I wrote this in early 2016, shopped it around a bit, and now I’m bringing it back to where it belongs.
The first thought to cross most anglers’ minds when Wisconsin changed the trout opener to the first Saturday in January was, I’ll wait and see on the weather. Our opinions softened in November, with temperatures clinging to the warmth of early fall, and then by December it was difficult to tell the difference between rumor and wild fantasy: so-and-so was out cutting brush along such-a-creek and the midge and baetis hatches were as thick as the brush he was cutting, with rises as far as the eye could see.
There was no snow on the ground, and damn near t-shirt weather in these parts. Two weeks until the opener.
Now I’m cutting trail through a foot of fresh snow on New Year’s Day, following the winding course of a brook trout stream as it pours from the Baraboo Hills toward the Wisconsin River. The forbs and grasses are pressed down against the earth, the midges and baetis dormant, the water’s surface unbroken. It was a good dream we had, but Mother Nature has a way of balancing the books. We were running on a surplus of good weather for far too long. Trout season starts the new fiscal year.
One day until the opener.
It’s not time yet. I won’t be here tomorrow, or Sunday. Work, they call it. So I’ll settle for some last-minute scouting here on the eve of a new season. I stomp the banks above lunker structures and watch for the dark, snaking forms of trout fleeing downstream into a thick tangle of submerged vegetation. I stand at the tail end of a run with imaginary fly rod in hand and piece together my approach: the tippet size, the fly, the sweet arc of a cast dropping in behind a skeletal coneflower raking the bank, the twist of the line as the indicator is pulled downstream, the anticipation of a take.
So what if we couldn’t cheat the weather? When have we ever? Cutting winds and deep snowdrifts and ice-clogged guides in early March, that’s what I know for a trout opener. It’s been far too long since the season ended, anyway. It’s been even longer since I last stood here, back in early June before the grasses swallowed the streambank whole, when I was up to my eyeballs in sweat, and fat golden craneflies drifted over the flowers and teased the fish. Since then the months have crawled by like the glaciers that formed this valley.
I could run away to Iowa to get my fix. Plan a road trip to Arkansas. Blow a year’s worth of vacation time and bake away in the salt. Any number of things are possible, and Wisconsin appears like an island surrounded by year-round waters. I don’t go largely out of objections from my pocketbook, the need to work, the need to keep the house standing, the growing list of personal responsibilities that mark the transition from full-on trout bum to full-grown adult. I’m a sedentary angler. Sit and wait. Wait.
But I also love the anticipation, like the moment before a trout turns on a well-presented dry fly. It will come. Let things take their course. The trout will take the fly, just as the snow will lie heavy on the dead grasses to open up the waters again. I’ll have a few more days of anticipation this year, I think to myself as I begin the hike back to my car, down along the streambank. I’m careful not to retrace my steps, stamping out a parallel set of tracks alongside the rabbit and the deer. Consider it a form of psychological warfare, a message to fellow anglers. Someone will come here tomorrow morning, see the tracks in the snow, and know they were beaten. I was already here and I already fished this stretch, drifting invisible zebra midges underneath sunken logs and dreaming twelve-inch brookies from the depths.
I couldn’t wait to fish any longer, the tracks will tell. It’s the anticipation of the catch that will last a bit longer.