It started with a light rain that quickly turned to pellets of ice. The initial excitement and anxiety of an expected snowstorm dwindled almost immediately at the sight of the little ice pellets. It was a reminder that while the Pisgah mountains are grand and tall, they are also still very much in the south. Quick checks of the radar showed the line of pink separating the green from the blue. This demarcation is a line, along which those of us who live north of it, can boast of having true winters and the nasty weather that accompanies. It is a source of pride for those of us who live here. After the storm we will compare notes with family and friends in neighboring counties and states as to who had the most snow, who was without power the longest, who suffered the most. Suffering through, and even more so, successfully suffering through, a winter storm is a badge of honor amongst those of us who live on the line between the subtropical lowlands and the somewhat sub boreal climate of the highlands. The tops of the mountains here give you just a taste of the climates of northern Maine or southern Canada, with their conifer forests and long winters. Of course we all live in the valley well below this area, but like to associate ourselves with it as much as possible.
Over night the ice pellets began to turn to a heavy wet snow. It clung to the trees, eaves of the roof, the porch banister, and the cars parked at the bottom of the hill. The wet snow weighed down the tops of the shallow rooted pines and the dying hemlocks and snapped or toppled them over into the power lines. When the power went out we watched the firework display of exploding transformers in the darkening valley. We were prepared with flashlights, propane stoves and lanterns, a stack of fire wood, bath tubs full of water for flushing a toilet, and a large jug of fresh water on the dining room table. When your water source is a well with an electric pump its not just heat and cooking you have to worry about. The next morning we opened the blinds on the windows to a flood of light. The day was overcast and snow was still falling, but there was enough reflection from what had fallen the night before to make a pair of sunglasses necessary. We spent the rest of the day huddled by the fire, watching the flakes fall outside, and checking the batteries on our cell phones. This was the fun part of the weather. We cooked outside, went to bed when it got dark, and read books instead of watching TV.
When the snow stopped it was up to my knees. The pines that lined the drive were bowing over till their tops touched where the gravel path had been. Hiking down the hill I found that the cars were fine but the dirt roads were all blocked by more fallen trees. The main road had not yet been plowed and the neighbors were wandering around much the same as I was. We were looking for something to do, but not really sure what was to be done. It would be this way for a few days. There would be a slight thaw at noon and then a hard refreeze at night. The weather forecast said there was a warm front bringing rain later in the week.
Eventually the power came back on and shortly after the warm front moved in. The slow drizzle began to fall. A warm front with a gentle rain after a cold heavy snow in the the North Carolina mountains is a scene so foul and nasty as to be comical. The droplets fall quiet and steady while the oversaturated air is condensed into a thick colloidal suspension just above the still frozen and snow covered ground. The slow and viscous fog meanders and slips its way down the hill and through the valley like molasses poured from a jar. Walking through the frozen woods, with this blanket of moisture hiding your view of the next bend or turn in the trail or road, is a surreal experience and you can feel its eerie, calming, unsettlingly hand slipping up the back of your shirt and gripping your neck near the base of your skull. You laugh at the absurdity. It’s too disturbing and disheartening to be real. You know it’s going to affect your mood, but for now you are still resistant to its downward pull.
A few days pass and you’re thinking that maybe it’s time to see what the fish are doing. The water is cold, high, and inky black. At mid-day there is a short window of activity and you see a few fish rise to blue winged olives in a long slick below a slow riffle. You’d rather be bird hunting with the dog right now, but you know the high elevations are impassable and the forest service probably has all the dirt roads closed anyway, a rising trout near the paved roads in the valley will have to do. The leader has been extended to around twelve or fourteen feet and tapered to a long thin piece of 7X. The tiny blue wing cripple, that has been languishing in your box since last winter, is still too big, but you hope for a dumb or aggressive fish. The first few casts are poor and put down the rising pod. You’ve been walking up hill, behind a dog, shot gun in hand, for most of the last few months. Your casting arm is a bit out of practice. There is another pod of fish upstream so you move up and coach yourself, talk to your arm, reassure yourself that you can pull this delicate presentation off. The first cast sails smoothly out and you check and reach the long leader placing the fly above the fish, and the line and butt section to their left. Your aim was off, but you’ve been living right, and a decent rainbow moves and takes the little BWO cripple with confidence. You set the hook, play the fish, and loose him somewhere out in the middle of the pool. It’s not just your casting that is a little rusty. A few more smaller fish take the fly and you manage to land one of them, but you could really care less. It’s nice when they release themselves in this ice cold water. The fog creeps downstream and in some way you know it’s time to go.
