Over the Brow of Winter’s Hill

Tim and I got out on New Year’s Day, resuming our tradition of hitting the brow of winter right between the eyes. Eighteen Mile Creek was new to both of us. We’d known about it, and were thankful that our intro wasn’t in autumn during the invasion of trout and salmon hunters. With all the rain we’d been having of late, there were only a couple of New York options available to us– Oak Orchard and Eighteen Mile creeks, releases out of reservoirs near Lake Ontario.

T.D. at work

Fly-fishing was slow but enjoyable below the dam and through a short stretch of gorge. Tim caught a steelhead and I caught nothing as the new year rolled in gently past our waders. Later, for my next two occasions on the water, I was ready for the Pennsylvania mountain streams but had trouble locating an outlet for renewal of my out-of-state license, so I settled on the upper Genesee near home.

Any time the sun comes out in January and the temperature climbs slowly above the freezing mark, I can only be thankful for another casting opportunity. Although angling was fruitless at home, I met some interesting characters on stream, including my old friend, John B., who I wrote about in “Genesee, the Rabbit Hole,” (RR, 7/1/16).

Above the Genny’s brow…

John is a dedicated small stream fly-fisher, a madman with a jolly constitution, and an artist/musician who could be the subject of another entire post. For now, I’m just thankful for his words and for another batch of albums he produced and gave me out of friendship. He and his merry prankster wit create some wild music that’ll keep me heated through the cold winter weeks.

Speaking of heat, I found a patch of skunk cabbage already growing in the springs beside the Genesee. A year in the life of skunk cabbage starts in mid-winter as the plant begins to rise from the leafy muck. This unique plant has a thickly mottled leaf (spathe) that lifts to form a flower shield. Inside it is a floral engine, of sorts, that generates heat (60-70 degrees Fahrenheit!) for the purpose of attracting flies and bees as early as January in New York.

As I stood by the springs observing tiny minnows swimming through the greenery, I thought of the warm blue hoody that I wore. The name “Hamilton” blazes  whitely on the chest; the hood itself looks like a pointed dunce cap. The denizens of the floral kingdom probably chuckled at the way I tried to fit in with the cabbage plants– my hood like a spathe, my redolence like a skunky summer leaf.

The journaling H.D. Thoreau once said, “If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year… See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place… They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.”

Yeah, encouragement from the skunk cabbage. From the writer of natural history or, if we’re lucky, from the likes of a John B. saunterer who shares his interests for the lending of an ear….

More recently, Tim and I went out on Oak Orchard Creek to search for browns and steelhead. It was cold and partly cloudy, classic “steelhead weather,” with Canada geese and tundra swans swirling through the air like oversized snowflakes, and we worked the muddy river hard for most of the day. Tim caught the first fish, a modest brown, and hours later it appeared that I was going to subside (again) without a first trout of the season.

But a change of strategy brought some luck. Instead of changing nymphs and streamers, experimenting as I had done, I fixed on a small ugly streamer, a white lure with a pinkish underbelly like bloodwork,  and decided to stay with that come hell or higher water.

I fished the slow, deep water down below the Archery Hole, and felt the small ugly streamer ticking repeatedly along the bottom. Finally, I hooked a beautiful steelhead and was thankful that Tim came to the rescue with a net as big as a microwave oven. My camera got a cheap shot of the fish while in the net, but then I read the evil “Battery Exhausted” message on the monitor.

Christ, it wasn’t as if the camera had been working overly hard. Maybe it had taken frostbite and simply refused to work. Maybe it needed a self-generating mini-furnace like the skunk cabbage has.

Anyway, Tim prepared for a photo with his own instrument, but the steely fumbled from my numbing digits and shot away before the real evidence could appear.

For a moment, at least, I could stand with my first good fish of 2019, and look over the brow of winter’s hill.

before the all-too-quick release…

Tater sez, I thought you had a book about kats!

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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20 Responses to Over the Brow of Winter’s Hill

  1. Bob Stanton says:

    An early winter post from RR is not unlike the tenacious little skunk cabbage spike poking up through the detritus of the last year – it’s a reminder that fairer seasons are on their way, and that regardless of time of year, there is always something to celebrate in the natural world. A few random comments: Love the pic of pinus strobus, my favorite tree. My buddy Jeff and I continued our New Year’s Day tradition (when we can) of a hike or other outdoor adventure, this year doing an eleven mile stroll on the North Country Trail, and best of all, I was delighted to receive a letter and some flies from Mr. Tim Didas. He generously sent me a couple variations of the Rocket Smelt and some instructions by Jack Gartside on tying it and some other patterns. Thus far, it’s been a very amiable start to the new year!

    • Very good, Bob! Pinus strobus is my favorite tree, too. And to celebrate each Day #1 with a long hike, or other outdoor activity, is a fine tradition, in my estimation. This year it seemed like a great day for such a ramble… As for Tim, I knew he was gonna send you some words and feathers on a hook(s). I’m glad that one fine tier found another!

  2. plaidcamper says:

    Walt, just sitting and reading this has me shivering – I like winter, but a day spent in the water? I admire the dedication it takes…
    Wonderful to read about your early skunk cabbage sighting, and of the promise it holds for warmer days ahead.
    That’s a photogenic (aren’t they all?) and well read kitten!
    Thanks, Walt, an enjoyable read for a rainy night.

