Our Outdoors
Nick Simonson

When you go off the beaten path during the winter, you never know what youre getting into

The orange jig and twister shot out from the tip of my rod, driven by the laws of physics and anticipation. The gray Fireline in tow spiraled wildly like the contrail of a botched rocket launch. The lure hung in the air, suspended indefinitely in the blue slivers of sky between the gray clouds of late March.

I stood amidst the remaining fragments of an ice floe that had come to rest at river's edge, whittled down to mere cubes by days of unseasonably warm temperatures. From my vantage point on shore, I hoped that just one smallmouth had crept up from the river channel to sample the sun-dappled shallows of spring. It would be a sign that my wait through winter, through frostbite, through twenty inches of despair and its subsequent melting on the doorstep of the equinox was worth it.

I knew with all certainty that it was too early to be chasing bass on the river. Besides, I was fresh out of a hearing in my suit, no sense getting myself into the mud on top of the layer of goose droppings beneath my feet. Though, for some reason, I couldn't convince myself that last statement was true.

Working the near edge of the channel as it rose to meet the rock point where the summer bass - active, powerful, territorial fish - usually set up shop, I was met with only snags and the phantom strikes of sunken tree branches and rock crevices. Winter had dulled my bite detection skills, and separating fantasy from reality was a difficulty. I patrolled the rip-rapped shoreline, casting out my offering, and estimated how many minutes remained in my lunch break as the wind blew head-on out of the east. I'd be lucky if I could feel anything but winter's last gasp in the twenty mile-per-hour gusts.

Abandoning my starting point, I walked up the shoreline, casting out to the channel, working my way upstream where the deep water slammed into the bank, creating a two-foot shelf covered by the overhanging elm and dogwood. Here, the dry bank disappeared into the depths in a matter of inches.

My mind drifted overhead with the honking of the last phalanx of blue geese making their way north. They sang their travelers' song and my mind drifted with them, imagining tales they had from their vacation down south.

In the middle of their fantastic story, a strange sensation caused me to turn my head, it felt like a tap on the shoulder from an old friend, about to ask how ice fishing had gone this winter. I excused myself from my conversation with the geese.

I could feel the sensation of a telegraph tapping out its message, the wiring from my hand to brain apparently corroded from last summer's instantaneous transmission line. Every neuron in my cortex, every muscle fiber in my arm, every cell in my body screamed in unison as the dots-and-dashes were converted into letters spelling out the message: "SET THE HOOK YOU IDIOT!!!" I did.

The line thumped and thumped again. Paging through my River Fisherman's Manual, which had been tucked away in the corner of my mind with old tackle, coverless copies of wrinkled and re-read Field and Stream magazines and half-empty packages of stale sunflower seeds, I remembered how to adjust the drag, hold the rod tip high and scoot myself onto the fourteen inches of riprap that hovered above the dark home of whatever-it-was on the line. For some reason, I hoped aloud that it wasn't a pike. It wasn't.

The football-shaped fish rolled to the surface and came to hand, giving only a fractional surge of the battle it would give me in the warm waters of June. Secured in the vise-like grip of my thumb and forefinger, I held the prize aloft like the WBC heavyweight title, screaming at the top of my lungs. I positioned the camera - which showed no signs of its normal fish-repelling aura on this particular outing - and pushed the button.

With mud on my socks and shoes, goose crap on my hands and a shimmering bass held in front of my coat, shirt and tie, I smiled and watched the red light flash of the camera's timer. The shutter clicked and a new season began…in our outdoors.