Hayden Mellsop - The Accidental Angler

The night is crystal clear, the mercury plummets. I barely sleep, struggling for a modicum of warmth despite being clothed top to toe and buried inside two sleeping bags. The cold air seeps up through my mattress into my bones. 

Curled fetal, my hip flexors soon ache. I stretch out to relieve the cramping. Straightening out dissipates what precious reserves of warmth I have mustered. I curl up again.

The night passes in total silence save the muffled murmur of the stream – no wind, no critters calling, the stars above icily indifferent. I wait until the sun begins to finger its way down the mountainside toward camp then rise and quickly dress. 

The water in the pot is frozen solid, so too the 5-gallon jug I’d set inside the camper, wrapped in an insulated jacket. I light the burner to melt the ice in the pot for tea, then go outside and walk around in the fledgling sunlight, stamping to get blood flowing back into my feet.

The creek has frozen overnight, a thin ice layer spanning bank to bank where the current slows. So too, I discover, have the contents of my food cooler when I open it to withdraw some items for breakfast. I hack off chunks of bacon, crack a couple of eggs-as-slurry into the skillet, then sit in the sun and eat. 

Save the ink-black of the creek, all is blinding white under the sun’s glare. Ice droplets hanging off the tussock sparkle like a thousand tiny lights in the gentlest of breezes that hugs close to the ground.

What to make of the day? I expect the ice to soon melt from the stream. Below me the creek tumbles down a short, narrow canyon. Beyond, the terrain widens, the slope lessens, and the stream resumes its casual meander. A hike will help warm me. I set my wading boots in the sun to thaw, then dress and pack for the day.

A half mile downstream from camp I understand that while the night may have passed cold and quiet, it is evident I was not alone. The activities of multiple critters are betrayed by the snow, out and about even in the depths of a freezing night. An elk has come down from a wash and beelined straight across the creek and up toward the high ground beyond. Two sets of coyote tracks, presumably the same ones to pass through camp a couple of nights ago, crisscross the stream flat. The trail cuts through a narrow ravine, at the foot of which is a fresh kill site, a smattering of entrails and fur denoting the recent demise of a rabbit.

By now I have covered a generous mile, the sun sits high, and I sit on a slab of a boulder and rig my rod, unsure to what extent the overnight cold will have affected the mood of the fish. The water laps against the ice along the stream bank, creating little ice shelves that snag the fly line, making it difficult to mend and pick the fly up off the water cleanly. 

I sight a couple of fish sunning themselves in the shallows and drift my fly over their heads so close a half-stifled yawn on their part would see the fly float into their mouths, but they show zero interest.

I try dredging the deeper pools with a nymph and catch nothing save a few weed-draped branches. The water grows steadily murkier as more ice and snow melts, and after a couple of hours of fruitless endeavor, fingers numb and toes cold, I wave the white flag and return to camp.

Decision time. Stay another night, which promises to be as cold as the last, and see if the fishing improves, or pack up and in a few hours be home to a hot shower and a warm bed. I’m tempted to stay, yet there is every likelihood the stream will turn murky again tomorrow. 

In the end, the hot shower and warm bed wins over. The road out of the valley is slick, and when I finally hit blacktop I am momentarily tempted to turn around and return to the tranquility, but continue on my way.

Hayden Mellsop is a Realtor with Pinon Real Estate Group and a former fishing guide.