I had a tough weekend. No, I wasn't working. I wasn't volunteering or helping people in need. I was selfish, in fact. I left town and visited a friend in Ohio where I knew we'd fish some of my favorite locations. Despite being out on the water all weekend, all day Saturday and Sunday, it was tough. Such are things when the fish don't show up no matter how far you drive to meet them.
This time of year is typically primetime for walleye, sauger, and hybrid striped bass behind the dams of Ohio River and its tributaries. In other words, my favorite species should just be waiting for me to feed them. It isn't unheard of to have 30-50 fish days in April in these tailwaters, with a mixed bag of species that goes beyond the big three listed above. So needless to say, in the days before I left my apartment in Chicago for border of Ohio and West Virginia, I was doing half-ass work and full-ass flytying, packing, and repacking of my gear. I even shipped some gear and base layers to my destination for the cold nights I anticipated spending in the car.
My friend and I had 2 main fishing locations in our sights given the flow rates. Well, one of the spots we didn't care about the flow rate because we had never been there--we had only heard amazing stories about this place. Now, we have a million spots to fish along the big O, but the flow was appropriate for basically bouncing lures off the dam since the fish would be so close. The 2 locations were about 2.5 hours apart; one of them was 1.5 hours East of my friends house, and other was 2 hours South. So we needed a game plan.
I checked the wind direction and spent late the night before our early morning departure. I decided to change our plans and hit our confidence spot first--in low wind--rather than scope out an unknown place in the middle of a dark morning. We didn't have the time to waste. When we awoke at 4:30 and slipped into our fleece and wool, I told my friend I wanted to change up the plan. He was cool with it. That's why I love fishing with this guy. He is low-key and game for whatever.
Coffee and donut in hand and gas in the tank, we were off for the 1.5 hour trek. We'd actually be going to the West Virginia side of the river, but fortunately they honor the Ohio fishing license, because I am going broke on non-resident licenses these days. Back to the ride...I can't tell you how much I'm glad we have to travel to fish sometimes. It's cliche, but in fishing it's true that getting there is half the fun...the drive home is the other half. Fishing, as this weekend was an example, is often work. It's a mere reason to get in the car with a good friend and just drive, not knowing what the road or day will bring, and then forces you to spend an equal amount of time reflecting upon it during the voyage home. But a disclaimer should fit here: make sure the person you share the car with is someone you like.
Having not fished together in about 6 months, we mostly bounced our enthusiasm back and forth for the day and even the season to come. What tactics we were going to use, our "confidence" and our "experimental" approaches. It's funny how in between this banter, which all of you who fish know well, we check in with each other about non-fishing things. My friend is going to be a new father of a little boy in less than a month. He is nervous as hell. His house is "baby-proof" (meaning baby-injury-proof, since it will certainly not be without a baby!). In previous years, this conversation would have been about how he never wants kids, how the world is too horrible a place, how he wouldn't have a chance to do what he wants with life, how traditions of marriage and parenthood just aren't his bag. But now things have changed, sort of. He hadn't planned the pregnancy with his girlfriend of 9 years. Now his son is almost breathing fresh air and crying, and he is freaking out but going through the motions. What impresses me most is his commitment to fatherhood and being a good partner to his girlfriend. He tells me that this trip is the last one this year where he'll be in places with limited-to-no cellphone signal, and he'll stay within a reasonable distance in case anything happens with the newborn. But he'll also be spending less time on the water, taking baby-watching shifts with his girlfriend who works the graveyard shift several times a week.
So we arrive to the WV side of the Ohio River, and we are pleased to see we have the entire tailwater (and it is huge) to ourselves. My first cast produces a decent sauger, and though I like taking pictures of all fish on trips, I decide this is a sign of good things to come, and I should keep fishing. Boy did I jinx us there. Other anglers trickled in during the morning, and the fishing slowed. Something changed in the flow, but we could tell it was also just too low. The water was nearly crystal clear, and the sun was getting higher without a cloud in sight or wind to ripple the surface. Five hours later we have about 4 fish a piece--4 sauger for me, and a 4-species mixed bag for my friend. We have a sit down on some boulders to pitch ideas. With about 8 hours of sunlight left, we still have a shot at more distant locales, but will sacrifice fishing time. We decide to check out one spot downstream, then high-tail it to the other spot we had in mind for tomorrow, some 2.5 hours away. What proceeded was fishing a 6-spot hop across 2 rivers and 2 lakes. We fished 3 dams. The good news is that as a duo we didn't get skunked at any place. The bad news is that one tiny crappie or sunfish or even sucker counts against the skunk. And we averaged something like 1 fish per 50 or 60 miles. But so goes the unknown fishing adventure, as I have quickly come to find these years.
Fortunately, we didn't sleep in the car in 30 degree temps as previously planned (there are really no hotels around this part, and the ones slightly out of the way are over $100/night). That's the upside to shitty fishing--no temptation to stay out and freeze to death for some pisces, pescado, fish-a-roonies. We made it back to the town where my buddy lives just before the kitchen closed at the cheap-but-delicious Mexican restaurant near his house. Full of tortillas and grease, we made it home to slept in our respective beds (couch in my case). We agreed to play it by ear the next day.
Getting plenty of rest, the next day started with disputes over the remaining orange juice, a battle which his girlfriend obviously won. We decided to give our first spot from the day before, our confidence-spot, another try today, despite 20 mph winds gusting to 30 blowing enormous bows in our lines and not allowing our jigs to sink (yes, jigs. there is no way I was fly fishing). Totally forgetting this was Easter, we arrived mid day and shared our spot with a few folks. It quickly turned into a huge crowd, and folks were obviously ignoring any ethics regarding claims to space. We were frustrated. We stuck it out all day (after getting there just before lunchtime), snacking on granola bars while inevitably retying jigs and leaders, watching our boxes get clearer as our options thinned out. The debris at the bottom of this river must look like a series of Christmas trees. In the end of day 2, I caught 4 fish and my friend caught 3. Yep. And yes, I released them all alive and well. I even gave some people verbal shit that day for keeping undersized fish and holding fish out of water too long. I am straight up obnoxious about this shit. But I care about our fisheries. I want there to be at least AS MANY fish, if not MORE, especially when I drive about 9 hours to catch 8 fish in 24 hours of real fishing time.
The ride home that night was probably appropriate. We talked about our own mortality, our inevitable finality, and the only other thing you can discuss when death is on the table--astronomy. How big is the universe? How did it begin and will there be any life in other solar systems after the Earth is left cold and humanless by a burnt-out sun? I don't know the answers to these questions. I can only speculate. But one thing's for sure: In this life, I'll keep having the conversation if it means we're going fishing.