A cold day on the river beats any day in the office
- By: John Gierach
My friend was half an hour late to go fishing, so when the phone rang I knew it was him. The plan had been for him to slip out of work early so we could run up to a nearby tailwater for the afternoon and see what the trout were doing. Of course we thought we already knew what they'd be doing, since the spring Blue-Wing Olive hatch was on and it was the kind of gray, cold, winter-throwback day those bugs are known to like. I was thinking car trouble, but my friend said no, he was "stuck in a meeting," and then paused long enough for that phrase to sink in.He understands that I've been self-employed for so long now that it takes a conscious effort to wrap my mind around that kind of corporate reality. His voice had the hollow, liquid ring you get from a cell phone, which caused me to picture the conference room as an enormous, damp rain barrel. I told him it was OK and drove up to the river, sincerely hoping that the meeting went well. I've only been to a handful of meetings in my life, but more than half of them degenerated into boring nonsense. It was cold and bitter on the river, as I'd expected. On the short drive up there from my house, you gain 2,300-some feet in elevation, lose as much as 20 degrees in temperature, and the light drizzle at home turns to the sleet/snow hybrid known locally as "snoosh." These cold April storms in the Rocky Mountains can have a raw edge that outdoes anything in mid winter, if only because the humidity tends to be higher and because it's spring, for Pete's sake, and you can't help thinking it should at least be above freezing by afternoon. On the other hand, the fish seem to like it, and as the fish go, so goes the fisherman. When you're on a popular roadside river, you never plan on fishing any particular spot in order to avoid being utterly disappointed if there's another fisherman already there. Instead, you check the turn-outs for cars, scan the water for fishermen, and just generally try for a quick lay of the land. If the river is crowded, you immediately write off the obvious pools and begin checking out the pot holes and stretches of interesting pocket water in between or, in a pinch, the long riffles that conceal a few fishy tubs that you imagine not just anyone knows about. There are days when that's a little annoying, but in fact it's a pacifist strategy of avoiding competition that has led you--sometimes in near desperation--to some of the coolest little hidden spots you know. But things were looking weirdly vacant that afternoon. There was no one parked at the Dead Elk turn-out: the first one you come to, and virtually everyone's favorite spot on that stretch of river. Same for the Green Bridge, Whispering Pines, and so on down the canyon. I drove almost a mile down river, past some of the best water, and there wasn't a soul anywhere, so I pulled off to think this over. Having a normally crowded river all to yourself is the kind of thing that does sometimes happen, but my native cynicism always makes me question my luck. Maybe a tanker truck full of toxic waste crashed in the river and all the fish are dead. I'm the only fisherman in two counties who doesn't know about it because, in the interest of mental health, I haven't looked at a newspaper in two weeks. I turned around and parked up at the Forest Service sign, where I took the last of my still-warm coffee and ambled over to look at the water. At this spot there's a long pool full of fish where, during even a sparse hatch, you can easily see trout rising and violet-green swallows wheeling over the river. It was too early in the season for the swallows, but there were no rings on the water from feeding fish either, so apparently the hatch wasn't on. There were also no crippled mayflies or shed nymphal shucks in the bank-side slicks, so either the hatch hadn't happened yet, or it had, but it was too thin to leave any sign. As someone could be saying in my friend's meeting at that very moment, "There's insufficient data to make a determination at this time." That took all of three or four minutes, during which my ears and fingers started to sting and my coffee went from lukewarm to stone cold. The wind wasn't much more than a breeze, but to paraphrase Lou Rawls, it felt like razor blades blowing down the river. I've noticed that when I fish alone the usual machismo disengages to some degree. That is, I fish slower, wade shallower, and spend more time looking at birds and scenery. My friends don't exactly egg me on, but when I'm in their company I tend to egg myself on. Anyway, with nothing to prove, I wasn't out to prove anything, and to cover my back later I could always say I'd gone up to the river and "not much was going on," never quite mentioning that I hadn't even strung up a rod. But then without giving it any more thought, I bundled up and went fishing. Call it momentum. Within 15 minutes on the water I was uncomfortably cold. I was wearing 11 separate pieces of clothing--everything I'd brought--plus fingerless gloves and the insulated Elmer Fudd hat with the fuzzy ear flaps that I consider the height of sporting fashion. Naturally, I'd buggered up my leader the last time out and hadn't bothered to repair it at home (at my leisure and with warm hands) so by the time I'd tied on a new 5X section, a 6X tippet, a size 18 Blue-Wing Olive nymph and a small twist of lead, my fingers were dead numb. The fly choice was just my best guess, but I hoped it was right more fervently than usual because cutting it off and tying on a new one would now be a production. I'll guess that the hatch never quite came off that day owing to the cold air, but that the mayfly nymphs were getting impatiently active under the surface. Once I waded into the river, I began to spot trout holding in a few feet of water on the inside of the main current. They were suspended off the bottom and noodling from side to side, busily taking nymphs. If the angle was right, I could sometimes see the white winks of their mouths opening to eat bugs. This is the lovely sight that tells a fly fisher he's in the game as long as he doesn't screw it up. I caught three of the first five trout I cast to, and then tried a few drifts farther out toward the main channel where there were no fish, or they didn't like the fly, or the drift was bad, or the fly wasn't deep enough, or any of the dozens of other things that can make a difference. OK, fair