It was a piece of ice about the size of your average kitchen table top, and it caught me off guard. Bumped into me from behind as I was concentrating on managing my sink tip line downstream. It wasn’t anything close to dangerous or tragic, just a small piece of shelf ice from upriver somewhere. One that maybe a little bit of sun on a warm weekend had broken loose. Or possibly a drop in the water level caused by the dams far upstream had caused its freedom from the river side and subsequent slow speed collision with my hip. It was a quick moment of “what the…!” accompanied by a skipped heartbeat and then a realization that it was nothing but a small slab of ice. As it pivoted off my right hip and continued on I thought for a second about jumping on to float and cast until its next collision with the river bank somewhere downstream. And then the thought passed, and I made another cast.
The night before I’d changed speed at the fly tying vice set up on the coffee table, tying in my one room basement living accommodations somewhere after 9:30. I’d been knocking out large streamers in pairs, doing my best to stock up for a trip to Argentina to chase golden dorado in May. My mind wandering while I tied, I was thinking about the house I was going to look at the next morning with my realtor and friend Will Bradley, wondering what was going to be wrong with this one, and looking forward to fishing on the West Canada Creek afterwards.
I never thought finding a small house outside of town would be so difficult. But apparently the only small houses are built in town, and everyone who builds a place out in the country builds them big. Or at least bigger than what I need. Which coincidentally, means more money than I want to spend. I only need two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and a living room. And let’s be honest. I don’t need a living room as long as I have a writing and fly tying room, and I’m not opposed to cooking on a Coleman propane grill and keeping my cold food in a Yeti cooler in said room… So the kitchen is even optional. You can wash dishes in a bathroom sink. Or just buy paper plates. Divorce isn’t something I’ve ever looked fondly on, but being single does have its advantages. Like no one telling you “you can’t do that.” Of course, a kitchen would come in handy for dying buck tails on the stove in a big pot. And once again, there’s no one to scrunch their nose at the smell and tell me You can’t do that. So a kitchen would be a welcomed option I suppose.
I changed speed at the tying table because, like the night before or even the hour before every time I head out fishing, I decided I didn’t have any flies worth fishing and needed to tie up a couple. So I removed a 4/0 Gamakatsu from the jaws of the vice and clamped in a size 12 nymph hook. I stared at the hook. I had a box full of nymphs in the chest pocket of my waders already. I hated nymphing. I swapped the hook out for something a little bigger, a size 4 streamer hook, and rummaged around for those heavy Fish Skull heads buried somewhere in my black hole of tying supplies.
As much as I dislike nymphing, the only thing I enjoy even less is casting a fly line with a bunch of weight on the end of the leader. But this time of year you’ve got to get to the bottom and fast, so I was compromising. I’d cast something heavy and fast sinking, but it wasn’t going to be a nymph. I’ve found that I’m stubborn, I do things my way usually no matter what. And in fly fishing, when it comes to something that actually works and catches fish, like nymphing… I seem to be against it. I’d cast a heavy weighted streamer to lethargic trout on this trip before I’d tie on some miniscule scud. Of course the scuds worked great the last time I was out, but like I said, I’m against things that work. It gives you a false sense of thinking you know stuff. I guess in a dumb and twisted kind of way, I’d rather be lucky than good. If for no other reason even the truly great anglers still have a hard time figuring out the bite sometimes, and when that happens, there’s still luck when it’s all said and done. Luck doesn’t care if you’re good or not. It’s luck.
The next day Will unlocked the back door of a house just outside of town for me. It was only a couple hundred yards from Nine Mile Creek which I liked a lot. And only a five minute canoe float to the Barge Canal. From the canal I could access the Mohawk River, and from the Mohawk I could get into the Oriskany Creek. You’ve got to know the neighborhood you’re moving into, and I did. The house was what I was looking for too, but the condition wasn’t “move in ready” as I’d heard from my bank more than once now on houses. I thought it was, but I knew they wouldn’t. I left thinking how great the converted attic would have been set up as my writing and fly tying space, and how great it would have been to take my boys down to the creek to practice casting and maybe even catch rock bass from the boulder lined banks. We pulled out of the driveway and the mud tires on the Jeep howled on pavement. The West Canada Creek waited for us, the DJ on the radio told me it was a balmy thirty-seven degrees. Stevie Wonder put a Superstitious vibe in the cab. But I was wearing my lucky Godzilla t-shirt under my layers, so I didn’t change the station.