Back at the parking lot you speak to a few other anglers. They’ve all had the same sort of day. One caught a few good ones drifting egg patterns and a soft hackle, but he’s in no better mood than the rest of you. Everyone has winters icy hand up their back. Driving out of the forest you decide to drop in at the fly shop. You don’t need anything except to take the temperature of the place, but you spend fifty bucks on hooks, beads, wire, skins, and pheasant tails anyway. The guy behind the counter is cordial and seems happy to see you, but further conversation reveals that something has him by the back of the neck as well.
There is something about winter and fishermen. Im sure hunters have a bit of this in them too, but they do not seem as prone. I am unsure about hikers, skiers, mountain bikers and other outdoors folks; but I do notice that they tend to have bars and taps in their respective shops. I find it odd that this demographic of folks, and especially those who choose to do it with a fly, are so seasonally affected. I find it odd but certainly not uncommon. Is it the practice that causes this disturbance in our humors, or is it the disturbance that leads to our practice? I find comfort and comedy in a favorite quote, from a favorite book, by a favorite author…
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”
Here we find a man in much the same mood, and certainly a result of the same cold, dark, dreary and soggy weather pattern that has crept its way into his warm soul. And what is Melville’s answer for the infirmity of his character Ishmael? Well, to go fishing no less. But it is not relief that Ishmael seeks. There is no promise of brighter days or higher spirits, and so It is with we foul weather fishermen. Relief will come in due time. Warm spring days filled with the smell of damp moss and the hopes of evening hatches will come. The disorienting euphoria of casting to numerous rising fish in fading twilight is still months away, yet it is promised. Day dreams of these moments fill our heads and encourage our stiff and cracked hands as we toil away at the minutia of steel, fur and feather; pinched between the jaws of the tying vice. If we are not careful we could live in this promise, spend our waking hours fretting over hackle gauges and the stripping of strands of peacock swords. We could day dream away these dark days in the hope of spring, and busy ourselves lining our boxes till they are bursting at the seams with Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ears, Frenchies with little pink collars, delicately tied spinners, emergers, cripples, and duns of Hendricksons, Sulphurs, Blue Quills, Quill Gordons, March Browns, and Yellow Sallies. We could sit by the warmth of the fire and settle into a book of arcane and esoteric knowledge; learning to speak of our patterns and their living counterparts in a dead language. Overcome with scholarship from our winter catechism we, like some pedantic high priest of fly fishing, hold a spring mass and bore our fellow anglers to tears as we announce the latin names of order Ephemeroptera.
“There a Paraleptophlebia adoptiva, I was hoping for some Epeorus pleuralis. It’s still too early for the Ephemeralla subvaria, but soon we should see the Maccaffertium vicarium.”
This is the risk we run in trying to use fishing as an escape from the dark dank cellar of our hibernal minds. This is not its place. To escape we have holidays, friends, family, laughing children, the giving and receiving of gifts, college sports, cheap air fare, hot toddies, egg nog, single malt scotch, Netflix and Hulu. To escape we have distractions, comforts, and numbing agents. These are all well and good, and should be used and applied accordingly. Fishing however is not an escape but an embrace. To venture out to the winter water, cloaked in the best layers one can afford, to pursue a quarry, itself quite comfortable in environs of the lower end of the thermometer, yet still sluggish and reluctant on these frigid days; is to thumb ones nose at the creatures that may lurk in that clammy fog that creeps its way down river to join and carry away the hovering breath from your very lungs. The breath now hanging before your face waiting to meld with its great lumbering mother. You have not come to escape the monster, but to join it. Wrap yourself in the wet woolen blanket of the winter woods, feel her grasp at the top of your spine, breathe out your own fog into her sullen face and chuckle at her gloomy grasp. You are here, and alive.