enough. On the longer casts the line was freezing in the guides anyway, and there were feeding trout virtually at my feet. I moved on upstream in a slow-motion stalk so as not to spook fish before I could spot them, although of course I spooked a few anyway, including a rare 18- or 19-inch rainbow that would have been fun to try and land. There were trout feeding confidently in every spot where you'd expect to find them, suggesting that I not only had the river to myself at the moment, but that no one had fished through ahead of me any time recently. Once again I wondered about that. The water was clear, the flow was good, the hatch was widely known to be on, and there are plenty of locals who fish the river almost daily, including any number of tough customers who wouldn't be scared off by a little cold spring weather. So where the hell was everyone? About then a guy came driving down the canyon road in a little red sedan. He slowed when he saw me and coasted by giving me the now-universal blank stare we've all learned from watching television. If he was a fisherman, he was wondering how I was doing. If not, he was likely asking himself, Who's the moron in the dopey hat? I waved on general principles, but for all the response I got, I might as well have been a five-second film clip on the evening news. Not a fisherman, I decided; a fisherman would have waved back. I had managed to unhook the first few trout without touching them by neatly tipping out the hook with a pair of forceps, but the next one took the fly deep in the roof of his mouth and I had to cradle him upside down in the current to remove it. Then I executed the practiced maneuver of tucking the rod above the left elbow with the hands in the armpits for warmth and looked around. It must have been about 4:30 in the afternoon, but the ceiling was low and dense enough to obscure the lip of the canyon and dampen the light, so it looked more like 8:00. The two little summer cabins on the far bank were shuttered and empty and there'd only been that one car on the sometimes well-traveled canyon road. The breeze probably hadn't picked up any, but the air was colder, and the snoosh had solidified into fine-grained corn snow that felt like wet sandpaper on my cheek. My nose was running uncontrollably. The mystery of the empty river was beginning to sort itself out, not to mention the sometimes infinitesimal distinction between bravery and stupidity. It was beginning to look as though no one was out there fishing for the obvious reason that it was just too damned cold to fish. The idea of suffering for sport can seem noble before and after the fact, but at the moment you can begin to wonder just what the hell you think you're doing. I tried to feel sorry for my friend stuck in his meeting, imagining that he was uncomfortable in a different and worse way, but I knew that wouldn't be true. He's not a whiner or one to hold a grudge, so once he decided to work instead of fish, he'd simply swallow any regret, do his job, and just generally take it like a man, as we used to say. It is true that the guy is eagerly looking forward to retirement in less than two years and that if you woke him out of a sound sleep he could still tell you exactly how many days he has left. It's also true that when he retires he plans to teach fly-casting, do some driftboat guiding and turn out more of the surprisingly good bamboo fly rods he's been building in his spare time, all of which will amount to a much better gig. His only real worry is that the pension and health care he's put in 30 years to get will be pulled out from under him, as it's been from so many others who believed the corporate promise. My friend handles it all surprisingly well, although his high-pressure work environment and a chronic lack of sleep do sometimes cause him to be a little scattered. I've suggested that when he's finally finished with the job he should write a memoir titled, Dude, Where's My Waders? Of course I have no such worries because as a freelance writer I've never had a retirement package to lose, which can seem relatively unimportant when there's no urge to retire. Other advantages include either no boss at all or so many bosses that you can afford to ignore the annoying ones, and no need to look busy when you're not. When you work for yourself, it soon becomes evident that you can't do everything, so the art becomes figuring out what to leave undone and why. That could explain all the fishing trips as well as the continuing absence of my great American novel. I guess I'm still trying to get used to the idea of my friends having adult problems and responsibilities, even those who have become very successful through the usual avenues of hard work, long hours and pure native intelligence. It's not lost on me that if most people didn't do that, I wouldn't be able to do something as magnificently pointless as this; I just don't want to be standing next to any of them when their heads explode. After five minutes of being tucked up in the classic cold fisherman pose, my hands were no warmer and I had one of those involuntary shivers that, along with morbid introspection, are among the first, still reversible, signs of incipient hypothermia. I decided to catch one more trout for good measure and then pack it in. I'd already spotted a nice one while I was standing there, so I paid out some line and made what I thought would be a slick, one-handed version of a snap-T Spey cast. But it went wrong, as casts sometimes do, and I ended up with a complicated tangle involving my entire tippet, the fly and the twist of lead weight. I retrieved this mess and examined it. Normally I'd either carefully pick it apart or cut it off and re-tie the tippet, but my fingers were useless, so there was nothing to do but trudge back to the truck. I put the rod, tangle and all, under a windshield wiper so I wouldn't forget and drive off without it. I considered getting out of my waders, but the laces on the wading shoes would present the same problem as the snarled leader. It took a while to get my keys out with no feeling in my hands, but I finally got the motor running and the heater blasting. There was some relief just getting into the cab and out of the wind, and more yet as the heater warmed up, but as my frozen fingers began to thaw they stung as if the tip of each one had been whacked with a ball-peen hammer. I couldn't help wondering what the stupid people were doing for fun that day.