I’ve been searching for the word, and the word is “guilt.” That’s what I felt — guilt.
I felt guilty because I enjoyed the climate change-fueled El Nino that produced 70-degree days through most of December. In years past I would have cursed the warm temps while sitting in the deer woods. But this year I’ve got a fly rod.
A fellow can take only so many 70-degree December days of casting pipe cleaners in the yard while dreaming of spring. He can take several if he is particularly dense, but one warm afternoon of yard casting — which followed several previous warm afternoons of yard casting — all the sensual input finally gelled. As the pipe cleaner wrapped around a branch above the bird bath, I thought: “Why the hell am I casting in the yard on this March-like day when my buddy’s pond is just down the road?” There was no rebuttal. So I broke down the rod and hustled into the storage room/outdoor equipment room/man cave, grabbed my fly box and a spare leader, and drove just a few miles to my proving waters.
It was a cloudy and muggy day. Low pressure was building to the west promising warm rain for tomorrow, but there was no wind or rain at that moment. The pond’s surface was satin smooth, and (glory be!) swirls and dimples of active fish in the shallows confirmed my suspicions. The autumn of 2015 had produced only a handful of sub-freezing nights and the pond was still warm enough for some shallow water fishing. A mosquito buzzed my ear as if to confirm the faux-spring we were experiencing here in Arkansas.
After running line through guides, I opened the fly box and mulled over my entire selection of three poppers. I chose the yellow one for purely sentimental reasons and stepped to the waters edge, actually into the water, which felt like the summer temperature of the Ozark creeks that I love. I knew the reasons why the water was warmer than it should have been. I knew why I was comfortable standing shin-deep in a pond while wearing creek shoes, khaki shorts and t-shirt on December 12. And those reasons were bad. They were and are a threat to everything we know and love today. But at that moment, I felt grateful for the warm weather. That’s when the dark shadow of guilt appeared.
But hell, sometimes you’ve just got to make lemonade.
The first cast brought a hit before the popper had popped even once. It was a small largemouth bass, tiny is a better description, but my adrenal glands did not give a rat’s ass about its size. It was a fish and it had sucked up a fly that I had cast from a fly rod. I’m not cool by any stretch of the word, and I’m thankful that no one was there to witness the raw giddiness on display. But it was short-lived. The bass threw the hook on its first leap. I deflated.
A few more popper forays into the shallows produced nothing, but I had my eye on a stump sitting in about three feet of water and well within my limited casting range. The stump was within range but not within my accuracy. It took four tries to lay the popper down in a spot just past the stump but in line for a kissing-close retrieve. Ripples faded as I pointed the rod toward the popper, gathered in slack and stripped line.
“Blurp…” Blurp…” BLOOP!” Fish on!
Still no giant, but a lot bigger than the first bass, and big enough to put on the reel for sure, especially considering that what’s big enough to put on the reel is entirely up to the individual that happens to be holding the reel. I was. And so I did. After a spirited if short fight, the bass was finally at my feet. I gently thumbed its bottom jaw and worked the popper loose. My face was hurting from the goofy smile that I could not contain.
I’ll be honest here. I’m a Pisces, born under the sign of the fishes. Fishing has been part of my life since my earliest memories. Family legend has it that my grandpa had a cane pole in my hands before I could walk. I read Bass Master magazine in junior high as it hid behind the covers of algebra and history books. I took my first summer job at age 14 because Mom and Dad said they would not buy me any more fishing equipment, and I joined the local bass club that same summer. If there was a hole or ditch of water within bike-riding distance of my home, I had wet a line in it. Fishing was an obsession on up to about age 20, after which it became more of an afterthought. Sure, I still fished several times during the summer, and smallmouth bass were part of my wild holy trinity (the others being whitetails and wild turkeys), but the fire was damped down.
The fly rod has thrown that flue wide open.
Call it novelty or whatever else you might, but I am excited about fishing like I have not been in many years. Spring fishing may even give the turkeys a run for the money. Putting those words down on paper feels like sacrilege, but it’s true.
Today is a warm day for January after a bout of wintery temps over the last week or so. Though it’s warm, I have a solid chance of getting a shot at deer this afternoon as they graze in a green field. I could head up into the hills to scout for turkey or even places to hang a tree stand for next fall. And lord knows I should use this afternoon to corral more letters and syllables for other writing and editing work.
But all I want to do is grab that limber rod and head toward water. I don’t care if the bass are nearly dormant. I don’t care that the local trout are factory raised slugs finning with dulled senses in a municipal pond.
I just want to go fishing.