New Year’s Eve had a very specific look for me throughout my teenage years: going to bed around 8:00pm, in a tent, on a frozen field.
Although there are a lot of things that one can do on that ever-so-significant midnight moment, my choice was to usually do what was most significant to me. And that was fish. My best friend and I would drive up to Southcentral Pennsylvania from Northern Virginia and proceed to confuse some campsite proprietor.
“You two want to sleep out there? For just the night? In a tent?”
Certainly there were questions of liability running through their heads. Scenarios of teenage mischief and/or inquiries as to exactly why they let two young men freeze to death probably gave them pause as they took our money and assigned us one of the many (all) vacant campsites.
Some mischief did happen. There was the year when we had to “borrow” firewood from a local citizen, as everything in the forest was covered in ice so thick so as to render it immovable. In a similar vein, one year we woke up in the wee hours of the morning to bright flames just outside the tent wall. Apparently our dousing wasn’t sufficient, and the wetted fire had rekindled itself midway through the night.
All of this energy and effort was so that we could wake up early, buy brand new fishing licenses, and catch a trout while the ink was still wet on the calendar page. Buying licenses on New Year’s Day was an adventure in itself. Groggy and disgruntled big-box employees that pulled the AM short straw were always less than eager to go through the “complicated” paperwork on January 1st. Most fly shops wouldn’t be open, and this was a time before the internet rendered such interactions unnecessary.
And then there was the weather. There is something very different about fly fishing in cold weather after driving to the stream in a warm car and fly fishing in cold weather after sleeping on the tundra and driving to the stream in a cold car. If any fishing had happened on December 31st, there was a good chance that boots would be frozen solid in some unmanageable shape the next morning. This dilemma requires getting down to the water and submerging the boot until it yields enough to cram your foot inside. Not a part of the procedure is comfortable or warm.
But it was all for trout. It wasn’t some ridiculous goal, like: be the first person on the eastern seaboard to catch a trout in that particular year. Surely someone out there is driven by that incalculable benchmark, but it wasn’t us. While neither of us were superstitious, I think there was something about starting the year off with a fish. If you can hook up with a trout on the very first day of the year, things have gotten off on the right foot. We would catch fish. Sometimes we would do very well; in spite of the weather, poor sleep, and stomachs full of value-brand hot dogs chased by copious quantities of Gatorade.
I loved it. Every minute of it. The close comradery, the quirky experience, and the fly fishing. They were days and nights that are probably unrepeatable; they were for a time of life that was just for a time. Days on the water characterized by hijinks in the unusual context of a holiday are tailor-made for memories. Looking back, even while I was in those moments, I think that fly fishing in that setting made me realize that those memories would stand out years later.