By Josh “Yoshi” Masek
“What the heck am I doing?” I asked myself aloud, not for the first or last time today. My cold, winter-cracked fingers bled as I attempted to tie the size 18 Pink Reece’s Fusion nymph to my tippet, turning the pink ostrich herl a dark shade of crimson.
Earlier today, as I sipped my morning coffee in front of the fireplace, I glanced at the weather station on the mantle. 13 Below zero. For you armchair mathematicians out there, that’s 13 less than nothing. In other words, it was bitter cold. Awesome weather for a rare day off… As is usual for my days playing hooky from work, I was faced with a choice: Do something productive around the house that would generally improve my existence and gain the approval and admiration of my lovely wife; or, get outside and participate in some sort of tomfoolery under the guise of a “mental health” day. In this case, it was either clean out the fridge or go fishing. Needless to say, I shirked my duties and the option of being a responsible husband and headed for the gear room to plan my assault.
Normally, I’d get right after it… However, given the degree of winter chill outside (or lack of degrees, as it were), I took it upon myself to have another cup of coffee, awaiting the promise of the high temperature of 26. This is of course based on government weather websites which I should have been wearier of, given the source… After the 3rd cup of super caffeinated coffee, I hopped in the Tahoe at the crack of 11am.
The entire way to the river, my thermometer on my rear view registered temps below zero. “This is crazy,” I said to myself over and over. It was a perfectly good day to be inside… Too cold for any sane person to want to be outside, anyway. Hunting season is over, tags have been filled (mostly), and its COLD out there! What would convince a seemingly rational person to go fly fishing inside an Arctic deep freeze? I reckon its the beginnings of cabin fever and the lack of natural interaction in my life the last month or so. I’ve not been outside, really outside, since the end of November. The river was calling, and I had to go, weather be damned.
That kept the pedal down as I rounded the Northeastern side of Boysen. The Owl Creeks were shrouded in an armor of clouds, their normally robust stature muted by the low hanging ceiling. The lake has frozen solid since my last foray into the canyon, the ice a vast snow-covered tundra stretching on for miles.
As I progressed to my favorite hole, the winter landscape was surreal. The freezing fog of the previous two mornings made the entire world crystalline, ready to disintegrate into nothing with the slightest touch or breath of wind. The rear view indicated that the world I was in was a neutral and sterile zero. Nothingness. My Buddhist Aunt would have loved it.
Upon reaching the pullout, I prepared to face the reality of my decision. A hardboiled egg, some antelope jerky (procured several months ago from area 75, only a couple miles away), and a slug of Crown Royal whiskey provided the final layer of warmth against the biting cold. After getting my proverbial act together, amazingly the clouds split, allowing a narrow ray of sunlight to blanket the canyon walls and rushing river below. It was beautifully bipolar. Bone shattering cold, but with a tantalizing ray of light, making me think that it was indefinitely warmer than the thermometer read. Steam rolled off the river, as a pot of water almost at boil.
The rigging of my line took longer than usual. Blood covered flies and chapsticked and PAM’d guides finally coming together after about 15 minutes of toil. As I walked down the road, I felt like Ralphie’s brother from “A Christmas Story” wrapped up in all my layers against the cold. I could hardly move. Eventually, I made it down the impressive grade to the river, mostly on my keister after slipping on the snow-slicked rocks at the top. I waded into the ice-cold water and prepared to wet my line. After several less than stellar casts, I reassessed my situation. “What the heck am I doing?” I repeated to no one in particular.
After several more drifts of nothing but nothing, I moved downriver to a section of slower water that had always harbored fish for me in the past. The chapstick and PAM were no match for the frigid temps as a meandering breeze flowed through the canyon. Guides were ringed with ice, line was frozen stiff, and the reel refused to budge. Most rational individuals would have booked it for the truck, but against my better judgment, I insisted on continuing my fool’s errand. After much swearing, several snags, and general discontent, I told myself “One more cast,” before I tuck tail and run. Those three words have undoubtedly been the cause of many missed curfews and the last straw for many fishermen’s wives. The line rolled out its energy and landed squarely on the current’s seam. Peeling in line as the indicator drifted, dejected, I prepared to reel in the excess and head for home.
The indicator dove. Glittering shards of ice sprang from the rod as I set the hook. My previously reluctant reel sang as the hooked fish broke loose its frozen gears and tore through the current. Silver erupted from the tumult, breaking the water several times. The rainbow ripped through the water as my numb hands tried to guide the rod against the furious run. The fish defied the lethargic atmosphere and nearly took me to my backing. Back and forth across the pool and finally out into the main current, the fish fought against the pressure like a wild mustang. Through fogged sunglasses, several missteps on the moss and ice covered rocks, and a near spill into the frigid river, I was finally able to land the fish in an eddy a bit downstream, rod arm pulsing from the fight.
After a minute of revival, the portly rainbow left my cold-crippled grasp and cruised back into the depths of the river. I sat on the bank for a couple minutes, absorbing what had just happened. All I could do was laugh. Here I was, tired, wet, and freezing my tail off, all for the simple joy of feeling the tug of a wild critter on the end of my line. That was precisely what I had been looking for, why I had come to this place in this weather, against all rational thought. At that moment, it was worth the bleeding fingers, the miserable interminable cold, and the burning of one of my precious days without responsibility.
I went on to land two more fish out of that run. While both were fine trout, they didn’t quite have the same effect as the first. As the sun slid behind the western rim of the canyon, I hoofed it back to the truck. Removing my frozen-stiff boots and waders was quite the ordeal, but finally I was able to squirm out of them and crawl into the cab, heater blasting. As I warmed my freezing fingers in front of the vent, I reflected on the fish I had caught and the beauty surrounding me, strangely satisfied. With winter and the New Year just beginning and the promise of warmer weather and sunshine an impossible four months away, that fish is exactly what I needed to get me through.