Memories in a Spot Light by Mark Usyk

The one thing that a slow and dragging winter can do for you more than giving you ample time to sit at your fly bench and tie all kinds of stuff to fill your fly boxes that you’ll most likely never use, would be to give you plenty of time to remember warmer days and better fishing. I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is winter in Upstate NY, that it is what it is as the saying goes. There’s open water around here that I can fish, but the chances of the flows being low and clear and not high and blown out during the short windows of opportunity I find to hit them are slim, and usually not in my favor. I made my peace with it after driving west two weekends ago and seeing first-hand the miles and miles of open streams and waters on the far left side of the state where you can swing a fly rod for trout and steelhead or pike and musky all winter. But three hours this direction, still waters are all frozen over and there’s only a couple creeks open for catch and release trout during the winter. Pike and musky can be found in a couple frigid moving waters, but the majority are pulled through the ice.

I know holes in the ice are an option, but it’s never come to that for me. I went out on the hard water once early this winter at the invite of my buddy Josh Kelly and I’ll concede to having had a good time. I didn’t even fish and I had a fine day out there walking from hole to hole, chasing flags, watching Josh wrangle a slimy pickerel now and then. Walking off the ice at the end of the day pulling a sled I figured it was as good of a way of passing the time on a beautiful winter day as I could’ve had without a fly rod. But it was the only time I was on the ice this winter. A couple weeks later I stood in the West Canada Creek, a fly line slashing the cold biting air and my toes screaming for mercy. I’ll admit that at least on the ice my toes didn’t lose their feeling, and then gain back the only feeling they could muster, which was something between a burning sensation and the feeling of being smashed with a hammer. But there’s just something about a river that, well, you either get it or you don’t, and I’ll never be able to explain it well enough to make anyone feel it. If you don’t get it, I don’t think anyone can make you get it. That’s probably the only time fishing has anything in common with politics.

But, like I was saying, winter seems to bring out the memories of warmer days and fish from the past, better than the days when you’re able to wet wade in shorts and old sneakers chucking deer hair poppers to bass from the cattails. And the older I get, the more I hold onto those memories, those old stories that at the time weren’t stories, but were just another moment in the present, destined to become the past eventually. I might not be able to remember what I ate for breakfast four hours ago, but I can remember a moment with a fish or a piece of water like it just happened yesterday on demand, like knowing old movies word for word for no real reason, something that drives my wife crazy.

Sometimes whatever it is that happened, or wherever you were was just another day on the water that was good enough to make you remember it and think yea, that was nice spot. Why didn’t I ever go back there? But then there’s those things that happen, whether big or small that are immediately engrained in your head, and even as they happen, even though they had no effect on the world, they had some kind of lasting impression on you.

I lived in the Florida Pan Handle for eight years give or take, and on one of my visits home one summer during my USAF days my brother Luke and I decided to go nose around a stream that was the outlet of an old reservoir, a popular place for high school kids to trespass, whether it be to fish or to go drink and be small town outlaws. When I’d been in high school my buddy Joe and I had spent many summer days bumming around the small lake or big pond, whatever you might decide it was, tossing soft plastic baits and little Rapalas on spinning rods at largemouths. We were long haired rocker kids, escaping parents and authority the best way we knew how, smoking Marlboros and quietly exploring a place posted signs told us we weren’t allowed.

We never got run out, and I have to believe that whoever owned the property knew people fished there all the time by the beaten dirt path from the road down the steep incline leading into the bottom of a deep bowl full of water. I’d never do it today, because I now have a respect for other people’s property and an equal fear of being a father who would have to explain to my children after being picked up at the police station that they should do as I say, not as I do. It seems that I’ve grown responsible, dare I say slightly wiser as I’ve gotten older. All be it with an apparent lack of adventure that can accompany the two if allowed. I’m not saying I’m not adventurous anymore, just that when I choose my adventures, they’re more based on possible outcomes these days than they used to be.

When Luke and I drove over to bum around the stream we took a quick look from the road down to the pond and he told me that while I was gone, some kids had been hanging out on the road that was actually a bridge over the outlet stream. Joe and I had always used the huge culvert, one big enough to drive a truck through, to quietly sneak to the pond unseen, and it sounded like it had become a party spot. Apparently the kids were hanging out, doing stuff that kids do but aren’t supposed to do, and one of them sitting on the wall up top took a header to the shallow rocky stream far below, which led to police, fireman, paramedics, and eventually the cracking down of the idea that the area was indeed posted.

Fortunately, while the pond was surrounded by posted signs, the stream flowing out wasn’t and so just like Joe and I had done so many times as teenagers, Luke and I decided to kick off our sneakers, roll up our jeans, and follow the stream to see if we couldn’t fool a couple bass, or at least a creek chub or two.

The stream lost elevation quickly, which was cool because it did it over several small waterfalls and shelves in a short distance. It didn’t have much for big fish in that section, but it was quiet and pretty, and even though on a map it was flanked by a country road on either side, once you were down in there you’d never know it. That was one of the reasons Joe and I had liked it. It only took walking off his front porch, across a two lane black top, and a push through pricker bushes to get to it and feel like you’d left everything else behind. Which of course is all any teenage boy with long hair and a Metallica t-shirt wants to do in the first place.

Luke and I were standing on the upstream side of a small but very deep pool, one we’d always pulled decent bass for such a small stream out of, and he was telling me how the high school kids would use it as a swimming hole, and that he’d jumped into it from the boulders we were standing on and struggled to touch the bottom. I’d never swam in it, it was only about eight feet wide and even less than that long, but knew it was deep. While we were standing there talking about how dark the hole was and how small but deep it was, how the kids would come downstream to this spot when the bridge up top was under a microscope, suddenly an image appeared deep down in the black water.

Two fish, bronze scales catching sunlight like two actors enveloped by a spot light on an otherwise pitch black stage, were caught in a moment of pure survival of the fittest right before our eyes. The larger fish stood straight up, vertically, seeming to stand and spin in place on an invisible floor, the smaller fish was also straight and vertical, only standing on its head, which wasn’t visible because it was in the mouth of the bigger one. The one doing the eating was a smallmouth, I can see the bronze thrashing and gulping during the struggle as if it were happening right now even though it was probably twenty years ago. The smaller fish being eaten wasn’t recognizable then and still isn’t now. To say today that it was a creek chub or a smaller bass would be nothing more than a guess flung at the past and would foul the whole memory, so I’ll just say it was the one on the unlucky end of the encounter and leave it at that. Another fish shape, a skinny flash of gold flitted in and out of the scene twice off to the side, either another excited predator looking for an opportunity, or more prey looking for an escape during the chaos in the pool.

It’s the type of scene that you can’t un-see, and if you’re lucky enough to be standing there at the right place and the right time to witness it, you can only hope that you’re lucky enough to hold onto it when you’re mind becomes old and cloudy. If for no other reason, because you remember the same sun that illuminated the fish in the dark cool water feeling warm on the back of your neck, feeling alive, happy to be there.