Cayuga Lake, the longest (38 miles) of New York’s glacial Finger Lakes, has steep east and west sides and an average depth of 182 feet. On New Year’s Day, I accompanied angling buddy Tim Didas in a drive north of Ithaca along an eastern portion of the lake. We drove through a local snowstorm for the sole purpose of maniacally casting streamers to Cayuga lake trout and landlocked salmon. At Milliken Station, an AES Cayuga coal-fired power plant, we dropped down to a railroad track where the snow and wind were peppered by the sound of shotguns aimed at passing waterfowl.
As we suited up beneath the ominous clouds and smokestacks of the giant plant, our fingers froze in the biting 20 degree Fahrenheit air, and our thoughts were yet to be consoled by the fact that the cooling waters of the plant, rivered back into the lake where we would fish, would register a warm 46 degrees. Slogging northward into the blizzard-like atmosphere between the high bank and the wire fencing of the plant was like entering “The Twilight Zone.” Yeah, Rod Serling and his family once had a summer home on Cayuga Lake.
Signs read, “Dangerous Undertow. No Swimming or Diving.” They didn’t have to convince me. I had read that if you go wading near the station, you take care. Anglers had drowned at this point in fairer weather, and yet my casting partner, an ex-Marine officer, led the way out on a curving gravel bar until his figure in the dimness of the lake’s gale put an edge of apprehension on this landlubber’s comfort zone.
I stayed back on solid ground beside the surging inflow from the plant, at least for a while. I was hoping that the water seams along that powerful flow, inviting as they looked, were all I needed for a solid hook up with a lake trout or a salmon. The wind, gusting to about 30 mph, not only kicked up the waves around me from the north, but it blew my landing net from side to side along my back until I was forced to remove it and hold it down with rocks and a small log.
Tim had fished here once before, about 10 years ago, so I didn’t doubt his fearless attitude with regard to the lake. A life-long flyfisher and tier, he knew what he was doing. In fact, shortly after I had made an awkward back-cast into the wind and then delivered a weighted streamer off my head and into the fabric at the rear of my fishing vest, Tim was onto the day’s only fish.
I was lucky to have a warm hood on over my fishing cap. At first the impact of the streamer at my head felt like I had met up with my nemesis in a duck hunter. Actually by that time, the groups of hunters had given up the game. After all, the weather on this first day of January was brutal. We had granted the hunters some credit. They had gone out on a morning when a lot of their brethren were undoubtedly nursing hangovers. What about other fly casters? None were evident on Cayuga Lake.
I walked out on the submerged gravel bar to get a photo of Tim’s salmon and to congratulate him. We returned to shore for a thawing of face and fingers in the shelter of a burned-out tree. I removed a flask from a deep vest pocket and took a pull of Old No. 7. As a small stream specialist who seldom fly-fished on a lake in pleasant summertime, let alone in stormy winter, I was having fun in a numbing sort of way.
Tim encouraged me to wade back into the lake with him where converging currents and deep troughs offered the best chance for a catch. I declined an offer of casting his 10-foot seven-weight rod, stubbornly clinging to the notion that if I couldn’t hook-up with my nine-foot six weight, I would take the skunk. I held to a tentative position where the gravel shifted slowly underneath my boots and where an occasional wave smashed into my upper legs, making me smile and wonder when I looked back at my friend, about 20 feet away.