The road was normally two lanes, but this time of year it’s a generous lane and a half at best. Flanked by waist high snow banks and the asphalt hidden under hard packed snow tinted brown from the sand and salt carried on to it from the better cared for roads, the Jeep and Will’s Mini Cooper hugged the snow banks, their painted manmade forms a stark contrast to everything white around us. Except the blue barn, for which this bend in the river gets its name. The blue barn always stands in contrast whether the surroundings are white or green. Only in the fall when the trees are full of bright color does the barn then somehow seem to meld into its surroundings somewhat. I find that odd because there are no blue leaves. One of the mysteries of the universe I suppose. We left the vehicles and carefully shimmied down a super narrow foot path to the river’s edge.
We’d only been fishing for thirty minutes or so, and I’d only lost one of the four heavy streamers with the fancy fish skull heads in the trees behind me so far. I was casting up river, letting it drop to the bottom and dead drifting it with the current like you would a nymph, twitching it every now and then, and setting the hook on every tick that was probably every rock on the bottom. I hadn’t felt any real evidence of a trout at all so far, but it was thirty-seven degrees, not minus fifteen, and I was standing in a river with a fly rod. Life was good. Will, behind me and just upstream stood quietly casting in the current as well. He seemed content just to be out. The thought crossed my mind to just keep looking at houses, even houses I had no intentions of buying, if only for the excuse of fishing afterwards. Hell of a realtor Will is. It was his idea to fish afterwards. Hell of a realtor.
I heard something coming down through the trees behind me and turned to see a man in a tan Carhartt jacket making his way down the path, trying to keep a hold of the small saplings, using them just as we had to steady himself on the slippery slope. I could see from forty feet away that the plastic grocery bag in his hand held beer cans, and I thought to myself, Oh great, some random guy just came to sit and watch us fish and get drunk. I nodded when we made eye contact and then turned back to continue fishing.
I heard Will, who’d left the river for dry ground and his camera, say hello and ask the generic How’s it going question you ask anyone you run into that you don’t know because it’s polite and there’s really nothing else to say. When the gentleman answered “I was hoping Jordan was going to be down here” I realized this was no random stranger with beer and turned to leave the river to find out who he was. “No no, don’t quit fishing because of me!” But there was nothing really going on in the river and at this point just being on the riverside talking fishing was good enough for me.
It turned out the gentleman’s name was Kim and he was an old friend of JP’s. He’d stopped because he recognized the Jeep from the website and wasn’t sure if it was JP’s or not, but ran and got the beers and came back on a chance. Kim seemed to me to be the real deal. The genuine article, a real nice guy in a world where it’s getting harder and harder to find nice guys. And not only did he know JP, but Will knew Kim’s son. Small world.
We stood on the side of the West Canada Creek for an easy forty minutes, sharing stories and the three beers that Kim had brought. Stories of the river and the very bend we stood on, stories of old timers using live mice as bait for the big ones, and Will and I got to hear a good story involving Kim and JP on Prospect Pond in a canoe once when there was a huge hatch of some sort. Apparently the only thing more prevalent than the fish sipping at the surface were the bats swooping in and exacting their aerial violence on dinner in what JP felt was a little too close for comfort. I understand that the touch of a fly rod tip from behind in JP’s hair at the moment he’s ducked down from a passing bat is enough to almost send him over the side and into the lake. I’ve made a mental note of that and may or may not use the knowledge to my advantage at a later date. When we said our good buys and Kim made his way carefully back up through the trees, and it was obvious that he’d showed up as a stranger but left as a friend. Fly fishing is good like that. More people should take it up.
After Kim left I stepped back into the river and shortly after that the ice began floating by here and there. I got out of the water for a particular floater that was the size of a small island, probably a good fifty feet long. It drifted close enough to the bank to make a loud ruckus as a tree that had fallen with its top in the water was dragged half into the river. The sudden and loud scraping noise in the middle of silence was what had gotten our attention. A little while later, as I was in the zone, concentrating on nothing and everything, the small table top sized iceberg gave me a tap as if to say “On your right” and floated by, soft cold water carrying harder, colder water. Below on the bottom somewhere trout rested in the frigid soft currents, hearts only beating a couple times a minute. Conserving energy, waiting for that next meal to practically hit them in the face. At which point they’d simply open up their mouth and take advantage of the easiest meal… Or not.
Mark Usyk is the Author of Reflections of a Fly Rod, available on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, and signed copies ready to ship here on this web site, JPRossflyrods.com