The trail disappeared into the remnants of a snowfield. I sat on a boulder and pulled on waders before post-holing the last quarter mile to the lake. Against the far shore a steep cliff face shaded the north side of the lake, and there the surface was still iced over. On the south side the snow had melted from the shore, and I found a dry place to sit on some deadfall, shed my pack and watch.
What warmth the sun imparted was quickly whisked away by a breeze that intermittently scuffed the open surface of the lake. Beetles had moved through the surrounding forest leaving most of the trees stark and skeletal yet the undergrowth stirred with shoots of green.
Aside from the sound of the breeze, all was silent save the flitting of a gray jay that, true to form, materialized within a minute of my sitting down.
The sun’s angle made looking into the water beyond the first few feet of shoreline problematic, the lake’s deeper reaches reflecting a fathomless indigo. I thought of the life of a fish inhabiting such a place - half its brief lifespan spent encased beneath a layer of ice, a never-ending quest for food, predation a constant companion. Did they ever enjoy the feeling of sun on their backs, or prefer the relative torpor and sanctuary of life beneath the ice?
I withdrew my fly rod from its case and assembled the pieces then threaded the line through the guides and watched some more, contemplating my next move. Post-holing through the snow to a half-frozen lake speaks as much to an angler’s psychosis as it does the optimism with which we are generally credited.
Nevertheless, there is something heraldic about a season’s first visit to a high lake. Soon the ice would be gone, the countryside a canvas of wildflowers and softly humming insects, birdlife flitting through the branches for a few brief months before winter’s return.
I kept my eye on the shallows while I tied on a dry fly, then some tippet, then a nymph. No fish revealed itself cruising the shallows. I stood and waded a short distance out into the lake, the water immediately chilling my feet through waders and boots. A few uncertain false casts then the rod powered up as more line slipped through the guides and I let it fly out across the water then settle on the surface.
Now began the waiting game. Thousands of years ago, Persian prophet Zoroaster posited that life and the cosmos itself represents an eternal struggle between good and evil. So too a fly sitting quietly and unassailed on a body of water brings forth in the angler the eternal struggle between faith and doubt, perseverance and impatience.
How long to let it sit there? Am I better off casting a few feet to the right? What if a fish is reaching for it just as I pick up? Should I have chosen the red nymph instead of the black? Is me standing here in the middle of this lake attempting to catch one of these marvelous creatures itself an expression of universal good, or evil, light, or darkness?
I picked up and cast again, a little to the right. Ten seconds after landing, the dry fly disappeared beneath the surface, drawn under by forces unseen. I raised the rod tip and spent the next two minutes playing a sluggish cutthroat that allowed me to draw it close without too much fuss and I slipped the hook from its mouth.
My feet were cold. Good or evil, light or dark, I withdrew to the shore and after sitting a few minutes cut off the flies and broke down my rod. The ice had been broken on summer. Light was returning to the world. I sat and watched for a while longer then, as the breeze picked up, retraced my steps through the snow.
Hayden Mellsop is a Realtor with Pinon Real Estate Group and a former fishing guide.