Last week I was walking the snow-halved streets and icy sidewalks of Ann Arbor feeling quite a bit like Ishmael before his famous fishing trip—drizzly and damp and Decemberish in the soul—and like him decided it was time for setting out to sea—in my case the Pere Marquette. In a certain sense, the timing was perfect. Winter tying was overflowing my fly boxes (the herd needed thinning), and my once-mighty winter steelhead beard had been reduced to a Museum of Contemporary Food (thus requiring either redemption or removal). In another more practical sense, however, the timing was terrible. I was dead-on-my-feet tired after a weeklong paper-grading bender, with one big batch left to go. Don’t go, the rational side of me said. To which I replied by loading the car and setting my alarm for 4 am. Of the three or so things I’ve learned in my life, one is that if you can just make it to the river, the water will take care of the rest.
It was sleeting as I set out next morning, and by the time I hit white pine and the upper Pere Marquette that sleet had turned to snow. Serious snow. Snow so thick and fleshy it didn’t so much fall from the sky as filling it, fallingly. The visibility was such that I didn’t properly appreciate the scope of a certain roadside snow drift, which my car essentially dive-bombed about a block from the access point.
Would I need help getting out? Indeed I would. Might I have to pay someone? I might have to pay someone quite a bit. Another person might have been deflated by these prospects, but I had what looked to be an empty access point, Garden-of-Eden CFS, and fairly survivable daytime temperatures. So I threw some coffee into my wading jacket, grabbed my switch rod and crunched through the pines, feeling, in spite of everything, even a little blessed. The river, I trusted, would take care of me.
My learning to trust the water has been a life-long journey. As a kid in the South Suburbs of Chicago, I realized that if you were pure of heart and patient of hand, that gob of crawlers you cast out might just come back a bass, occasionally a bass large enough to merit being strung to the handlebars of a bicycle and paraded through the neighborhood (I hereby apologize to all the fish of my youth).
I trusted the water’s promise enough to spend the lion’s share of my teenage years fishing an ever-widening swatch of earth—Illinois to Wisconsin, Wisconsin to Minnesota, Minnesota to Ontario—hoping that the walleye and the northern, the smallmouth and lake trout would be worth the time and tires. They were.
I trusted the water enough to suffer through my first unguided, unmentored and (almost entirely) unfishful year with a fly rod, praying that glory of both the told and untold varieties would eventually befall me. Such glories did, and, ten years later, still do—on cold March days when the year’s first olives take flight. On perfectly sleepable summer nights when, moused-up seven weight in hand, I do anything but sleep. On February afternoons when the water carves through the winter world like a ribbon of fudge through cold cream.
It was into just such a tasty Great Lakes confection that I inserted myself, tungsten first, that winter day.
The famously unforgiving PM has always given me at least a fair shot at a fish, so I got to work at getting lucky—hitting my spots, swinging mindfully, patiently hanging down, repeating. I was just into my second pair of gloves when I got hit—hard.
In this particular spot, a short, fast narrow slot along a preternaturally snaggy cutbank, you win some and lose most. Today the combo of hot fish and fast water didn’t bode well. I bent the rod to the cork to stave off the fish’s first run, but lost him on his second effort, that this-time-I’m-not-kidding run you don’t always see in winter fish.
That’s winter steelheading on the PM. From nothing to everything to nothing again, all in about 15 seconds. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Snowflake to snowflake.
Then something off-script and amazing happened.
I was tying on another streamer when through the sush of snow there came a sharp unsucking sound and I turned to watch a huge shape missile into the air—my fish. A few seconds later it jumped again just downstream, then again and again, shaking its massive head, smashing snowflakes, slapping the sky. I thought it was simply giving me an aerial middle finger until I saw my streamer still lodged in its jaw, tippet trailing like spittle. On the last leap it finally flung the fly off and sounded.
I stood there as the winter stillness rushed back in, still and unblinking as someone who has not simply seen but borne witness.
I only fished for a little more after that. I didn’t need to. Whatever I needed that day I’d gotten, whatever I sought I’d found. The river had created time where there was none, lavished energy where it was absent, and even threw in a dose of magic for good measure. And for that I was grateful. Walking out I made sure to honor my end of the contract, giving all gravel the widest possible berth, scaling the bank oh-so-carefully, picking up a few bottles along the way, all the while looking forward to all future episodes, dark Decembers and sun-splashed Junes alike. I’m counting on them.