I've a good friend who proclaims to be an atheist, but he'll also be the first one to tell you that karma is a real force at work in the world. He'd say we all have a karmic debt, and that the great karmic wheel is always spinning. Sometimes we sit back, and enjoy the ride. Other times, karma ejects us from the loop, and we fly off screaming into a miserable void. Yesterday, I was screaming into the void.
Some days bug chuckers can do no wrong; the boys and I were fortunate to have had such a day about two weeks ago. The memory has faded a little around the edges, but I couldn't possibly forget the totality of the river gods' generosity. We hooked fish, so many - in fact - that by day's end our arms were sore from the strain, and our faces were tired of smiling. It was one of those days that - for years on end - fly flingers speak of in hushed tones so as not to wake from the dream.
"Remember the steelhead trip we took back in 2011?"
Notice the definite modifier. It was not merely a steelhead trip; it was the steelhead trip. There will likely be dozens of such trips before the year is out, but that trip was the one.
"Remember it? How could I forget? Epic ..."
And so the karmic wheel turns. We had our trip, but there remained a debt to be paid. That debt - at least in part - was paid in sweat and disappointment.
Just like anywhere else, catching steelhead on the Salmon River can be very difficult during the winter. Sure, one can fish the upper river in the designated fly fishing zone. With hundreds of fish stacking up in every pool, the fishing there is almost easy, but fishing the upper river means an angler must be willing to share a half-mile long stretch of water with no fewer than thirty to seventy-five other anglers. This might not be too bad if most of these folks hadn't skipped the chapter on etiquette in The Curtis Creek Manifesto, but the sad fact is that many of them did skip those pages as well as the chapter about obeying the law and following regulations.
Consequently, we usually opt for fishing the middle river, even though to do so means fewer fish, if any at all. As we often do, we fished a spot that does not necessarily lend itself to wintertime fishing. The parking area and trail aren't maintained this time of year, and very few anglers are willing to walk the great distances through the snow that are necessary to access the water. We made the walk, and did so pulling a sled loaded with gear and enough firewood and food to last a day.
When I was a younger man, such an effort wouldn't have been a bother. I would have danced across the snow like Jesus Christ strolling across the Sea of Galilee, but I'm not such a young man anymore. I'm not an athlete anymore. I'm not a soldier anymore. I'm a soft, morbidly obese English teacher who hasn't the time to fart let alone exercise, and yesterday there was two feet of fresh snow on top of the on the already substantial, lake-effect ice pack. At times I was pushing through drifts that were as high as my waist. When we finally made the river bank, my breathing was ragged and my fleece was soaked with sweat. It was six in the morning.
The day did not improve. Even though local meteorologists had predicted a warm up on Sunday, the air remained bitterly cold throughout most of the day. Couple that with very low, very clear water, and the fish were predictably lock jawed. In six hours of fishing neither of us had a pull, nor did we experience anything even remotely resembling a pull. By noon we managed to convince ourselves to pack up camp and try another spot. On the Salmon River, this is generally a bad idea as the fish can turn without reason or warning. One minute a run might seem devoid of any life whatsoever, and in the next moment, everyone is hooked-up to a ten pound chromer. I know this, but in a momentary lapse of reason I opted for the move.
Remember that packing up camp meant dragging a gear laden sled back to the truck. You might be tempted to suggest that on the way out I was able to follow my own trail, and that the walk was much easier as a result. I suppose this may have been true had the trail out not run uphill. On the way in we were pushing through snow, but we were walking downhill. In simplest terms, the way out was suffering boiled down and reduced to its essence. Half way up the steepest part of the hill, I was cursing my own birth.
I won't bore you with the remainder of our tale. Suffice to say that our position did not improve. The river battered our bodies, and reminded us of its power to disappoint. We were humbled. We were humiliated. And so it goes.
The wheel turns. Most days it is all we can do just to keep hold. My only consolation is that as the wheel turns, I can rest easy knowing that I've made a down-payment on my debt. I may still owe a little bit more, but today I'm just that much closer to having once again paid my dues.