The weather is highly variable in western Virginia, but a few things are for certain. If it’s gonna’ get cold and spit, pour, or dump snow, I’ll be holed up, sleeping late, and wallowing in my inability to get out and fish, however temporary it may be. And even after the weather has departed, the snowmelt will cause the rivers to swell, and nightly freezes will keep the roads sketchy for a few days, and the fish will be having a jolly old time in the mountains and the high water without me. It’s a peculiar and uniquely frustrating situation to live through—like a bad trip, if you’ve got the right fascination.
Annually, upon this occasion, I find myself waking in a gray morning without intention. A sense of urgency reaches me through the gloomy face of winter. Water levels are up, dirty, and, like the dingy chaos of a river coursing with runoff, there is a haze in the air that obscures reality and clouds the known. Finned legends emerge from enigma.
There is a spring creek that rises just off of a college campus I’m deeply familiar with that is of little consequence and hop-across proportions until it feeds the pond in front of the cafeteria. I used to walk past it several times per day, and rarely noticed the water in it. But when snow or rain hit hard, the water comes up, brown and frothy, and it catches my unyielding fancy. Only in the direst of circumstances does it become a destination.
I abandon my living quarters without breakfast or any gear, but for a fly rod and a streamer of black and purple—something that can be seen in brown water—and head for the creek.
The raging current has worn away the banks a few feet, greatly increasing its size and creating an almost unending succession of undercut banks, accentuated by the roots of trees on the lawn, now exposed. I’ve forgotten how rocky the bed is, but the roiling current, full of soft, almost still, pockets of water, reminds me.
There is no one in sight, but why would there be? It’s early morning and there are no classes, no cafeteria hours, no reason to leave bed. No reason but a spring creek and a burning, bordering on desperate, need to tangle with the unknown.
My first cast is directly upstream, to the near bank. The fluorescent fly lands in a slow pillow of water, inches from the dirt. A hard jerk-strip, and the fly jack-knives headfirst under the bank, below a tangle of roots. A second brings the fly back into view, and I watch it suspend there among the turmoil.
Excited by the performance of my fly in the water and the ease with which it’s imparted action, I send a similar second cast to the opposite bank, upstream. For a second, it sits motionless in a micro-eddy, shielded from the ripping current, but a subtle twitch brings it closer to being swept away.
Just as the current begins to grab the fly, a wake and surge of energy grabs the fly and straightens my fly line. A paddle tail erupts recklessly from the rolling current, as the fish points its nose down into the creekbed and struggles for leverage to get upstream.
When it achieves the perfect balance and finds water to surround its tail, the fish blazes a trail upstream, slicing through the flooded river like a bird through air, taking to the air several times, and coming down into the narrow channel perfectly every time.
As I chase the fish upstream, my line goes limp. Like it changed its mind, the fish reverses course and begins charging downstream. This time with twice the speed. I reel like mad to maintain tension on the fish, but as it approaches my position on the bank, I can sense the leader heading for the surface.
In a moment of supernatural confusion and instinct, I pull my net from its holster fastened to my back. The fish takes off mere feet from me, and comes crashing down into the rubber basket of my net. I drop to my knees to submerge the fish in the net, and behold its majestic novelty—a brown trout of 22 inches, or 24, or 26.
Pleased but still frustrated, I push away covers and lumber into the kitchen. Snowed in. A late breakfast is a good breakfast, I figure, and crack some eggs in a frying pan—the kitchen a refuge from the frozen windows and tile floor. I’ll spend the day tying flies for when I can finally get on the water, again. Something black, with some purple for contrast, maybe. Or perhaps something bright, to catch their interest.