to.

I was about seventy-five yards above the ravine stretch when I made a cast to the water above a deeply cut out bank. It was a text book cast and drift if I’d ever made one. The bugger splashed down just far enough upstream of the undercut bank that I knew as it drifted past that it had to be just about on the bottom. I felt two tics confirming it was where I wanted it, and as I was congratulating myself in my head about successfully putting it where it needed to be, the line stopped. I don’t think I consciously lifted the rod and set the hook, it was more of a “hey, something changed” reaction. Either way, the hook was firm in the mouth of a fish and the bend in the 6wt had me wondering if it was wrapped around a sunken tree or if I actually was fighting a fish. Those moments always have me questioning, and it’s the following seconds when the line starts to move through the water that bring the clarity and excitement to me that we’re always looking for on a river. That’s the very moment when you realize, yes, I’ve hooked a fish.

I hadn’t brought a big net. Even though I’d rigged up my JP Ross 6wt, I hadn’t matched it very well gear wise when I’d stuck my Streamwalker Nets Native Model in my wading belt. I remember thinking as I grabbed it that I’d be lucky to catch anything bigger than my hand as I took it down from its hanger next to my writing desk. And I also remember thinking to myself as I approached one spot on the creek that if I did indeed manage to hook something large, all I really needed to do was get its head in the net. The last thing I remember thinking about the net was that I’d done it to myself when I said I wouldn’t catch anything that big anyways.

I’ll bet I tried to net that trout five times at least. Each time my right arm was extended out behind me as far as it could be, angling the fly rod tip away, trying to bring the fish closer. Each time I realized that the net was too short to reach such a large fish that didn’t want to be caught, and that once it was within my reach, I couldn’t get it to the net head first. I’m sure it would have been a great deal of comic relief if someone had been there watching me trying to coral an eighteen inch brown trout between my legs and into the little net the way someone might try to keep a dog between their legs to force feed it a pill. In the end I made it work, but the words of Egg Shen in my favorite movie Big Trouble in Little China come to mind… It wasn’t easy!

It was a beautiful fish. I know this because I was so impressed by it and my luck that morning that I didn’t even notice the frigid water freezing on my frigid fingers after I released it. I revived it in a shallow and slack current, watching it slowly swim off down and across stream into some riffles where I lost sight of it in the reflections on the surface. I watched it swim off to live its own life, as I stood in a creek, the temperature maybe around twenty degrees now, living mine.

Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod, available on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, and signed copies ready for purchase here on this website, JPRossflyrods.com. He is currently working on his second book.