Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Winter Steelhead Classic

"Remiss" is a word I allow myself to use too often, especially in this space. I keep my blog as a diary and of course I indulge myself: I write here whenever the urge comes upon me. But sometimes, like almost everyone else, I let myself be coddled and addled by the routine of every day, and I too often seek the forgetfulness of sleep when I could be casting back into memory for something worthy to write about.

Surely, I do my friends Chess and Oliver some undue dishonor in this regard. After all, I met them only because I write here, and they reached out to me because it made them feel something good, something we share. Sometimes I even mull over the idea that maybe that was all this blog ever needed to be for me: a beacon to guide these two gentlemen my way. And when I wonder if this is true or not, or if this is the whole truth (and not just a small part of it), I often feel that the means has achieved its end; the tool has done its work - so maybe now I can put it down.

The irony, of course, is that I would probably disappoint them if I decided that - and there's still this little kernel, this acorn of willfulness deep within which rebels against such laziness and laissez-faire. There's only so much neglect that I can accept even from myself.

To take it to another level, I can truly say that though I am not a particularly
religious man, religion - and one particular catholic mass especially - taught me a lesson which even now confounds me, as much as its apparent inner contradiction delights me. That is, from a well spoken sermon, I learned that our talents are, in fact, not ours at all. It takes a minute or two to realise what this means, not just for one's self but for everyone. At the time, it knocked me for a loop: that I wrote mainly for my own pleasure, and in private, was to withhold my talent from others. So, in the very act of the self indulgence which this little, otherwise insignificant little blog represents, I quite possibly commit an act of kindness. This is how I share the gift I was given, with anyone else who enjoys reading my stories and my reports - and my perhaps interminable detours into philosophy and spirituality (of sorts). 

I have Laura to thank for this, as she is far more devout than I am; but I follow her, and I wouldn't be true if I couldn't find something there for me. 

So it's decided. I will continue to write here for as long as I'm allowed to. And this is something that I hope will bring some kind of satisfaction to my
buddies, and to anyone else who happens upon my little offerings.

Certainly, this decision - not that I was seriously considering anything otherwise - allows me to recount our winter trip together; Chess, Oliver and the Average Steelheader, raising rods together to conquer frigid winter steelhead! I won't waste any more time deliberating, but - well, let's dive into the story, shall we?

Sometime after the December ice storm, and before the weeks of unrelenting -20C weather of February, during a short interlude of above zero daytime temperatures, we met at our designated rendez-vous point, an hour out from our destination, and piled into Oliver's truck. Everything was set: rods were polished, reels were clean and for the most part freshly filled, flies were tied and roe bags were ready. We had beads a-plenty, our pockets brimmed with floats and there would be no shortage of terminal tackle. Granola bars, sandwiches, water bottles, beer cans and enough brandy to share (and warm the blood) were packed into our gear ready to be called upon at need. And of course, a few south american tobacco creations were nestled safely in tubes, awaiting a flame in some corner out of the wind. 

From the onset, a certain harmony settled over our interactions, and our decision-making flowed effortlessly and amicably over the mild doubts and
deeper questions of the day. No one sought to impose direction, but suggestions were almost always accepted, and we took little time at every junction of the day to discover that we agreed with eachother at almost every turn.

We began where we began last year, behind a farmer's field, in a small valley lined with mostly deciduous trees and little patches of tall grass; or at least there must be tall grass there usually. This year, much of it was covered by a thick, crenelated layer of heavy, semi-snow semi-ice, which made our walk down to the river somewhat treacherous. We all fell at least once or twice as we tried to find some access to the river,lower down.

Once we did get down and started fishing, it was clear that the river was not quite ready for us. Big piles of lumbering slush kept rolling by downstream,
too numerous and thick to permit easy fishing. Worse, within about a half hour of flouting these unappealing conditions, I started to notice that little balls of fluff were getting attached to my nanofil main line. At first, I thought I could just brush them away, but soon found out what was really happening. The ice was causing little strands in the line to shred and peel off, and the result was that - here and there - it started looking like a balling old woolen sweater! Luckily, though it was inconvenient, it didn't completely prevent me from fishing.

