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Mad Men
In any other realm, this would be crazy speak.
By Dave Karczynski

Each year for a decade now I’ve gone north for spring break—“spring” in this case is late February, a solid month before the season’s official launch; north means north of Ann Arbor, Michigan—to spend the days up to my chest in freezing water, catching a weekly quantum of fish that can usually be tallied by a single, cold-clawed hand. Usually I go alone. In the Upper Midwestern calendar, late February means deep winter, and we are reigned in mightily by cold and snow: streets halved by snowbanks, cars cased in ice, eaves fanged with ice so long and sharp you have to break them with a broom to safely enter and exit your house. My students go as far south as time and their parents’ money allows, returning illicitly tanned, poachers of a foreign sun. My colleagues hole up in their offices, catch up on their grading or research.

I head north to swing flies.

I’ve had a few people join me over the years. A friend—sometimes an angler, sometimes not—will get infected by my enthusiasm, the strange glow I start to emanate mid-winter, and conscript themselves to the cause. But after spending a few days of sub-arctic swinging these friends become utterly perplexed. An entirely fishless, tugless day—and in a week of winter fishing there’s always one, if not more—usually breaks their spirits, and they spend the rest of the trip creating excuses to stay indoors. So even those excursions that began with heavy promise end with me crunching alone along the shelf ice, asking a question all serious anglers have asked themselves once if not many times, as they swish upstream after midnight in the wake of a hatch that never materialized, or swing open the door of a top secret PO Box to which small but expensive packages of tying materials arrive off the radar of a significant or very significant other. That question: Am I mad?

Then one fall a friend put me in touch with a graduate student, an intensely obsessive angler and fly tier who, like me, often fished alone. A warmwater, bass-only guy, he had never caught anything of the Salmo order, was not familiar with the term “base-layer,” and hadn’t mended a fly line in his life. But he jumped onboard without a second thought, and two weeks later we crammed my car full of fur, food, and beer and struck out over the winter barrens of central Michigan, destined for white pine and the upper Lake Michigan tributaries on the western side of the state.

Paul’s introduction to winter steelheading began on a typical midwinter Michigan morning, with extreme cold singing every exposed swatch of skin: fingertip, nosetip, nape of neck. I rowed hard for the first 20 minutes, both to get my blood moving and to reach a key confluence below which the river would be deeper, slower, and maybe a little warmer. The steelhead were in various states. While most sulked in ghostly torpor in the deepest, slowest runs, a fair number of very early spawners shimmied on the gravel flats. They splintered off their redds as soon as the boat approached, cramming their oversized bodies into the blue slots above and below. There were plenty of fish in the river—we had good fall rains and a few winter thaws to thank for that. Swinging sculpins we averaged a nip or tug every few hours, and by day’s end had each caught decent fish, mine a hog with deep red sides that leapt like it wanted to shatter the sky.

“So,” Paul asked at the takeout, blowing heat onto his hands. “Do you think the fishing will pick up?”

His question caught me off guard.

“Actually,” I said, “we did pretty damn good.” I explained to him that we were pursuing wild steelhead in the dead of winter, and that each one of these fish was incalculably special. I told him about the steelheaders in Pacific Northwest, who might fish for weeks on end without even making contact with a fish. At that he stopped picking the ice off his bootlaces and gave me a very particular look. And so I added something I didn’t believe and didn’t need to believe: “I’ve got a feeling tomorrow will be better.”

The next few days were identical. We would put in at daybreak and take out at dusk, a span of about eight hours punctuated by a few rounds of coffee, smoked sausage, bread and candy bars—and often, but not always, a fish. We paid close attention to our flies’ appearance and movement in the water, taking mental notes on current speed, clarity and drop rate, which patterns and colors garnered interest and which did not. Evenings found us back at our vises, forging into being the most perfect streamers the changing conditions could ask for. I would nod off at the vise and shuffle off to bed mid-fly, then wake in the morning dark and palmer my way to wakefulness. I can’t speak for Paul, but this was one of the reasons I loved winter steelheading. It gets dark at 6 p.m., and in the hours before sleep there’s nothing to do but work the feeling back into your fingers and tie flies for the next day. The closed system is pure.

Midway through our trip, conditions changed drastically—a warm front brought a thawing rain, and the river came up fast, surging hard and black, gumming at the banks. In the dirty, ripping water we had our first entirely tugless, fishless day—not even a trout between us. That evening Paul did less tying and much more drinking, and on the river the next day he showed clear signs of defection: skipping perfect holes to develop a better system for storing anchor line, passing up fishy runs to organize the nymph boxes by hook size.

I was losing him.

I countered by pointing out those elements unique to winter steelheading. How few other people there were on the river. How damn good you felt after spending all day in the cold. How hard the fish fought, despite frigid water temperature, when you did manage to actually hook up. But Paul simply nodded politely before announcing that he was going to jog on the bank “to prevent hypothermia,” an idea I couldn’t quite understand since my own blood flushed hot with each new hole, each promising run, each change of flies. And when towards the end of the day I caught our best fish of the trip—a terrific hen that rewrote, for me at least, the entire day in a glowing, fishful light—he responded not by taking up his rod, but by asking whether he could be full-time rower, since it might delay his freezing to death. Drifting toward the takeout at dusk, I realized that once again I’d failed to make a convert.

The night before our last full day a huge winter storm hit. Sleet turned to snow and didn’t so much fall from the sky as fill it. On the TV, the meteorologists threw themselves into the storm with an urgency and relish usually reserved for tornadoes. Here they’d get 18 inches of snow. Here 14. Here 12.

