January Fishing: My Story

Umpteenth revision of a true story from back in the day when Maria and I were the “Babes In Boyland,” — names changed to fit it into my current work-in-progress. Good arm-chair adventure for a snowy day.>>>

Mary looked up when Stella cackled. Her friend crouched knee-deep in the snow along the bank of the Great River, half her fishing pole in hand, the other half lying out of reach on a shelf of ice. Crows on a nearby tree joined in on the crazed laughter. The fresh snow blurred all boundaries, between snowpack and thin ice, between daring and stupidity, between great dames and silly women who had no business going after big fish.

Mary had own problem. If she didn’t cast the fishing line out far enough, the sinker would hit the border ice and freeze on contact into that transition zone between solid land and the murky deep. It was a fine insight, but… What direction was the wind blowing?

She cast.

Damn… her beads of lead were annealed to the ice yards away. Stuck forever.

Down river, in the blue light of winter’s morning, a fly fisherman with waders stood thigh deep in the water, making his serene casts for the river’s steelhead trout.

Mary breathed.

*

The newly divorced Stella worked side-by-side with Mary at Pandora. They both needed some excitement, some mystery. Piqued by tales of their male colleagues tramping off to the woods for showerless weekends of beer, horseshoes, and fishing, they found themselves on the river in the most unlikely of seasons.

Acting on a muttered tip from one of the guys, they had navigated their way to a city park on the east side of the Great River and arrived before dawn. They were surprised. What greeted them was not an expanse of river, but a view from the lip of an awesome gorge, its sides too high and too overgrown to see any river below.

That was the thing about Canaltown — behind the old factories and half-vacant strip malls, it kept its treasures hidden, like a dragon jealously guarding its gold.

Fall brought salmon into the streams off Lake Ontario, followed by the winter steelhead. No one discussed it. Mary had lived in Canaltown for thirty years and only recently discovered this fact. Weren’t these massive fish big game? The locals were taciturn. It was as if tigers strolled through downtown every year and people only glanced at their thermometers to see if it was too cold for golf. Except, of course, for a few men, with their secret places and undisclosed methods — the men whose SUVs lined the parking lot along the Great River gorge on a Saturday morning in January.

Here they were, Mary thought in amazement, here they were, in the middle of the city, between a senior citizen high-rise and the electric company and suddenly the concrete-blocked-off world had been split open to reveal a wild Ice Age river.

A small sign, nailed to a tree, pointed south: “FISHING.”

They grabbed their poles and — to the degree they knew how — checked their rigging and baited their hooks. Mary put the jar of salmon egg bait inside her shoulder bag with the thermos of spiked coffee, the chocolate biscotti, and the extra tackle. Off they went. In the pre-dawn light, they followed footprints in the snow, through a gate at the electric company and then downhill. Signs warned them that, if they heard sirens, they must retreat immediately from the river or risk being swept away by a surge of water from the power station. They walked… and walked… and walked.

They finally spotted their destination — a swirling pool beneath the half-frozen waterfall that spanned the river. Along the wall of an old stone building, they worked their way down a slim set of steel-grate stairs to the narrow bank of the river. They were happy to see the line-up of eight or so fishermen, not because they loved crowds, but because they were afraid: with shelves of snow-covered ice cantilevered out over the river, they couldn’t see where to stand — a misstep would plunge them into the four-minutes-till-death current.

The men in Carhartts gaped at the two women in bright ski togs. The women gaped at the giant silver steelie just landed by a guy in Wellington boots. The men chuckled at the sight of two women invading their fishing hole, but moved over to let them join in.

Mary squeezed herself in next to the guy who’d just caught the steelie, to mimic his success. It appeared they had similar rigs — spinning reels and egg sacks for bait — but she asked his advice and he recommended more weight and told her that the idea was to get the bait to bounce along the bottom. She added a few beads of split-shot about 18 inches above the hook. Her bait bounced, all right — into a stony crevice, where it jammed. The stranger smiled: “You get fish here, but you lose a lot of tackle.”

Meanwhile Stella was casting in the wrong direction relative to wind and current. A bloom of backlashed line danced around her reel, till it jammed.

No choice but to step back from the edge. Their hands already frozen, they had to pull off their gloves and start over — untangling, re-hooking, re-weighting. Then Mary poured coffee laced with Godiva liqueur and Kahlua, Stella broke open the biscotti and they huddled together against the breeze.

A departing fisherman directed them downstream to where the water deepened, so they picked up their gear and set off. They found themselves in a deserted stretch of river — prettier than the line-up at the power station, but scarier. They footslogged their way through unbroken snow, wondering whether the base would suddenly break through, not over rocks and grass but into the river shallows and its undertow.

But they were determined to catch a fish.

Here’s where Stella’s pole began its devilish dis-assembly, starting with the reel falling off her rod, then a stuck hook, broken line, and half the pole skittering out onto the ice. And the wind caught Mary’s lead and glued it to the ice’s edge. A quick yank snapped the line. At least she knew how to do that.

“I’m going after it,” Stella yelled and, before Mary could protest, she was stretched out on her belly, inching forward onto the ice. In five seconds, her pole was in hand: a triumph of guts over skill.

The two women retreated to the shelter of the trees to retool. They sat on a log and drank more coffee.

“We should write a newspaper column about fishing,” one of them said.

“Yeah… let’s call it Babes in Boyland.”

Their gaze drifted downstream to the fly fisherman and his serene casting… casting… casting… and the women were mesmerized by the mystery of it all.

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