January 11, 2022
This article was originally titled "The Winter Face" in the April-May 2012 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
It was the end of March and still snowing. Although technically spring now that the vernal equinox was upon us, the morning sky was as dull and gray as a tax auditor, and the falling flakes had a sickly pallor as did the aging snow blanketing the woods. There’s a reason no one ever talks about “the dead of summer” or “the summer of our discontent.” There’s a reason Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring sounds like the work of a madman and that March is good month to murder a Caesar. Say what you will about the sun and the angle of the earth’s axis at this time of year. I know winter when I see it.
I was not, I repeat, not suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a depressive condition common in the dark months at northern latitudes around the globe. SAD is caused in part by lack of sunlight and subsequent low levels of serotonin in the brain. On March 21, even here in south-central Alaska, I was receiving the same 12 hours of daylight bathing everyone else on the planet. Theoretically I should have been as cheerful as the well-tanned souls who woke up on the equator that morning, serotonin positively coursing through me. Theoretically.
No, this wasn’t about light. This was about snow. And this was about ice. This was about NFS, Not Fishing Syndrome—an underdiagnosed malaise whose sufferers weep when the first fly-fishing magazines arrive in January, and lie awake at night thinking unkind thoughts about the authors of articles titled, “Spring Fishing Tactics for Early Season Trout!” Early season here is June.
I was at my desk tying flies—which isn’t fishing but which is related to fishing and can be done wearing pajamas, even in winter. I could only stay interested in bonefish and tarpon patterns. Just looking at them conjured images of mangrove islands, sandy flats sparkling in the Caribbean sun. I could almost feel the heat, smell the steaming lagoons, hear the cries of egrets and night herons. Then one of our local eagles soared past at eye level in the ravine next to our house, yanking me from my reverie. I watched it disappear into a curtain of fog and snow hanging over the river valley. When I turned back to the vise, I caught my reflection in the magnifying lens on my tying lamp. Staring back at me was a white-stubbled wretch with hospital hair and a look of bewildered defeat. He looked like someone who hadn’t fished in five months. It was my winter face.
Even if medical experts have failed to make the obvious connection between lack of fishing and winter blues, their advice to fight depression by getting outdoors and exercising is sound. It’s either that or keep moving cocktail hour a little earlier each day, until one morning in February you find yourself dunking your Pop-Tart in a vodka tonic while staring at a television where a Pennsylvania groundhog studies its shadow.
But the real reason I needed to practice casting was that in a couple weeks I was going fishing in Mexico, where long, accurate casts are often required. I can’t actually make long, accurate casts and probably never will—certainly not with two weeks of repetitively entrenching my bad casting habits further into my muscle memory. But the thought that my sloppy casting might make our Mexican bonefish guide mutter things about me in Spanish (or, worse, in English) was enough to convince me to venture out into the winter wasteland, rod in hand.
With snow falling since Halloween, I was post-holing up to my zipper as I waded into the drifts to practice casting. That sounds like sheer idiocy, but even so, just the carrying of a rod in the general direction of the river felt like going fishing—and it beat pacing around the house wondering how long it was until cocktail hour.
Behind the shop, I laid a three-foot length of 2x4 on the snow at the edge of the forest, stepped back, and squinted until it became a bonefish. Of course in real life I will never see a three-foot bonefish. And if I do I’ll have a heart attack and collapse into the sea before I manage to get off a cast. But when you are casting to lumber, you really want an encouragingly large target.
Fifty feet off from the boardfish, I stripped out line and decided what direction the 2x4 was swimming and which end was its head. The first few casts fell short, the line catching on the crusted snow. I threw harder. The fly—a huge pink tarpon fly with the hook clipped off—lofted on the breeze and landed a dozen feet behind the boardfish. Double-hauling ferociously, I finally got some distance, only to drop the line right across the boardfish’s back. I could already hear the guide sucking tropical air over his teeth.
The trouble with practice-casting is that it’s no more interesting than any other form of necessary exercise. I lost interest in about nine minutes. I almost reeled in my frozen fly line and called it a day, and then my wife came home from work and accidentally let the cats out.
We have four Siamese felines I call The Reservoir Cats. Three are 20-plus-pounders, real Boone and Crockett specimens. The fourth one, “the baby,” is a grumpy little guy about half the others’ size. As my wife loves cats even more than trees, she’s spoiled and enormously overfed them. Well, maybe I’ve had a little to do with that myself. Ed is the oldest and heaviest, a “seal-point” Siamese well on his way to becoming the size and shape of an actual seal. Last summer Ed was attacked by something with very sharp teeth, but he’s so fat that the predator couldn’t grip anything except one of Ed’s near vestigial legs.
The cats jumped off the porch and came racing across the snow in my direction, the three younger ones in a phalanx with old fat Ed limping along behind. The young ones moved toward me at the speed of cruising bonefish, so I led them by six feet and cast, setting the hot pink fly down right in front of them. In unison they skidded to a halt on the hard-packed snow and crouched, tails twitching like snakes in a frying pan. Ed came staggering up behind, panting.
I gave the fly a little strip, and the pink feathers hopped across the snow like a mouse wearing its grandmother’s hat. The lead cat, Blizzard, a big “flame-point” Siamese with bright orange ears and a freckled nose, pounced so hard he sank through the crust up to his belly. I yanked the fly another foot, and the other three cats jumped all over each other trying to get it. Except Ed. He mostly rolled around like the pinniped he’s becoming. Even “the baby” got in a couple pounces as I picked up the fly and laid it back down among them again and again until I had them racing around in circles, snapping their teeth.
It’s hard to say if cats experience fun in the way we use the word, but I was having a fine time.
Then my wife came out and tried to recapture them. They fled in four directions, leaving her standing in the drifts saying something about the kind of man who would tease house cats with a fly rod. I wasn’t listening as closely as I might have been. Fast fishing like that doesn’t happen every day, especially not in winter. It was the best I’d felt in a month. I guess exercise really is good for you.
I hung the rod in the garage and joined my wife, wandering the property, calling the cats by name, thinking that by the time I got back from fishing in Mexico it would be late April. It might still be snowing, of course, but I knew that those last-ditch squalls would be weak and impotent. The mountainous berms created along the driveway by Tim The Snow-Plow Guy would be shrunk to lumpy ridges or maybe gone altogether. The driveway would be a muddy quagmire capable of swallowing a mastodon, but the culverts would ring with the sweet sound of running snowmelt. The willows and alders would be starting to unfurl their sticky buds, the fiddleheads poking through the brown fern remnants in the ravine next to the house. Overhead, the lesser Canada geese would be honking, the sandhill cranes croaking their ridiculous travel song. We would dig clams on the big spring tides and have cocktails on the front deck in the late-afternoon sun, the cats crowded inside against the front-door glass, glaring with resentment.
Eventually it would be time to fish again. May would come, and the river would break up, and the king salmon would return in time for the Memorial Day opener, as always. And when the first bright-orange fillets hit the barbecue grill it would officially be summer in Alaska, and once more I would remember why I live here and I would be happy.
But until then, if anyone wants me I’ll be out back behind the shop, standing in snow up to my knees, casting to cats, and wearing my winter face.
Richard Chiappone is the author of Opening Days: A Fly Fisherman Writes (Barclay Creek Press, 2010) and Water of an Undetermined Depth (Stackpole Books, 2003).