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.