By the time I started noticing the fluff on my line, we'd worked our way down to a lovely, deep bend with good movement. Though it was snowing a fair amount, it seemed to be relenting and maybe, just maybe, there seemed to be some slight thinning of the constant rushing clumps of slush. Regardless, I designed to take a break for a while and just watch the other two as they plied the pool for a while. I leaned my rod against a tree, emptied the contents of one of those tubes I mentioned earlier, sparked a flame from my lighter, then began to enjoy the aromatic billows of smoke that rose from the end of the stick. Hands in pockets and puffing contentedly, I stepped out closer to Oliver, and we shared a laugh or two while he flipped his float up and down the quiet stream. We were quite high up, on an ice shelf - with no net and consequently no idea how to get any fish out, should we hook any ; and with the wind slowly dying, and the weather apparently changing, it was really quite enjoyable to just stand there and watch my friends for a little while.

Boom! Suddenly, Oliver is falling straight down and a little bit backwards. His rod floats in the air for what seems like an hour, as he lets go; I'm too slow. I can only watch as his eyes widen. He falls. He reaches out with his hands, scratching at the surface of the snow, only a meter or so away from my feet - then he disappears over the edge of the shelf. But no! there he is, standing in maybe 18" of water, 6 or 7 feet below where I am standing, and there is now a gigantic chunk of iceberg floating downstream behind him, rolling off the shallow river's edge as the current pushes it along. Oliver still has his rod, somehow; maybe he grabbed it again during his fall. On the ice, at my feet, his sunglasses. He checks himself up and down, as if to make sure nothing got broken; then we laugh!

However, our trust in our little shelf is broken. Chess, who somehow was quicker than me, has gotten around to help Oliver get back out of the water
and onto the dubious shelf. And while the rescue mission is going on, I inspect the ice all around us. In its ebbs and flows, the river had broken its rough wintry mantle many times, and all about us were many big blocks of this stuff, all jumbled and piled together willy-nilly, but showing exactly what had happened to Oliver. In one cross section, it was clear to see that only about a two inch layer of solid ice,  an inch or two from the surface of the shelf, was all that held it together. Beneath this layer was, in some places, six and seven feet of softer stuff, more akin to frozen light slush than to ice. Oliver's - and my - weight, combined with the virtual tonnage of all this pseudo ice/slush, as well as the warming temperatures, would have been too much for only two inches of ice to hold together. We were keenly aware that luck had shone on us: six or seven feet of iceberg had fallen away, leaving Oliver unharmed; but it could have fallen on. That would not have been as funny.

Shortly thereafter, the snow did in fact stop falling, and the weather warmed slightly; and the river quite suddenly became more fishable. Even though I
still felt it was too early for fish to start biting, Oliver and then Chess both proved me wrong. Oliver with a lovely pair of brown trout, and Chess with what was probably the biggest fish of the day; a sparkling silver hen, which he took in a spot where we had crossed earlier and where I had remarked casually "we're probably walking where we should be fishing." It was lovely fish, and it gave a good account of itself. Only a few quick pictures were taken before we released her to complete her journey.

The rest of the day was very much as I described above. We flitted from spot to spot, most of which I'd never been to but which my friends knew well, looking for slow tail outs, and stretches of river sheltered by boulders. It took me a while, but I finally caught my first few fish, under a bridge in a very
productive spot that held several lively specimen, some of which even gave us the occasional leap despite the frigid water temperature. 

It was a day where not all water that looked promising held the fish that it probably should have, but whenever we located fish it was rarely just one. At the end of the day, we had scored a very respectable tally given the time of year and general conditions. 

At the end of the day, we found a stretch of river that runs over mostly shale and steep steps - very much like Cattaraugus creek in western NY - which I found very pleasant to fish. I felt well at ease there as I puffed another stick and, in the declining light, I was able to pull out the last fish of the day. It was a small male, probably the most coloured up fish of the day as well, a
handsome fish who was surprisingly strong and bullish for his size. Oliver zoomed in on it with his camera, as I prepared to release it, and at the same time he probably also snapped the best fish picture of the day.

One of the things that I will best remember from this trip was its melancholy ending. It wasn't so much that our day of fishing had ended, as it was that our day together was coming to a close. I think we all shared the same feeling. Certainly, we were grateful for our successful day, spent in gradually strengthening friendship and camaraderie, and there is always joy in that; but looking to the future, who can tell when we'll return together? 

It's only too simple, as usual: Steelheade diem. It's a bad play on words, perhaps, but you know what I mean!