  3. JZ says:

    Nice job Walt. It seems you had more luck than me last Sunday on the Gunpowder. I fished streamers at a high 300cfs water mark. It was roaring cold and the time put in left me with only one follow and one hard strike. But like you, I was grateful to be out casting fly’s and working water. Fishing becomes a ritual in some aspects Walt. You need to be out there even if conditions dictate otherwise and success is hardly a given. I miss brook trout and the excursions deep in the mountains that’s for sure! Lately, I’ve been looking over pictures from previous jaunts just to see them again. Sounds a little ridiculous, I know, but that’s the way its been. Looking forward to brighter days and to resume more voyages. Mabey see out there sometime Walt. Stay dry and warm my friend, its gone to be a long cold winter..

    • JZ, for diehards like ourselves, it’s good to be out whenever we can, enduring some cold days for the chance to surprise ourselves and to enjoy the small surprises that appear every now and then. Yeah, the fishing process is a ritual, more so now than ever, with even less chance for success (at least with regard to “catching”), but it seems that we can be satisfied with less, too, and with simply being in tune with nature. As always, thank you for your thoughts and reflections, pal. Look back warmly on the past, and then ahead to good days on the water.

  4. Brent says:

    I like that observation about the skunk cabbage–a homely plant with an odorous name that nevertheless represents persistence, optimism, and resilience. We could all use a bit of that spirit in these days. That Tater is a real character, but I hadn’t pegged him as an intellectual!

  5. Tim Didas says:

    Hey, Walt! A fine recap of some very cold, but pleasant days on the water! The waterfall picture is amazing…hard to tell from the photo, but on that particular day, the water in my waders seemed so much colder than the water we were fishing, if that was even possible.
    The camera shy steelhead, seems we’ve each caught one this year!
    Bob, I’m glad the letter and flies found their intended home! Fish them in good health, sir!

    • Tim, I forgot to mention how miserably cold your leg & foot must have been! I’d have been moaning & cursing the kingfisher off its perch. Anyway, it was fun, all told, and here’s to more good times on the water this year!

  6. Tim Didas says:

    Not in our nature to grouse too long about cold weather, leaky boots, tangled leaders, faulty knots, or poor sports, let alone flush kingfishers…it’s always a pleasure to share a day on the water with you, Walt!

  7. Thom Hickey says:

    Lashings of atmosphere! Many thanks Thom

  8. Jet Eliot says:

    I just loved reading about your adventures here, Walt. I especially appreciated that because of your eloquent descriptions I could be there without being there, because egad it looks cold in the photos. Too bad the steelhead photo didn’t work out but I can guess neither of you had hands that could work too well in the frigidity. I especially loved hearing about the skunk cabbage, how it appears, relating to it with your hoodie, the quote from Thoreau, and seeing it in the photo. I have heard about skunk cabbage, but I’ve never seen it, didn’t know anything about it. Really enjoyed the intro. Many thanks.

  9. I’m glad it worked for you, Jet, and also gave a little intro to our inimitable skunk cabbage plant– so common (and overlooked) in the Eastern woodlands but unlikely to be found out West. Thank you for your thoughts!

  10. Mr. Franklin – I wish I could write 1/10 of 1 percent (3 orders of magnitude for those keeping track) as well as you do! I’ve called a couple of times… but I ‘get’ it. I don’t answer the phone unless I recognize the number either )look fora 269 area code… might be me). I took a great picture of skunk cabbage before I knew what it was called. And although it may be ‘skunk cabbage’, I think it may actually be a very nice picture of it. Are you going to make the 06APR meeting of SRS? How many books have you written? Anyway, I look forward to seeing you there if you make it. take care

    • Marion,
      Thanks for contacting me! I caught your messages on the phone but, honestly, I’ve never felt comfortable with phones outside of business purposes (returning calls at “wrong” times, etc.) but I appreciate your effort and kindness, and am glad for this. Yeah the skunk cabbage is an interesting plant, already stoking up its “furnace” for the new season in our wetlands. I’ll be at the April meeting of SRS, if at all possible. I always enjoy an early visit to the Slate Run area, and look forward to talking with you again. As for the books, I’ve kind of lost track of how many, but I’ve been writing & publishing since the ’80s, so there’s quite a few titles I’m trying to juggle. Recently finished a new book about fly-fishing & natural history, with an emphasis on this region, and it’s probably my best one yet, and looking for a publisher soon. Thanks again, Marion, for the calls, the work you’re doing, and the kind comments.

  11. JZ says:

    The mountains are calling from a distance Walt. Wake-up sleepy head, spring is getting near. A new wading staff will make it’s debut. Lighter, stronger and more nimble in pocket water I expect. Boots are more than ready to wear and instincts set-on adventure. The brooks have weathered the harsh extremes and will soon be bushy-tailed dodging my offerings. Let the games begin and soon the games take on another season.

    • Thanks for the boost, JZ! You got it, the fever, that is, and I think it’s coming my way, too. A new wading staff for you? Wading/walking sticks are important to guys like us. I do have a new bamboo stick for casting purposes, and I’ll talk about it in a new post scheduled to appear today or tomorrow. Indeed, let is bring it on!

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