Fisherman and I are at a birthday party at a bar in St. Paul Saturday night. We have made plans earlier in the week to fish Sunday, but we haven’t decided much in regards to details. Normally, we’d at least know what river we were going to fish: the Rattlesnake River (yes, that’s a psuedonym), but that wasn’t such a good idea. The early catch-and-release only, artificials only trout season that was put in place in Wisconsin about 10 years ago caused a lot of tension between bait fishers and fly fishers, and for some reason the Rattlesnake has been a focal point of that contention. Fisherman and I decide we’ll fish some other water for once, and perhaps do our small part for peace in the Rattlesnake watershed.
After narrowing it down a little and picking a time and place to meet (9 a.m. at the park-and-ride by the Hudson bridge), we part ways at about 1:00.
I give myself too much time in the morning, and end up not sleeping as long as I could, but rather puttering around the apartment in a coffee-less stupor for 45 minutes in the morning. I finally get myself and my gear in the car, and then to the grocery store down the block where I get a sandwich, then to the coffeeshop for a big cup of dark roast, an apple fritter and a newspaper.
Then, 70 mph down I-94, past the strip malls built on the ruins of strip malls, past the bleeding edges of development where the modern homes abut the fields and stands of forest that roll toward the river. It has been an ugly, ugly time of year. There is no snow on the ground and a winter’s worth of trash blankets the ditches and everything else in sight. With the brown of the grass, the leafless trees and the flat gray skies, my eyes have been desperate to find some color in the world, color I can’t hope for for at least a few more weeks.
When I get to the park-and-ride I drink the wonderful coffee and read the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The paper is having its final words on the subject of baseball great and childhood hero Kirby Puckett and I read the account of Game Six of the 1991 World Series, an epic game in which he insured his place in history. Fisherman calls 15 minutes after he was supposed to be there and tells me he’ll be there soon.
When he gets there, I throw my gear in his car and we motor off. This is the first time that him driving has been an option since at least the season-before-last. It feels nice to be able to sit in the passenger seat on the way to the river and be in charge of picking out a CD.
When we get to the road down the river valley, the old rhythm returns. It feels like we were just fishing together a few weeks before, even though it’s been almost a six month spell where not only have we not fished together, but we’ve probably talked half as much as during the season. Go figure.
But now, we’re in the car, The Boss is on the stereo, and miles of trout stream are ahead of us. We turn off at the first road that crosses the river and drive up the other side and across a wide piece of farmland (all if parceled up and pegged with red for-sale signs) and back around to another bridge where we sit in the car in the middle of the road and stare at the water and at a mangy, ornery-looking black cat sitting in the ditch staring at us and we decide to head further downstream. Though we have decided to hit the last access point on the river, there’s no reason not to slow down to a crawl on every bridge and look at the water and wonder about the fish in there.
When we finally park, it takes us a long time to get ready. You can only carry flies with barbless hooks this time of year because of the catch-and-release regulations, so we both have to go through a couple boxes of flies and find the barbless flies and crimp down the barbs on the ones that we really want to have with us. And we have to see what shape our gear is in. Later, when we’re wading across deeper parts of the river, we both discover that we have small holes in our waders. The water is cold.
And so we fish. We catch some, he more than me. Bigger than I expected. First fish honors go to me, but with much direction from Fisherman. It’s not a bad sized brown, with lots of orange on his flanks. Reaching into that water to grab him, to hold him there for a moment while Fisherman readies the camera, I find that the water is seriously cold. It hurts. Soon, I send him back to his world and withdraw to mine.
Upstream we go. We discuss our theories. We each have a box of theories we carry in our vests like a box of flies, and there’s always one appropriate for the conditions.
Today, one of our theories is that the fish feel bigger when you hook them this time of year because the water is cold (so goddamn cold) and they are very sluggish, just waking up from near-hibernation during the winter months. When you hook a smallish one they don’t spaz out like they do later in the year, but instead, they just wave their entire body a few times slow and strong against your pull, just like a big fish will. It’s a theory.
I also have a theory based on something I’d recently read. I read that it’s a good idea to fish near feeder streams this time of year. The water coming out of the feeders is warmer, because the streams are smaller and shallower and thus warm up quicker in the sun. Normally, you look for the coldest part of the stream to find the greatest numbers of trout but this time of year, the warmer the water, the more active the fish will be. We come to where a small creek enters the river and test the theory. We are not presented with any evidence in the piscine form to support this theory. But hey, it’s just a theory.
I find that there is color in this landscape. Dandelion plants mashed down by the snow are somehow still vibrant green. North-facing banks stabilized long ago by field stones are blanketed in soft, green moss. A little ways upstream, the river bottom goes from sand and muck to gravel, and there are many red rocks on the bottom.
Late in the day, clouds began to roll over the ridges to our northeast. When big clouds rush over, with the wind hitting us from the other direction, we figure that might mean a big low pressure system is coming in and sucking the air back underneath itself. We stand on a gravel bar and stare at the weather for a while. We decide to fish our way back down rather than fish further upstream and then hike straight back to the car. It is as quiet and gray as it has been all day.
We’ve covered a fair bit of the ways back when we get to a nice corner, with a fast, deep trench going in, a nice pool, a good tailout. We’re both fishing streamers, the big, hairy flies that might entice a leviathan from its hideout. I go down around the corner to fish the tailout, Fisherman works the upstream trench. A few minutes go by and then he’s fishing the pool.
“This is the way to fish streamers,â€ he explains.
“Going downstream like this?â€ (Usually, fishing upstream is preferred.)
“Yep. You just get to a nice pool like this and cast down into it and give the bugger some action against the current.â€
“Right on,â€ I say.
“You just give it a nice little roll cast like this…â€ He hooks an overhanging branch. Normally this would elicit a curse. He just looks at it and shakes his head.
“And you catch a tree,â€ I say.
He starts walking toward the branch. “And you ask yourself why you even participate in the sport,â€ he says.
“Then, you begin to wonder about your entire direction in life,â€ I say.
He chuckles as he reaches up into the branches.
A little further and we’re back at the car where it’s parked at the last bridge over the river before it spills into the Mississippi. We pack up, split a Leinie’s and then drive up the highway along the Big Muddy. When we get to Prescott, it is raining. Or snowing. Or some nasty hybrid. We get gas and air up the tires and cross into Minnesota. The further north we drive, the worse the weather gets. It is the weather that they had been predicting for earlier in the day, just a few hours late. A few hours which had let us enjoy the fishing. The dark road is invisible, all we can really see is the precipitation blowing across the road.
When I wake up the next morning, there is four to five inches of fresh snow on the ground. This seems like more snow than we’ve seen all winter. Rosie and I both go into work two hours late. It’s a mess, with some areas getting much more snow than St. Paul. I hear that one of the highways we’d taken in Wisconsin the day before was declared impassable. All the color I had found amongst the dead brown and gray is now buried under the clean white of the snow.
ps – As is often the case, I chose the title to this post because I listened to a song on the way to the stream and it got stuck in my head for the rest of the day. The title of this post comes from a song titled “Wake” by the excellent JoAnna James. An mp3 of the song can be downloaded here.