As with any first run at a river—especially a big river in winter—there’s only so many book smarts you can gather to get ready. Only so many stellar, go-to flies that you can tie or procure and crowd into fly boxes. Only so much stewing over grain-windows, tips and two-handed actions, studded soles, fleece layers, handwarmers and what to fill the flask with. Only so many recommendations from fellow—and far more veteran—anglers on levels and temps and habits and locations.
It isn’t until you’ve huffed down the trail in falling snow and falling temps and your boots are toeing the icy waterline and the immense reality of just how many cubic feet per second are shouldering their muddy, deep-growling way past that you realize that there will be no pussy-footing around. Book smarts, at this point, get you exactly as far as you’ve come—which is in deep shit. Here, now, you take your licks and get street smart. Nothing’s handed to you on big water…save your ass, more often than not. Unlike book smarts, street smarts are far more personal and tougher to come-by.
Now, I love smaller water and warmer seasons and the fish they make available. They are the story of my childhood and will always hold a place in my heart and my free-time. But I recently made the drive to fish a big river that is brand new to me and essentially right in my backyard. And in spite of the morning being a total bust—literally, from my rod tip to unfishable water—I’ve come to the realization that I want to own the Genesee River. Or more accurately, I want to make it my own.
This river that witnesses over 100 miles of Upstate NY gorges, rolling hills and farmland from its origins in PA, then a couple dozen miles more of suburbia before picking up grade in the heart of the Roc and pouring it’s burden over High Falls into the gorge and industrial side of the city. Mud, whole trees, ice sheets, road salt run-off, loose shale, basketballs, garbage cans, fenceposts, beer cans, sneakers, empty windshield washer fluid gallons, and occasionally, especially further down in the gorge, the bodies of ill-footed hikers and the mentally ill. The river does not discriminate. It flows north, drives hydroelectric instead of the flour mills of days-gone-by, and turns loose over Lower Falls, re-grouping to brawl the rest of the way to Lake Ontario.
It’s there, below Lower Falls, where I stood on my first visit to the river, that fall, winter and spring lake-run salmon and steelhead and browns reach the end of their lake-run leash. And it’s from there that I want to exert my ownership. From that giant, churning, falls-pool juxtaposition of our human imperfection and nature’s ability to transcend it—as far downstream as I can explore. I want that big, unruly river to frustrate the piss out of me and give up its secrets grudgingly. I want to swing big flies through its belly in hopes of picking fights with the lake-run studs that push their way into the river like bullies.
I want the black eyes and bloody knuckles. Limping home with broken rod tips, ripped waders and numb fingers – but alive and that much further ahead for next time. As Samuel Beckett said: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. I want to own the hard work of understanding something much bigger than my own existence—earn the street smarts and the rare coin-glint and heft that knowledge rewards.
I’m not sure why I was struck so suddenly with the need to figure out the Genny. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way—about this or any other piece of water for that matter. Maybe it’s a new level of maturity or insanity that comes with turning 40. Maybe I’m finally finding a way to focus my OCD on something worthwhile and ownable, instead of being a dilettante, as I’ve been so aptly described. Maybe I just see something in that imperfect river that reminds me of myself. I suppose you could make an argument that in caring about the why, you get better at the what. When it comes right down to it though, when you lock your truck door and turn to walk down into the fray, I’m pretty sure the river and the fish could really care less about either.