Then the thunder and lightning started.

“This does not happen in St. Petersburg,” Paul said following a particularly hot flash of light, a particularly angry growl of thunder.

“We call it thundersnow,” I said. “It doesn’t happen here all that often, either.”

Snow was still falling into next morning, and even the heavy-duty pickups were spinning out on the wet sugar. Still in my long johns, I poked out of the motel to get a look at the transformed landscape, amazed at how much snow was crammed onto every available surface. Even the twiggiest branch of the tiniest alder held heapfuls; with their soft powder freight they reminded me of new antlers, thick and velveteen. The thermostat read twelve.

It was a dream come true.

“You can’t be fishing in this,” Paul said as I tore through my bag of layering material. He was propped up in bed on his laptop, ear buds in, ringed by notebooks and notecards. But this is it, I wanted to tell him, the day we suffered for. The reason we’re here, fishing in the middle of February. You don’t want to miss this. But I didn’t say that, or anything else—I knew my credibility had expired sometime midweek, back in the middle of a frozen, fishless day. And so I just smiled and shrugged, tucked a hot Thermos of coffee into my slingpack, opened the door and gave myself happily over to bright white steelhead oblivion.

Walking to the put-in, the world felt much larger. The unending whiteness seemed to fling the horizon back several hundred miles and stretch the world to a taut glittering canvas. Two snowmobilers whizzed past me at a railroad crossing, and I watched them as they plumbed a clear-cut lane between two walls of woods. I’m generally not a fan of those whiny machines, but today they made perfect sense: they seemed like the only things capable of fathoming this deep white world, the only way of determining whether its promise of endlessness were true.

In the river I tied on a weighted Woolhead Sculpin and got started. I was midway through a promising run when I heard an ear-splitting crack watched in horror as a massive white pine split down the middle and fell across the river just 15 yards downstream from me. I went ashore to bypass the tree and check out the damage up close. The gashed trunk glistened like fresh ginger; hibernating insects squirmed in the freezing air. And even as I stood there, thankful to have escaped injury, I heard another splitting crack off to my right, and watched a mushroom cloud of fresh powdered snow rise up and swell out above me. The weight of this snowfall was proving too much for some of the tallest, oldest trees. I would need to fish slowly, carefully, with an eye out for danger from above.

Wading slowly, with one eye out for winter widowmakers and the other for the river bottom’s many sharp shale ledge drops, I discovered lies I never knew existed: secondary runs that I usually walked past after swinging through the obvious water; short, deep pockets where they did not belong; narrow slots and chutes half hidden by logjams. I was deep into my second pair of gloves when I felt a sharp ripping tug—a hot fish. It fought with the strength of a fall specimen, peeling line and surging for a snaggy cutbank, and I was forced to push my tippet to the absolute limit to keep the fish from entering a cutbank of no return. It worked—the fish braked, the tippet held, and a few short surges later I was backing the two of us up onto a shallow mistreat gravel island. I produced my forceps and removed the hook without exposing the fish’s gills to the crystallizing cold, admiring it briefly, a 28-inch wild buck, flush with the blood colors of his river residency. Who was this strange, solitary creature? I wondered. Was it counting the days to spring? Waiting, like so many anglers back in their warm homes, in anticipation of a more primary performance? Or did it, like me, find this winter kingdom a fine place unto itself?

A few minutes after I released him, the clouds lifted for the first time that day, and through the dull white wall I saw a scrape of bright blue, following by a bloom of nectarine light in the treetops. I stopped for a midstream cup of coffee when from the corner of my eye I saw a large object missile out of the water and belly flop down—my fish. It had recuperated enough to shake its fist at me, the kind of angry, defiant gesture I have only ever seen in just-caught steelhead. It leapt twice more, tossing sickles of light off its body, then splashed one final time—and the winter stillness rushed back in.

That’s when it hit me. The fish, the light, the cold, the danger—this was why I loved winter steelheading, why I shivered, why I suffered, why I was here.

Some might have called it a day at this point, but high on the list of fishing skills I’ll never master is the art of knowing when to quit. So I fished for another two hours, till my third and final pair of gloves soaked through and my reel only turned in stuttering rips of ice. Till I had to bring the rod to my mouth and nibble the river off the guides, crystal meat from steel bone. Till my neoprene waders grabbed my reel like Velcro, and my left hand went so numb I had to flex my biceps for a good while to get blood back into my digits. When I finally started the walk back, my inner gauge told me I had just enough strength and flexibility to make it to the lodge.

“How was it?” Paul asked when I stumbled back into the room, a frosted zombie too stiff to get out of his jacket.

What could I say? That, having caught one fish in the great snow palace, I’d had an absolutely perfect day on the water? That I had possessed my own little Xanadu of fir and frost, had caught the moment I’d been chasing all week? That in that dark water and winter fallout I on honey dew had fed, and drunk the milk of paradise?

I decided that with winter steelheading you either get it or you don’t, and there’s no amount of fancy language, no quantity of performed enthusiasm, that’s going to change that.

“One for one,” I said, then hurried into the bathroom and thrust my hands under the running water, and stood there, smiling, for a long time.

Dave Karczynski
Dave Karczynski is a Michigan-based writer and photographer with a strong bent for difficult fish in impossible places. His by-line appears frequently in magazines across the industry, and he is also the author of two books—From Lure to Fly: Fly Fishing for Spinning and Baitcast Anglers and Smallmouth: Modern Fly-Fishing Methods, Tactics and Techniques. Check out more of Dave’s images on Instagram @davekarczynski.