I parked the Jeep in a small lot next to an old condemned factory at the creek side, assembled my fly rod, and headed off up stream. It was January first. The first day of the year and in the upper thirties with a blue sky even. I didn’t plan on being out very long. This was meant to be a quick trip, the kind I normally found only an aggravating tease. But in the winter, when simply walking through the woods can become a workout, while you sweat with your winter jacket and waders on, yet your toes still freeze like little cocktail weenies in the refrigerator, a quick trip out doesn’t seem quite so bad as on a beautiful spring day when you’d rather not go home at all. And I couldn’t fish all day regardless, there were snowball fights to be had in the yard later with a seven and an eleven year old, who were undoubtedly at the moment stock piling hand packed artillery behind a hollowed out snowbank on the edge of the driveway at home. But at the moment my focus was getting to a spot on the map. A spot on a local creek not too far from home, a stretch of water I’d fished above and below but never seen other than on the Google Earth images. It looked good. Fishy. And only a couple hours before I’d finally released my first published book. So that, the first day of the New Year, and the weather, they all called for a couple hours on the water the way I saw it.
I meant to move upstream quickly, but I hadn’t made it far before the water called to me. I cast a weighted nymph to a couple tail outs, letting it bump along the bottom of a couple pools. Nothing. I drifted the nymph through some light riffles where trout may have been holding, waiting for an easy meal to hit them in the face, excited just enough to eat by the slight rise in the water temperature. Nothing. But these weren’t the places I came to fish, they were on my way upstream to my target area, and they just looked too fishy not to try. I’d make better time if I could skip over them, but it’s impossible to do. I had my fly rod. The spots looked promising. I had to cast. Nothing.
I told myself that this is winter and winter fishing is just tough. It’s tough enough just getting to the fish, pushing through heavy, knee deep snow. Stumbling over hidden fallen trees and stumps. When I left the house I told myself I didn’t expect to catch anything, its winter and I had a hard enough time catching fish on nice summer days sometimes. But as I trudged on through the woods along the creek, these spots I casted to, and the spot on the map I was on my way to, they looked very fishy. That spot I’d studied on the satellite images especially had possibilities. There could be monsters wintering there. I told myself I probably won’t catch anything, and that it was worth the work, this one spot, because of possible fish. So in a way I’d set myself up to be right no matter what happened. Either way I could say I knew I was right.
I was pretty sure my brother had caught a couple certified pigs from this stretch a couple years ago, or at least this general area. He’d shown me pictures, huge twenty-plus inch fat browns, and assured me he’d released them, but never did come clean as to where he actually was. Just somewhere on the creek, and my suspicions told me somewhere around here, simply because he was living and working close by at the time. Of course, I wouldn’t have put it past him to rent a house and get a job close to a specific part of the creek just to throw everyone off as to where he was fishing. Nope, I wouldn’t put it past him at all. I never pressured him for the spot and he never volunteered it.
And why should he? Blood is thicker than water. Except in fishing. In fishing water beats blood unless you’re talking about fathers and young children, or grandfathers and little grandkids. Whether it be friendly ball busting over little fish, or not letting on to where that near record catch came from, in fishing blood doesn’t mean squat. He worked for those fish. And I’d have to just the same. I trudged on through knee deep snow, probably another fishless winter day. But maybe not.
Maps are great. They show you where you’re going and what you should be passing, and the satellite images off Google Earth are great. Unlike a blue line representing a creek on a normal map, the satellite image has the ability to show you the character of the stream. The deep holes and shallow runs, stretches of pocket water, and if it’s current enough, the log jams might even be there when you get to them. If they’re older, things like log jams and dead falls can move or disappear altogether. But what simple maps do mostly are make you think you’re going to get there faster than you really are, because looking at a map, you always see yourself walking straight as the crow flies. You don’t see the reality of avoiding thick patches of scrub brush and alders, of hidden ravines beneath the canopy, or river banks way too steep to make a crossing to get to easier walking on the other side.
Every time I thought I was almost there, I wasn’t. Every time I walked out to the middle of the creek or to the other side just to try and see farther around the bend, thinking the spot was going to come into view, it didn’t. To get there, I actually forced myself to quit fishing and just hike. Crazy thing is, it finally worked. I was pretty sure I could hear water, and it finally wasn’t water from some little feeder stream or the creek flowing through a fallen tree or out of a tail out. It was finally the old dam I was looking for.
Of course once I got to it I decided it wasn’t such a great looking spot after all, but I guess you never can tell, and in the end there’s only one way to find out. Putting in the work and getting there is the only way when it’s all said and done. You can always ask around, talk to your buddies and other fisherman, but you can only take what another fisherman might tell you with the proverbial grain of salt. There’s always that chance that they could be honest, but then there’s always that chance that they could lead you in other directions to keep the pressure of a good spot, and then still there’s that chance that, like all fishermen, they could play it up like it was a great spot when in all reality it was average at best. Like all things, they always look better looking back. The older I get, the better it was.
Below the dam was too shallow and the water rushed white and violent, and there wasn’t a pool like I’d thought. Up above, like most dams, there was slow, deep water, but clear, and I couldn’t see any fish hanging out. I made a couple casts but it looked like a bust. Sixty yards to the right there was a smaller spill way where a skinny stream separated from the creek and flowed down through two chutes and dumped into a calm and deep pool. It was the fishiest place I’d seen all day. But I’ll tell you that fishy doesn’t mean anything half of the time, and this was that half of the time. I made a dozen drifts through it and then called it quits. By now the boys had enough snow balls stock piled to obliterate a small country I was sure, and they were probably getting bored, so I tried to double time it back to the Jeep, but decided getting hot and sweaty wasn’t a great idea, and neither was falling in while trying to cross the creek fast. So I fought the urge and walked at a normal pace. As normal as the snow and hidden debris underneath would allow.
At one point as I hit a thick patch of vines in the trees along a stretch of tall cut out bank I noticed the birds fluttering here and there, moving from branch to branch, just staying out in front of me, as if they wanted me to see them, but to stay just out of reach. Robins. There were four or five of them, and I wondered why they were still here, in winter. I always thought they migrated south, like my in-laws did when the winter came. I always took it as a sign that spring was arriving when I saw them in late March or early April, and it was a common thing to hear others talk about them too. It gave us all hope that yes indeed, a winter was coming to a close. Now that theory was shot to hell in my mind. What was the deal? Was I wrong all along? Wrong for most of my forty-one years? I wouldn’t be surprised, I’d been wrong before. But everyone talked about it, so was it actually some kind of urban legend? Or, was it some kind of animal conspiracy? Maybe they really did migrate south, but these Robins had been chosen by some bird hierarchy as spreaders of doubt. Left behind to spread misinformation among the humans. To make us think we don’t know as much as we think we know… Now I just don’t know.
On the road, I was pondering where the trout might have been, wondering if I could’ve parked the Jeep in another spot and walked in somewhere else to cut some of the hike out, and lost in thought about animals and conspiracies. At some point in a trance, I came back to reality. It was one of those times when you suddenly realize you’re driving but don’t actually remember driving the last mile or so. Probably something like what it’ll be like about the time my kids take my car keys away from me after too many unexplained dents. Anyway, I came back to the present and Bono and U2 resonated through old speakers. They still hadn’t found what they were looking for. I didn’t know whether to take it as a sign or as irony, or something else altogether. Kind of like the damn Robins. Maybe it meant something. But maybe not.
Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and signed copies available here on JPRossflyrods.com.