Tailwater Weekend by Mark Usyk

The idea of getting together every couple of weeks at a local eating and drinking establishment had been carried through several times so far over the winter. Usually it was anywhere from six to ten of us, showing up around 6:30-ish, or when we felt like it. We grabbed a beer of some type or whatever we felt was appropriate according to the day that we’d just endured, and set up vices at an out of the way table. We’d sit around telling fishing stories, which was honestly more important than the tying itself, and every now and then I myself would actually remove a finished fly from the vice jaws to replace it with a fresh bare hook. At home in an hour I might tie five or six streamers, the number done in a given amount of time depending on whether I was tying out of necessity or simply to pass the movements of the clocks hands. But on one of these nights out, in three hours I might tie three decent at best streamers, a pace I deemed appropriate for the circumstances.

And then the idea took a right turn and became a little more structured. I wasn’t sold on the structured part simply because it had gone so well up to this point being completely unstructured, but in the end I decided it wasn’t the structure that I feared as much as the change. As I get older I argue with myself on a daily basis. Change is good; No, change is bad; No it’s not, it’s needed to keep things fresh and moving; Well, I don’t want fresh and moving. I want my predictable and steady pace on my terms; Then you’ll admit that you want to go to the same places and cast to the same fish over and over and not want to go find new waters and new fish and new places?; No, of course not. That would be boring… You’re right as usual. I need a change.

So we set up one of these things at the Tailwater Lodge in Altmar, complete with a schedule of events and all. Rooms, dinner in the lodge’s spectacular restaurant, time for fishing the river in the morning, and an afternoon tying in the Tailwater’s new tasting room. Great food and drinks, a chance for steelhead, and our usual fly tying set in an atmosphere of beverages and anglers sitting around telling tall tales? After I thought about it, change wasn’t such a horrible thing after all.

I’ve never gone for steelhead. They’ve always been attached to a stigma for me that was called the Salmon River. And to me the Salmon River has ninety-nine percent of the time meant crowds, anglers at every bend and pool, before it’s ever meant big fish. To me. I’ve fished it in the heat of summer for smallmouth and it was great, but maybe I shouldn’t say that out of a fear of giving away a good secret. But then you have to ask yourself if I’m just lying to distract you from other waters in the summer time. I am a fisherman after all, and all fisherman lie.

Friday evening Holly and I checked into our room and then walked down to the Tailwater Bar and Restaurant, met with smiles and introductions from friends and new acquaintances alike. Frank and Lisa from the Upstate New York edition of The Angler Magazine greeted us first, and with wine glasses in hand, Holly and Lisa hit it off instantly. That’s always a plus. I write for the magazine, but it was great to be out in a nonprofessional capacity. Charlie Warfield from the Fly Shack in Gloversville, also Frank’s fly fishing editor, and also a great custom net maker turned from the bar to shake my hand with a smile and we laughed about our last outing the week prior on the West Canada where we’d managed to catch the current in a canoe but nothing else. And then from off to the side I caught a figure move in and extend a hand. Wayne Weber is a guide local to the area, (Wayne-o’s Guide Service) one up to this point I’d only conversed with over social media but never in person. It turned out that holding one of these Bugs and Beer things at the Tailwater had put it within reach of Wayne since he lived twenty minutes away, and after ten minutes of getting to know each other we sat down to dinner as close to old friends as possible without actually having the history to back it up. JP showed up fashionably late, making me just a little jealous that he’d managed to hang on to the whole “unstructured” nature of the idea.

The next morning Charlie, Wayne, Frank, and myself all met in the sitting area next to the Tailwater’s retail shop where you could find everything from rods and reels to jackets and packs, and naturally flies. My neoprene waders (worn because of the lesson learned five days earlier, read my January 21 story Charlie and the Snow Cone Factory) clomped down the hall and out the door, where they carried me into the biting cold, following behind Wayne and Frank as they discussed salmon and steelhead fishing. I had nothing to add since I’d never been, and since I had no expectations of catching a single fish, steelhead or otherwise, I merely half listened and half studied the frozen trees on our way to the river, just happy to be out. I’ve also found it’s easier to enjoy my time on the water over the past few years when I expect nothing. In that way, there are no expectations to be met, and therefore none to fall short of. In short, it’s easier to meet goals when you don’t have any.

The fishing that morning is easy to sum up and won’t take long. Wayne, the guide, naturally caught the only steelhead and Charlie netted it for him as Frank took a couple pictures. It was a very dark fish, not bright like the chrome everyone talks about, and from what the other three guys said not very big. But I’d have been more than happy with it. I saw a couple spin fisherman on the opposite side of the river, not Tailwater guests, drag two fish onto the bank, one seemed to come in a little weird if you know what I mean, like it wasn’t hooked in the mouth. So I actually saw three fish. And I did make a few casts myself.

