Saturday, December 31, 2011

"It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness"

I entered my 25th year with big plans. After a quarter century I'd had ample time to get my shit together and make some critical decisions. My girlfriend of 5 years and I had just moved in together with our two labs. I was a year and a half into a career in the fly fishing industry and loving it. I had a great group of family and friends in town, at least a few of whom suffered a common affliction - a borderline unhealthy lust for time spent in the woods and on the water. With the work-life balance at an all-time high (or low, depending on who you asked) it was time to quiet my critics and solidify the burning question:

Where would I fish in 2011?

Towards the end of 2010 Old Man Winter returned home to Cleveland early, on a bender. It was apparent he'd been into Erie's unending supply of firewater, which in his rage he spat upon us mercilessly. All the while we waited in the wings like timid stepchildren for him to nod off, stealing away to the less-than-liquid rivers for a much needed dose of hope. Fin, feather or fur, the form of the fix mattered not; outings in January and February are all about maintaining a fading, flickering belief that eventually the world will emerge green again.

The whispers had begun long ago, and though muffled Spanish can be difficult to understand, by late January the message was clearer and harder to ignore. I needed a taste of sea salt instead of road salt, not mention a little vitamin D and tequila. I resisted, thinking the money I'd save could be better spent in other ways. Luckily, one of those afflicted friends was able to convince me otherwise.

My experience in Holbox has had a lasting impact on me for more than one reason. Those who've been following the blog for a while will recall the ecstasy of my first tango with tarpon, and that in and of itself was worth the trip. More than anything though it was the hospitality of our hosts and the pace of island life that to this very moment have me pining for a return trip.

Meanwhile the rivers of NE Ohio were already undergoing their spring swell. But this year was different. The Old Man had overstayed his welcome and mother nature had reached her breaking point. Having been held captive by ice for months the rivers finally roared back, overtaking their banks and anything that stood in their paths. On the Chagrin that happened to include the century-old Gates Mills dam. I stood over the river to bear witness only hours after the dam became but a memory, wondering what would be revealed when the water finally receded.

As it turned out, what was revealed was exactly what we'd guessed: steelhead in places they'd never been before,

and in some of the old haunts too.

But the spring season was short lived and by most accounts a dissapointment. So as the weather finally broke it was time to change tunes. When we got the opportunity to chase trout in new places, we jumped on it. From the Maryland panhandle to the Big D to the foothills of the Allegheny's, we sampled some of the best trout fishing in the East.

June brought about a trip to familiar water, one that I'd been anxiously awaiting. Though I was yet to land one, I'd studied my quarry for years and didn't need to look at any hatch charts to know that my fly box was filled with the right stuff.

On June 13th, on the same lake where I'd learned to fish while I was still in diapers, I asked the love of my life to marry me. The presentation may have been less than perfect, but the hookset was impeccable...

there will be no fishing for Fast Jimmy on September 22nd, 2012. And for once, I'm perfectly OK with that.

Riding that high into July, it was back to dabbling in the midwest mixed bag. From Boogle Buggin' for bucketmouths

to one of the sport's great hatches...

to bronzebacks in bathing suits,

it was just enough to keep my mind off August. When it did arrive though I was ready. I'd spent nearly every weekend since mid-May teaching new fly fishers what it was all about. This Fly fishing 101 program had been a huge success, with over 200 new anglers being introduced to the sport in less than 10 weeks. As rewarding as the accomplishment had been, it was time to remind myself why I'd come to this sport in the first place. So Alex and I jumped in the car and began driving.

26 hours and a few dozen flies was all it took to make it to trout Mecca. It felt like I'd never left.

Reluctantly, after an incredible journey we came back to where we'd started... and stayed there just long enough to build up an appetite for another trek West.

And then wouldn't you know it, my friends threw me a homecoming party!

After that I managed to put a few folks on their first steelhead

And ventured back to some of my favorite water on the planet.

Not suprisingly I suppose, I was fishing when I took the call. I didn't want to answer it, not because I was afraid of what I might hear, but because I was half way through a picture perfect steelhead run and didn't want to be distracted. It has always seemed to me that my life is in perpetual motion, and that's the way I like it. I go harder on my days off than I do on my days on. I'm not even unpacked from one trip and I'm leaving for the next. My clothes rarely make it to a closet or dresser; despite my fiance's repeated pleas, I continue to live out of the laundry basket on my bedroom floor. I have a hard enough time putting down the rod to take pictures or eat a sandwich, so the last thing I wanted to do while knee-deep in my favorite steelhead river was to take a call from my doctor.

A few weeks earlier, while driving to Indiana for our engagement pictures, I'd found a lump in my neck. I was confused if not a little concerned and showed it to Becky's parents to see what they made of it. Their consensus was that it was a lymph node and they encouraged me to have it looked at as soon as I got home. I did, and at my doctor's request arranged to have the node removed and biopsied.

To my credit, I didn't actually stop fishing until I heard the word "lymphoma." I reeled in my rig, made arrangements to see my doctor in a couple of days, and took a seat on the bank. I watched the river slow to a halt. I wasn't sad, I wasn't angry, I wasn't anything. The world was on pause, just long enough for me to realize that, whether I liked it or not, from this moment forward my life was going to take a slightly different direction. I decided I could accept that - as long as that direction ran parallel to a river. Then I went back to fishing.

I even got to sneak in a little time in the duck blind

and managed to harvest a few birds for the man meal.

Last week we wrapped up 2011 by getting together for a fly fishers feast of sorts. The bounty was plentiful, with no shortage of fish or game. Though my smoked pheasant was pretty well received, Alex stole the show with some rediculously tasty corned goose reubens.

Fabes also revealed his latest and greatest swingin' bug, the St. Bernard streamer.

That night, as this entire fall has been for me, was a reminder of the value of friendship. Having people in your life who care about you and who are willing to go out of their way for your best interest is a blessing. Having some of those people share the same passions that you do is an even greater blessing. 2011 made me realize how incredibly lucky I am to have the friends and family I do and to lead the life that I live, and I can't wait to tackle 2012 with them at my side.

P.S. Thanks to Joanne Kaser/Josephiney Photography for the engagement pictures!