Shelf Ice by Mark Usyk
Six days ago we were buried in a March blizzard. The part that stings isn’t the fact that it took two days to dig out of it. It’s not that cars and trucks were covered where they stopped, stuck in the streets. It’s not even that we’ve been telling the rest of the country that they’re all a bunch of unprepared wusses when it comes to snow storms and that we’re Upstate NY, that we’re the masters of winter and we eat lake effect snow storms for breakfast. No, it stings because we thought we were done with winter. Past it. The snow was gone. The grass was bare. I even know a couple people that changed their snow tires out for their summer tires. And then the storm came and put us in our place. Like the cocky tough guy in the bar that ends up with a black eye, wondering how he ended up sitting on that curb with a ringing in his ears and a bunch of people standing around looking down on him. But it was the idea that spring was indeed going to look like spring, and that with the lack of snow would come the warmer temperatures and the time for the fish to start biting, cooperating a little better than simply waiting for a meal to hit them in the face as they rested on the bottom. And then that idea was snatched away.
There’s still ice hanging on to the creek, flanking it on both sides, but it’s on its way out for the year. As snow and ice all around the watershed melts, the creek rises. Water that flows under the shelf ice begins to flow over it as well. It thins. Holes begin to form in the rotting ice and the water flowing below begins to pump up through them, like a pulse. Water flowing through itself in all reality. It shares the same space in two different forms, solid and liquid. Pumping through itself like a heartbeat. Water, after all, is life.
I’ve never considered myself a sappy, emotional, or sensitive person. As a matter of fact I’m pretty sure I’ve done my best through a lot of my life to be just the opposite of those things. But alone by myself on a river or stream, I’ll admit that the water, and the fish, do bring out those qualities from somewhere inside me from time to time. That’s most likely the healing factor people talk about water having. Us fly anglers just happened to stumble upon the fact that a brightly colored fly line forming loops above the moving water happens to enhance the healing power somehow. I’m not going to try and analyze it. That’s a rabbit hole for another day. On a warm, sunny day like this, I’m happy to simply accept it for what it is, take it for granted, and enjoy it.
I walk some of the creek in the clear and frigid knee deep current, but my steps churn up sediment that clouds the water and hides the stones that seem to be in such great focus on a day like today, so I step up onto the shelf ice when I can. On a day like this, when the water is as clear as the clear blue sky above it, stirring up debris from the bottom seems a lot like I just tossed a Styrofoam coffee cup in the creek. Or tossed mud on a freshly cleaned window. It makes me feel about the same. The ice creeks and cracks as I walk, and at one point I see a fish glide off from beneath it and downstream. When I come to the depression in the middle of the creek, the one behind the large rock that I cast to all summer long for smallmouths, I wonder to myself if the fish might be holed up on the bottom, in the slack water behind the rock.
I halfheartedly drift the large nymph I tied during the blizzard through the spot. I say halfheartedly simply because I don’t really care if I catch anything. I saw it, and on a day like this, with the rocks so clear on the bottom, with the water eating away at the ice, and the sun warm on my face, just seeing the fish is more than good enough for me. As I’m thinking this to myself, there’s a tug, and then nothing. Probably a rock on the bottom, which tells me I’m getting down deep enough and gives me satisfaction. But then I have to wonder. Maybe it was a bite? It’s one of those questions I’ll never have the answer to. Then I realize the sun is still warm on the back of my neck, and the round stones of the creek bottom are still bright and in vivid detail, and the question is forgotten as quickly as it was asked.