I tried a little steelhead fishing at 7:15 that morning. Let me tell you, it was thirteen degrees. Of course the guides froze up, and then while breaking ice out of the guides I accidentally dipped the reel in the water so it froze up solid. Then, after getting all that cleared up, the sink tip was coated with ice and stiff, so it didn’t cast well, and when I tangled the leader around the tip of the rod like Batman's grappling hook and it instantly froze to the rod and it's tangled and knotted self, I stepped out of the river, took a breath... And then my waders and the bottom of my jacket froze solid. Winter steelheading is not so much about fish I think and more like that moment Lt Dan was up on the mast in the storm. Holy crap.

Before you laugh at me and call me a wuss, I worked on cell towers through four winters in the northeast. I know all about layering up, about covering every bit of skin, about turning wrenches in midair on steel that wants nothing more than to tear your skin off should you make the mistake of poor Schwartz in The Christmas Story, and I’ve struggled with hundreds of feet of rope in gnawing cold and wind, frozen solid so that you couldn’t tie or untie knots at the worst moments. I know about pushing through in extreme conditions. Stuff most people wouldn’t last an hour in, let alone all winter. When it comes to cold weather, I thought I’d seen it all and I was willing to bet that I had…But I’d never stood in a river at dawn when it was thirteen degrees trying to cast a fly rod to mythical fish.

I walked backed to our room about an hour later, unfeeling and stiff like a robot. My wader legs had just begun to thaw and bend at the knees as I got to our room. Inside Holly was still in bed, and I struggled out of my gear as quietly as possible, which included running the bottom snap of my jacket under warm water in the bathroom sink to unfreeze it. I’d waded to just above the lower three inches of the jacket and as such those bottom three inches were frozen solid, the lower part of my jacket stiff and round like having the top of a metal fifty-five gallon drum around my waist.

At breakfast a half hour later I inhaled bacon and scrambled eggs not because they were good, which they were, but because they were warm. Thank God. The discussion when we left the river was that we’d get some breakfast and then go back out and come back in before noon to tie in the tasting room. Holly thought we were nuts as we described how cold it was out there, and for the first time ever I was agreeing with her. Maybe this fishing thing could be a little nuts if viewed from a certain perspective. Wayne, the only one to catch anything, didn’t look too excited at the prospect of going back out even.

Lucas Smith and his family sat down to eat and we heard the story told by his mother, of how she and her husband Steven had been watching from a bridge as Lucas was on the river. She’d decided she’d had enough of the cold and had gone back to the car, and then shortly after saw Steven running across the bridge, a snow plow coming full speed. Picture the movie Stand By Me and the train trestle scene. The snow plow never stopped. A wave of the white stuff ended Steven’s morning abruptly. We then heard the same story from Lucas, but from his perspective, seeing it unfold from down on the river, and then from Steven himself. We all laughed, Steven was still shaking as he lifted his fork to his mouth, and somewhere during it all I realized no one except probably Lucas, the young gung ho angler would be going back out.

I told Wayne quietly, I’m not saying I won’t go back out. If someone else gets up and says I’ll meet you on the river in twenty minutes then yea, I’ll get up and go. But I’m not going to be the first one.

The rest of the morning was spent inside, warming up. The Tailwater makes it too easy to stay in with its comfortable rooms and strategically placed couches and cattle hides as throw rugs. I could probably check in for nothing more than a weekend to read ten books in such a place, let alone go fishing.

In the tasting room that afternoon we enjoyed sampling flights of good beers, I naturally went for the dark stuff you couldn’t see light through, and we sat and tied and told stories like we always do. A couple more people showed up, not to tie but just to hang out and eat, and eventually Lucas and his brother Doug walked in, Lucas having caught a steelhead. In just about any other circumstances I’d have been jumping back into my gear because someone had caught something.

Staying in my seat, happy to be warm and a couple good beers in front of me I suddenly felt a change. I knew there were fish out there but wasn’t planning on chasing them. Getting older or wiser I couldn’t tell and didn’t much care, which must mean the older part, not the wiser. One of Frank’s friends was a headhunter, a big fish guy, and very dry. He didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor about fishing and couldn’t fathom the idea that I was happy chasing little fish and just as happy being a marginal or less fly fisherman. I came to the conclusion that he’s probably a great angler because he’s so serious but also reflected for a short moment that being too serious takes away from the experience as a whole and went back to being happy about not being very good myself. Someone else asked me if the stories in my book were true. I laughed and told him that no one makes up stories about catching little fish or getting skunked. He nodded in acknowledgement. I let my bobbin hang below a partially finished streamer and raised a dark porter.