Driving through the mountains of Pennsylvania, well under the speed limit with windshield wipers frantically smearing wet snow, the two steelhead I landed didn’t seem worth it.
It was the dark and snowy homestretch of a fly fishing trip that took an immediate and unexpected turn. Jeff and I were both on edge. He was driving in the mess. I was watching him drive in the mess. The excursion didn’t last as long as we’d wanted, and the parts that we did experience didn’t pan out as we had wished. A quick-moving storm forced our evacuation from Erie. It was the right choice, as we later learned parts of I-79, I-90, and I-80 were closed shortly after we left the region.
The trip was a big deal for both of us. It was my first trip back to Northern Virginia from college. Thanksgiving meant I got to leave South Carolina for a week, and I wanted to spend at least a few days fishing. Jeff hadn’t been out much since I had gone to school. Neither of us had fished for steelhead. We bought gear, made plans, and got sufficiently psyched up. After the holiday, we headed up to the lake.
We drove for five straight hours, got off the highway, and went right to Elk Creek. My friend Ellen, a local, met us there. Looking back on it, her help was invaluable. I didn’t know where to find steelhead. I didn’t know how to fish for steelhead. I think I just assumed that 30-inch-plus fish in small creeks would be a piece of cake to locate and catch. Ellen spent a few minutes pointing out what we should use and where we should use it.
Within a few minutes I caught and landed my first Great Lakes steelhead. It was an experience that immediately justified all the time, energy, and effort. This shiny, vigorous trout doubled over my fly rod and didn’t fit in my net. Kneeling just off the icy bank, I held the fish’s tail as it recuperated in the current. Jeff had headed upstream immediately, and was out of my line of sight. Ellen just rounded the bend, and the sound of the current muffled my shouts. It was just me and my fish.
After it swam off, I got up and headed towards my friends. This was also when I discovered that hand warmers in the booties of neoprene waders make matters worse. Deprived of the oxygen that is necessary for their thermal reaction due to the compression of the waders while under water, they offered no benefit. Once I began to move and air began to circulate, the very un-breathable waders trapped all that heat and my feet got sweaty. Upon returning to the creek, I was colder then when I started. Some mistakes you only make once.
As beginner’s luck would have it, I caught and landed another steelhead while walking up to rendezvous with Jeff and Ellen. This fish ran downstream and under a fallen tree. It required me to straddle the trunk while passing my rod underneath. In short order it nearly did the exact maneuver in reverse. However, I physically impeded the fish’s path and was able to play it without any more theatrics.
Being late November daylight was scarce. Arriving in the afternoon, we only had a few hours before the already gray day swiftly transitioned to a very black night. We made plans to meet up with Ellen at another creek in the morning, and headed into town for a warm meal and our accommodations.
Although it was less than 20 years ago, there is such a contrast in the immediacy and pervasive nature of data. Without smartphones or Wi-Fi we were disconnected. Without watching the news or listening to the radio that morning, we had no clue that a rapidly forming blizzard was practically upon us. The flurries really began to pick up mid-morning on Twentymile Creek. No one in our party caught fish. No one we could see was catching fish. And the flurries were becoming squalls.
Sitting in the tiny Toyota Corolla, we tuned in to a local station and caught the forecast. It was apparent that the question wasn’t if we were going to cut the trip short; it was when. We tried one more spot, but the whole time we were rigging up there was a steady stream of salt trucks and plows. After only a few fruitless casts, we hastily thanked Ellen and said our goodbyes. Jeff and I went back to the hotel, grabbed our stuff, and headed south.
About the time we should have been arriving back in Virginia, we were still working our way slowly across the Pennsylvania turnpike. 24 hours prior, we were getting off the water after two quick fish. The optimism turned to pessimism, which became frustration. If it wasn’t for the stop at Bob Evans for coffee and breakfast-for-dinner, we might have sworn off angling in the winter for good.
I can’t say with any certainty that my attitude towards the trip and the steelhead pivoted immediately during that rest stop. Abandoning the trip and the remainder of the drive still loomed large in my mind. But I can say that the feelings didn’t last.
The fish and the rivers, as cold and cagey as they were, captivated me. Steep cliffs carved out of a worked-over landscape felt like just the place for these mighty trout to swim. Rusted railroad bridges or RV parks seemed just as suitable for backdrops as rolling fields or the vast expanse of Lake Erie. And the pull of the fish… I have been back, many times.
I know that the drive back was miserable. But I only remember those hours in generalities. Holding the thick, muscular tail of that fish in the frigid current of a late fall stream in fading light? Those seconds are etched in my memory.
In fly fishing, as in life, the uncomfortable and exasperating elements fade away over time if they are seen as peripheral. Gaining perspective isn’t just about backing up to see the whole picture. Often it entails focusing on what things make up the center – focusing on what matters.