The last time you wore that coat, campfire stories buried their scent into the seams above the elbow, where embers rose too quickly and charred patchy holes. By looking at the jacket, you taste the bourbon again and your throat burns. You scoured the entire Gunpowder River last fall, ending each weekend with a drink and a bonfire, feeling much farther than 20 miles from Baltimore. You remember the laughter, the friendships, warmer weather. That was fall.
The ice that blocks the guides of your rod makes casting difficult, and the monotony of throwing those heavy streamers in cold weather is starting to hurt your head. You give your front cast a little more juice, trying to clear line through the icy guides, but the stiffness keeps it from flying like it should. Your waders glaze over with a frost when you aren’t standing deep in the water, your knees crunching with each step. It is so quiet you can hear noises you didn’t think existed. The crack of dead leaves beneath snow, the whiz of the streamer, close enough to your head that it unsettles you, but not close enough to stop you. You hear the absence of crickets, birds, and any other critter that would have been singing a few months ago. It’s so quiet you think you can hear the rod bend, and even though you know you can’t, you can laugh knowing that you once considered this a hobby, not an addiction.
The coyote-hair streamer with a bullet for a head would knock you out if the wind blew at the wrong time, but you throw it anyway. For most people, fishing in colder months brings a different approach. But you’ve never liked fishing with flies sized in double digits, so you throw the meaty streamers that you concocted in your basement in preparation for times like these. Quiet water, fresh snowfall, and big, hungry, Maryland brown trout.
You are the only one fishing for miles, and although your vision won’t stretch that far, you can’t imagine anyone else out in this weather. The winter morning fogs up your glasses, and you grimace at the deep, gripping chill of the pool beside the logjam. You can’t imagine how your hands would react if you actually had to remove a fly from the jaw of a fish. Last fall, you catalogued natural landmarks as directions to your spots. But navigation is trickier now because of last night’s snowfall, a pristine blanket over the ground. You walk off the snowy trail to splash your mess of a streamer in front of a stack of boulders by the bank. Fingers freeze up occasionally, and the fly you created swims without any urgency—not the presentation you wanted.
Sip of coffee. The burn reminds you of campfires again. You are warm for the three seconds that you sip, but the chill creeps back again. You pray the thermos isn’t empty, but after a shake, you stuff it back in your bag knowing the last source of heat is gone. Sighing into gloved hands, you rub them together to create some friction in the January morning. Back to fishing. Stripping and casting. Warmth never stays long, and after a few more plunks into the same spot, a flash of lightning darts at your fly. You freeze up again and blow the first shot. Your hands are on your hips now, head throbbing with adrenaline. You’ve forgotten how cold you are. Another deep breath, another cast. Your strips are choppy, a sudden-death slow dance with the wild brown you’ve been dreaming of, finally.
The Gunpowder has never really been known as a producer of large fish, but you know this stretch—the seven or so miles below Prettyboy Reservoir—holds a few substantial browns. Your breathing gets heavier, and for the first time since last year, you can count the particles in each breath. For a moment you feel the brown get chippy with your fly, tagging the tail end, but never committing. Flirting and turning, reconsidering after another pump of the fly line. It is quiet now. You want to smack your rod against the water, but instead your numb hands sink into the top of your knees.
You are so alone it hurts, and the smell of your jacket evokes memories that taunt you. The loss of feeling in your toes makes you consider calling it, but you’ve never been one to leave the party early. No one is around to encourage or console you but the sobering chatter of the river, which has never sounded so much like laughter. You remember why no one else is out here, and you conclude that the Gunpowder in winter is less leisure outing than junkie’s game. You’re here for the fix.
It wasn’t long ago that blue herons stuck their pipe-cleaner necks over those same rocks to peer at fish. You were casting sulphurs then, and you didn’t seem to mind that the browns wouldn’t budge. Now, a refusal feels like the end of the world. Last time you fished through the winding roads of Baltimore County, your arms were covered in bug bites. After repeatedly throwing your fly into the logjam, you move on. You mark that spot in your mental Rolodex and contemplate keeping it from your friends.
You are ready to retreat to the truck, the heated oasis looming in the snowy distance, just past the rusty bridge, under which you found wild rainbows feeding last summer. This is your last chance, your consolation hole on the walk back. Today you throw your frozen streamer in there mostly out of boredom and frustration. After two quick bumps, the rod practically falls out of your hand when a huge brown hammers it. Immobilized with shock, you stumble trying to rein in your childish glee at hooking a fish where you never thought one would swim. When the fish jumps, you can see the fly tucked firmly into the left side of the jaw; a perfectly accidental hook-set. Still, no one is around, so you throw your fists into the air and let out a shriek of joy. You remember why winter is your favorite time of year.