On an early morning drive to the Finger Lakes region of NY a couple weekends ago I found myself listening to the local classic rock station as I tried to leave town. The lights of the gauges and the radio in the dash were the only illumination, besides the red traffic light above me and the headlights lighting up the pavement Immediately in front of me, and it added to the feelings the song was stirring. The pavement ended out ahead of me where the headlights no longer reached. Just empty nothing, blackness. Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” was playing as I sat quietly at the red light just outside of town, and as all good songs are engineered to do, it was making me think. It’s a lonely song, ironically written about life on the road playing in front of thousands of people each night. He’s playing for all these fans, all these eyes are on him, yet he’s singing a song about how lonely it is. The rock star life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be it seems.
It set my mind in motion, dissecting the past few years of my own life. I had two hours to drive to meet Steve Firlit in Steuben County for some winter trout fishing, so what better way to get through it than to try and figure out what my problems were and what I’d never be able to do to solve them, right? Over the next two hours I figured out exactly what my problem is, something I’ve known for a long time now. I’m just not happy. But I figured it out with way more detail than I had in the past. What I realized is the only thing that makes me happy anymore, and happy is a calm, cool, and collected mind by the way, is to be outdoors and surrounded by nature. Specifically, fly fishing. But fly fishing is what drives me to find the beautiful places I’m happy in, and not the end all be all. I don’t need to be in a river casting, but the sights I find on my way to the rivers, while on the rivers, and on my way back out from the rivers are where I’m truly happy. And honestly the only place I’m really happy. The irony of my predicament would be that while fly fishing and the wild places I go are what make me happy, they’re also what cause me to be miserable. Because I’m constantly in a state of needing to be out there and I can’t, so when I’m not, I’m unhappy and quite often miserable about it.
We weren’t born to pay bills and die. And on the back of that one I’ll add that no amount of money ever bought a second of time. And we weren’t meant to be cooped up in buildings all day long surrounded by machines and walls and man-made noise and artificial light. We just weren’t. And this is where my discontent comes from. I’ve realized this. I’ve always known it. But the older I get the more it eats away at me. I feel like I’ve got large chunks missing these days from it eating away at me. Big dog sized bites.
It seems in poor taste to me to moan and complain about it when I have a decent paying job, a house, and a good car. Poor taste because I know there are millions of people in the world who don’t have those things and it’s all they want. But my job, that’s all it is, just a job. It lights no fires inside me. It provides me with my child support, mortgage, and car payments. My house? It’s a house, but that’s all it is. It’s not a home. Home is where the heart is after all, and there’s no heart there. And my car? Well, it’s the only thing I really feel I need, and that’s only because it gets me to work to pay for it all. But it does get me to the woods and the rivers, I’ll give it that.
I thought about all of this on the two-hour drive to meet Steve and then it was all gone when we stepped in the river. Poof, just like that. We spent an entire day wading a river that was only about thirty-five degrees, we fished streamers for big browns that may or may not have been there, and we struck out. But getting skunked just doesn’t matter to me because the fly rod is just what gets me out there. It’s like a walking stick in that it helps you to go places and see magnificent things that you wouldn’t see otherwise, things those who don’t wander rivers in the dead of winter don’t even know exist.
There was a Sycamore tree in the river, and its root ball had managed to catch and collect a huge mound of debris from the current. And hanging below and from all the debris was one of those sights that winter anglers get to see and hardly anyone else, besides beavers and otters and birds and the squirrels and ducks. At first I thought the whole thing looked like a big chandelier hung just above the water’s surface, then I thought that maybe it looked like some mystical crystal wind chimes, and later on I agreed when showing a photo of it to someone else that it looked like a colony of ice bats sleeping as bats do hanging from a cave ceiling. There were no fish that day and still I came away with stories and memories, as if I hadn’t gone because of fish at all. Which begs the question… Am I ever really?
The next day we drove farther upstream into the headwaters where the river was nothing more than a small stream passing through farmland, swamps, and forest, and I rigged up my short 6’6” 3wt. It seemed odd at first to think about it. It was my go-to rod for chasing small wild brook trout in the Adirondacks and here I was in flat lands with a small streamer hoping to find large browns in this tiny stream. The first half of the day felt like the previous day all over again as cast after cast came up empty. It felt like that movie Groundhogs Day, and then the joke hit me… It actually was. Fishing on February 2nd seemed like just as much of a joke as fishing in April 1st at that moment. And so I expected to catch nothing just like the day before and was perfectly fine with the thought. Which of course was when the universe decided to throw me a fastball and stick a trout on my streamer.
A trout caught on a fly rod is always a special moment. But a trout caught in the dead of winter from a small stream during a heavy snowfall can be something different altogether. It wasn’t big, eleven or twelve inches maybe, and the size didn’t matter in the least. When you worked hard for a fish all day on the previous day and came up empty and then had reserved yourself to the idea that today would be more of the same, suddenly that fish, that moment, becomes the most genuine high five with a friend that’s ever happened.
Later in the afternoon, not long before we’d call it a day, Steve stumbled across antlers poking out of the fresh snow and ended up taking home one of the greatest fishing trophies one can find outside of a beautiful catch. It was quite the site to follow behind him as we carefully made our way quietly through the woods. He carried the skull with the massive eight-point rack in one hand and his fly rod in the other, and he’d set the skull down in the fresh snow next to him where he would kneel by the stream to make a couple stealthy casts. It was like living on the cover of some old outdoors magazine. And there again I knew. It’s not about the fishing. The fishing is out there and so we go out there. Throughout any given fishing trip, a fish is only a single moment during a longer memory.
And those moments are what get me through the days that I can’t be out there, and at the same time what makes those days so much harder to bare, knowing where I could be.
Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod and Carp Are Jerks. Both are books full of stories about life, where fishing happens. They can be found on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and signed copies can be purchased on this website… JPRossflyrods.com