A winter tale . . .
" Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never Is, but always To be blest: The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come. "
- Alexander Pope
I haven't found them yet - Pope's fishing stories. But I'm sure they're out there somewhere. They have to be. Foolish folks reading him, people who don't understand him, think he's alluding to the all-too-human habit of heaven, of thinking about some glorious life beyond this earth from which we've been rudely separated. But we fisherman know better. When he talks about the soul uneasy confined from home, he's clearly writing about a fisherman in the depths of a hard winter, when his beloved small streams are frozen or covered with a thick layer of impenetrable snow. In the depths of a long, cold winter, a sensible fisherman would try to think about other things, but Alex had it right, he had our number.
I know. I've been there.
A few years back, in the middle of a particularly bitter, heavy winter, with something like six feet of snow covering the ground up high, I was driving Highway 550 between Silverton and Durango. I'd been fishing the San Juan a lot, and it had been awfully good to me. It was one of those winters when the big boys were rising to mats of clumped midges almost every morning. Bugs collected in eddies - a black scum that looked kind of like the sweet filling inside a poppy seed pastry. But the Animas wasn't fishing very well and I hadn't had much luck fishing close to home. The Animas can be fickle, as mercurial as any moody friend. One day, it will gift you with rising trout. The next, it will turn off, sometimes for weeks. That month, it ran cold and black, seeming utterly lifeless.
I felt sort of, you know, confined from home.
So there I was, tooling along 550, rounding the horseshoe curve where the road crosses over Lime Creek before heading up Molas Pass. I looked off to my right, down into the canyon where a large pool was open, unfrozen. And damn, I couldn't believe my eyes. Beneath an overhanging cornice of wind-blown snow, there was an unmistakable disturbance in the water. I pulled over and watched. There. Again. Another one. Then another. Rings in the water. Dimples. Holy crap - trout were rising to some kind of mid-winter hatch!
I grabbed my rod and a couple of flies and post-holed my way down toward the stream. How can any man be this lucky, I thought. Sure, I was wallowing down a steep slope, plunging in up to my crotch, and yes, you've probably realized as I had by then that I wasn't wearing boots, or gaiters or the proper pants for playing in the snow. But who cared - trout were rising and visions of brookies and maybe even a cutthroat or two dancing at the end of my line kept me plenty warm, that and the exertion of wading downhill through deep snow.
I finally got down to the stream, breast all full of hope, no longer confined from home, soon to be blest. I knelt down in the deep snow trying not to frighten my rising trout. I slowly lifted my head over the cornice to peek into the pool, and as I did, the sun-warmed edge released a bit of snow that fell into the water, creating a disturbance. I continued to watch. There. Again. Another one. Then another. Rings in the water. Dimples.
But no trout.
Hope abandoned me, fleeing my breast. There would be no heaven on earth this day. Worse, the slog up the long, steep, snow-covered slope would be made with soaking wet feet in pants plastered with heavy snow. And that wasn't the worst of it. I looked up the slope, at my distant car. Parked next to it was another. It was a state patrol car.
And that wasn't the worst of it.
I hadn't done anything illegal. Sure, I'd left my car in a no stopping or standing zone, but no self-respecting Colorado patrolman would hold that against an eager fisherman. No, it wasn't the prospect of a parking ticket that made me sick to my stomach. I could see the patrolman holding binoculars up to his eyes, and the telltale lurching of shoulders that meant only one thing. He was laughing his ass off. At me.
And that wasn't the worst of it.
The patrolman was my buddy, Lyndon Skinner. And I knew as surely as I knew there were no trout rising in that cold winter pool that the story of my folly would arrive in Silverton that very afternoon, and echo until the day I died. Perhaps longer.
I trudged up the slope. Lyndon greeted me, still laughing.
"No trout rising in that pool, huh, Steve."
"Just snow dropping off the cornice."
"Too bad you didn't have any binoculars."
And yet . . .
Hope springs still in my all-too-human breast. I still watch for summer dimples in the dark, cold pools of winter.
Steven J. Meyers is the author of On Seeing Nature, Lime Creek Odyssey, Streamside Reflections, The Nature of Flyfishing, Notes from the San Juans, and San Juan River Chronicle.