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.
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).
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.