It was numbingly cold. For the moment I didn’t notice. I sat on the bank, wet and out of breath. My arm hurt. What just happened? The last few minutes ran through my head. I began to shiver. I don’t remember a time when I was ever this cold.
By this time of year I’m all in. Steelhead inhabit every waking thought and haunt my dreams (I never seem to dream of what was or what is to come, only what could have been).
Drives are indistinguishable; never in a rush, always in a trance; a mental preparedness that begins long before the day does and ends well after. Maybe the high beams catch the glowing eyes of a Whitetail; a sight just alarming enough to momentarily snap me from my trance. If it happened today, I missed it.
It’s dark when I reach the long trail that winds its way through the bush to the river. As far as I can tell the world around me is empty.
The empty parking lot was a little surprising. An area this busy all to myself meant one of two things: there were no fish, or the river wasn’t fishable. The flow charts showed the heavy rain early in the week had raised water levels but now they were receding and probably clearing. It was going to be higher than normal, I knew that, but it would be fishable and I came prepared. Apparently I was the only one willing to take a chance on the conditions. As peaceful as it was, it was lost on me as I geared up, exited at the prospect of the fishing to come.
It’s cold. Not unbearable, but obvious that the year’s first snow was just around the corner. The tips of my fingers had begun to numb even before I was ready to make the trek down the small escarpment to the river. I stick my hands in my pockets to warm them as I look down to the water. As expected, it was running high and fast. Still I knew the fish were there, I’d been into them for weeks and they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Nearing the river it was clear that my view from above had been slightly deceiving. The water was higher and faster than it looked from up there. It was here I had a moment of second guessing. That moment was brief.
The long run required some wading. The trees that lined the bank prevented any casting from shore and any decent holding water was out of casting range anyway. Ten feet from the bank was where I needed to be.
My high center of gravity can make wading more than a little awkward, but I’ve done this exact thing in this exact spot hundreds of times. Still I hesitated. I thought of the wading staff that was leaning against the garage wall, a handy thing to have right now. I took a quick look around for a long, sturdy branch; a makeshift staff, but found nothing of use.
Reckless I am not. I know my limitations. There was a reason that I hesitated. Deep in the back of my mind was a little voice trying to be heard, trying desperately to make me realize this was not going to turn out well. I wasn’t ignoring it, it was just difficult to hear it through the much more prominent thought of steelhead.
It was three, four steps at the most when I hit the sink hole. Maybe it used to be the resting place of an old log that had now been washed away by the fast water, or a boulder that had tumbled slightly downstream. Either way it was something that I’m sure was never there before. To say it was unnerving to take a step and not have it connect with bottom would be an understatement but I had little time to think about it before I was completely under water.
There isn’t much I remember about the following moments. I remember the ‘what the f’ moment as I went under, and I remember thinking I was in serious trouble if I let myself get to the boulder strewn rapids just downstream. One moment I was under water, the next I was on the bank. I don’t know what goes on in people’s heads when faced with danger, but my brain must have been completely scrambled because now it’s having a hard time putting the pieces together. Somehow I had managed to get myself to shore while maintaining a hold on my rod.
So there I sat, a good hundred yards from where I went in, wet, muddy and cold. Really cold. Colder than I ever remember being. Of course it was the first time I’d taken a swim in November so I guess cold was to be expected. Where I was just oblivious to what was going on, I was now suddenly aware of everything. Birds were chirping, squirrels chattering, wind rustling the remaining leaves in the trees. The shivering was uncontrollable. I knew that couldn’t be good. If I didn’t move I’m sure hypothermia was in my near future.
My body screamed in protest as I stood. Muscles were tensing up and were not happy about being put to work. I was about a mile from the lot my truck was parked in. I figured if I got moving the blood flow would warm me back up. The first few feet hurt like hell but it worked. Halfway back, the blood was flowing, the shivers were gone and, despite being soaked, I was feeling much better. I reached the top of the escarpment, the same spot where I got my first look at the water not that long before. I looked down towards the area where I went in and one thing crossed my mind. ‘The water’s clearing, I should be fishing it’.