When I was a boy I was terrified of the ice. Dad would take me to the pond, hockey skates in hand, and try as I might I just couldn't make that first step off the firmament. The old man would throw rocks - veritable boulders in a child's eyes - onto the ice to prove its solidity. He'd jump up and down like a Zumba dancer at Carnivale, stomp like Gargamel rampaging across the rooftops of Smurf village, and still I wouldn't budge. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I think he may have given up after a single winter. That paralyzing fear persisted into adolescence and continues even today.
"Hi. I'm Mike, and I'm a pagophobic."
There's no need to say it. I know what you're thinking. Six feet three inches tall. Two hundred ninety pounds. Former infantry soldier.
It's O.K. No hard feelings. I agree. My fear is unfounded, some might say unreasonable. Unfounded and unreasonable as it is, however, it is still very real. Pagophobia is also probably why - regardless of my enthusiasm during the normal fishing season - winter fly fishing has never much appealed to me. Sure, I've made the occasional steelhead trip. I've walked the banks of the Battenkill on New Year's Day. Honestly though, winter fishing is cold, it's uncomfortable, and occasionally winter fishing can be very nearly deadly.
I'm reminded of one particular winter - twenty years ago I suppose it must have been - when Adam and I spent quite a bit of time fishing the Kill. The trophy section (something of a misnomer) was open year round, and as young men we had few responsibilities and little else to do but fish. I remember it was February, the brilliant glare of sun shone on ice hardened snow. I remember seeing dark shapes that were fish in the run immediately above the inlet of Camden Creek. I remember spotting more fish in the Spring Hole, and Adam stinging one there.
I also remember walking the bank just upstream of the Battenville Covered Bridge, and the knot in the pit of my stomach as that bank gave way beneath me. I remember the rush of February water over the top my Redball waders, and the pain of a cold so total and complete, I thought I might have been stabbed by an errant piece of rebar hidden beneath the inky surface. I remember my desperate, ragged breath. I remember clawing - very slowly, clawing - my way up a slick, frozen stream bank. I remember the weight of the water, and the weight of my fear. I remember my gratitude for the blast of a car heater on naked - frozen flesh, and cursing my stupidity for not having brought a change of clothes.
I remember all this, and still I find my mind is off on the Salmon River and the trophy section of the Battenkill. Who knows? Maybe sometime in the coming weeks I'll make the trip to Massachusetts, and fish where there is generally no designated season or prohibition against taking one's life in one's hands for the sake of a January trout. Maybe I'll forgo the long rod altogether, and accept Ben's invitation to fish Champlain through the ice. I just don't know.
What I do know is that I need a break, some alone time, a few hours on the water. Ultimately, I suppose it doesn't matter if that water is frozen or not.