The Un-Dead of Winter

One from the archives. I wrote this several years ago to remind myself that Pete Seeger was right. Not to mention Paul.

The Un-Dead of Winter

By Steve Culton

© 2009. All rights reserved.

I was heading out of the office on a freezing January afternoon when the receptionist, noticing how I was dressed, asked me if I was going fishing. I told her yes, and she responded with an incredulous, “In the dead of winter?!?”

I smiled in affirmation, but on the way to the stream, her words got me thinking about the bum rap winter takes when it comes to natural rhythms  — and angling — especially if you plan on forsaking the homey comfort of the ice fishing hut in favor of wading. The reality is, fall is when things die. Winter is when life begins. And it truly is a wonderland, alive and well and overflowing with vitality.

Step into your backyard or some nearby woods. The trees and bushes are already covered with buds, nature’s amazing automated leaf and flower systems, full of life (in the dead of winter!) and waiting for the warmth of spring to pop. As I write this, the mercury is well below freezing, yet my forsythia is as green as a springtime lawn, stems so bud-laden I can only imagine the yellow riot that awaits me in April. Mountain laurel and rhododendrons proudly display the evergreen banner, and from my window I can see a cardinal and his mate searching for seeds in the compacted snow.

An exquisitely parr-marked Farmington River brown. Even on a cold January afternoon, she was more than happy to chase a swung fly.

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Even on the small stream I was fishing the day our receptionist questioned my sanity, there was life in the air and beneath the water. Though the high never made it past 30 degrees, size 14 charcoal grey midges flitted about. Wild trout were holding low on the river bottom, ready to gobble any food that came tumbling along. It started to snow, and as my cigar smoke drifted slowly into the windless air, creating a tapestry with the chunky flakes, I felt as alive and happy as I would be sipping lemonade a warm July afternoon.

A few weeks later, I was fishing a salt estuary in Rhode Island. The temperature had plummeted into the low twenties, and a bitter west wind tormented the exposed skin on my face. Yet, there were snails and grass shrimp and, as this was the new moon, perhaps even clam worms doing what they always do: living. (The stripers, sadly, were living somewhere out of casting range.)

What mysteries remain uncovered along the frozen banks of our rivers and shores? You don’t know if you don’t go.

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I used to view winter as a time to store the rods and gear and prepare for the reawakening rituals of spring. No longer. I’m out on our streams and rivers and in the salt, almost always gloriously alone, left to my thoughts, the wonders both seen and unseen, and the bounty of life that reminds me spring is on the way.