It’s hard to replicate the anticipation and joy of a childhood birthday. As a kid, a birthday meant a party with best friends, and the ever frantic unwrapping of presents. At some point, these rambunctious festivities began to fade with youth.
In the past few years, I have attempted to recreate the childhood birthday experience by inviting a handful of my closest friends on a fishing party to help me unwrap the joy of the outdoors. So it was that this November, I set out in the early morning with three of my lifelong fishing friends - Keith Seppel, Nathan Paul, and Dave Rook.
The birthday trip marked the 47th trip of Keith’s and my resolution to fish together once a month for as long as time allows. I must apologize in advance for not disclosing the location of our adventure, but like any birthday party, invitations are limited.
When we arrived at our destination, snow blanketed the earth, the tan of fall replaced by the blinding white of winter. The temperature was well below freezing. Ice shelves covered the backwaters and slow eddies of the river. We shrugged at each other, grinning. A childhood giddiness permeated us all. The party was about to begin.
We rigged up, occasionally hopping in the truck to warm cold fingers. While we wondered if the ice shelves would affect the fishing, we knew the icy water and weather would undoubtedly provide solitude. Waders on, gear at the ready, we split up to maximize fishing. Keith and Nate headed upstream. Dave and I headed downstream.
It’s amazing how much can be revealed by covering something. Within minutes of punching fresh tracks in the snow, a flash of brown appeared atop the ever present white, catching my attention. A mouse darted from a hole in the snow, appearing for a second, scurry atop the snow, then vanishing.
I have spent countless hours wandering the banks of countless rivers and can count on one hand the number of times I have seen a mouse darting around next to the river. Without the snow, the mouse would have been invisible, blending perfectly in with its surrounding. With the snow, the pudgy, furry body became part of the day’s adventures, if only for a moment.
As Dave and I continued our downstream march, the blanket of snow provided a fascinating glimpse into the past. Various tracks were easily visible, marking the passage of a deer who ambled to the river bank to take a drink. I was following the deer’s route through the brush, when another of nature’s winter patterns caught my attention.
There, in the white layer of snow, as if painted by some unseen artist, was a miniature version of the detailed wings of a snow angel. Instead of the thick wings of a human snow angel, however, perfect, soft lines extended in both directions creating two symmetrical angel wings. I stared at the imprint for a second, trying to figure out what caused it. Every line in the snow angel’s wings seemed delicately painted by a soft brush.
Not until I saw two small holes in the snow where the angel’s body should have been did I realize the artist was an owl or some raptor who had dropped from the sky in an effort to grab (no doubt) a darting mouse like the one I had seen a few minutes before.
I envisioned the bird diving from the sky, tracking the mouse, its claws punching into the snow while its wings gave a strong downward thrust to keep it from thumping through the snow into the ground. The tips its wings barely brushed against the snow as it grabbed for the mouse, creating the snow angel wings.
I surmised the mouse had survived, as there were two punctures in the snow where the talons went in, and came back out, empty of their prey. I stared at the snow art for a while. In all my wanderings I had never seen anything like it. Eventually, inevitably, my attention turned again to fishing.
About a half mile downstream, the river braided momentarily, then came together again. At the confluence of the braids, a deep pool cut under an ice shelf.
Dave and I pointed to the shelf, discussing how it provide perfect shelter for a fish. Protected by the shelf, it could hold in the soft water right next to a current that provided a constant supply of food.
I took a seat on the bank. Dave stripped out line, and cast across the current. His streamer landed with a soft splash then disappeared. He gave it a couple subtle twitches as swung toward the shelf.
The streamer settled next to the backwater, and a fish hammered it.
The tip of Dave’s fly rod strained toward the river. The fish burrowed under the ice shelf. Dave kept constant tension, overcome with a silent, frantic focus that usually signifies a big fish. I stood up, and walked behind him, grabbing his net.
He fought the trout out from under the shelf and toward me. I darted the net under the fish, and hoisted a big brown trout out of the water. Dave’s eyes met mine, and he grinned. Because Mother Nature doesn’t know whose birthday it is, she is more than happy to distribute presents to anyone.
As many a childhood birthday has been know to do, the day quickly vanished in play. We rumbled up and down the river bank, chatting and smiling excessively. We all unwrapped some gorgeous brown trout before the day was over.
While Keith had to head back home, a winter campfire, a snowy tent, and a birthday slumber party awaited Dave, Nate, and me. There was no singing, and no cake, but it was a very happy birthday indeed.