fly fishing with gloves

Fly Fishing Catatonia


Catatonia. Sounds a bit like Patagonia.  You’ll find Patagonia by getting to Chile. I found Catatonia by getting chilly (sorry, that was admittedly pretty lame). I’ve never been nor will I ever likely get to South America, but as far as Catatonia, I’ve already “been there”. It is not a fly fishing destination.

Now you may be saying, “Hold on there, son – catatonia ain’t even a place!” and you would be partially correct because it’s not a location that has GPS coordinates. But it is a place where you can go. Catatonia is defined as a being in a rigid unresponsive stupor. Been there.  In worst cases it can be a form of schizophrenia characterized by a tendency to remain in a fixed stuporous state for long periods. Done that. Whether or not clinically diagnosed, I did question my sanity on a recent fishing trip with my buddy, Large Albacore.

I was awake before my alarm went off at 4 AM. As I rolled out of bed and attempted to assume a vertical position it became instantly apparent that I must have done some heavy lifting during the hours that I was asleep because I had managed to throw out my lower back (I swear to you that when I went to bed the night before I felt fine). I was able to get dressed and in a mostly upright manner made it to the breakfast table where I slammed down a hearty offering of sausage, eggs and Aleve. We loaded our gear into Albacore’s pickup truck, which had tires that were admittedly in dire need of replacing – especially with winter approaching. However, there was only a 40% chance of some snow in the forecast so my offer to drive the Fish Taco was declined. There was a light snow falling, but roads were bare and wet,  and Large Albacore, in all his 6’8″ glory, fits more easily into his full-size Chevy than he does a 2003 Toyota Tacoma. A few miles into our commute north we  found ourselves on snow-covered roads with visibility that was greatly reduced thanks to blowing snow. Fortunately the headlights of the car behind us, which insisted on following at a distance of about 15 feet, helped to create a glare which greatly aided in our ability to see the road ahead.

Why we were headed into what appeared to be a snowstorm to go fishing can be blamed on me. Thanks to scheduling conflicts I had been forced to turn down 3 different invitations to partake of steelhead outings during the fall. As a consequence I was suffering from a serious lack of fishing and found myself desperate. Albacore was generous enough to accommodate my begging and pleading, and so we found ourselves on a two lane highway in blizzard at 5:30 in the morning.

When we arrived at our destination, 4-5 inches of fresh snow covered everything and it appeared to be accumulating at an alarming rate.  Since there was a 60% chance that this wasn’t supposed to be happening, I assumed the snow would stop soon, warm up and melt. I also thought that since Albacore had been here a week prior and caught three steelhead, the fishing might be pretty productive. Put that thought on ice for now.

One of Albacore's 3 steelhead caught the previous week

By the time I got my wading boots laced and tied I was unable to move, and for a few seconds remained bent-over while my back decided whether or not I would be allowed to resume an upright position. After we had strung up our rods my fingers were painfully approaching a state of numbness. I commented on the fact that I was glad I wasn’t trying to tie on a size 22 Griffith’s Gnat because that would have required a level of dexterity that was missing. Always the voice of reason, Albacore pointed out that it wouldn’t have been an effective pattern to be fishing, either. We paused for a few minutes with hands tucked into our pockets in a vain attempt to warm our fingers before heading toward the river. I wanted nothing more than to get a move-on, but the body just wouldn’t cooperate. Not wanting to appear weak, I took a deep breath through clenched teeth and lifted one leg over the guard rail. The pain was tolerable so I gingerly rolled the other leg over. With two Spey rods and a Meat Pole rigged up we somehow managed to descend the steep trail and avoid sliding on our arses. Snow-covered large rocks made for precarious footing, and each step was carefully placed to avoid sudden jerky movements which might cause my lower back to spasm in pain. Every third step or so resulted in lower back spasms. I convinced myself that once we reached the river’s edge, where each rock would reveal itself, everything would be OK. Destination accomplished, we began fishing.  “You first,” instructed Albacore.

My first few casts were characteristically unimpressive, but functional. Then began a series of failed casts that could only be described as deplorable. My hands, by now without feeling and further hindered by the gloves that impeded line control, inadvertently allowed my running line to slip while in the motion of the forward stroke. The results were casts that piled up pathetically at a distance of about 15 feet from the end of my Spey rod. After the second or third of such occurrences I just stood as if frozen (literally and figuratively) in a state of mental and physical numbness: Catatonia. “I hate fishing with gloves!” I yelled in Albacore’s upstream direction. “I hate cold hands more than fishing with gloves!” replied the voice of reason. I summoned my inner Navy Seal, regrouped and made a mental note to not let that happen again, which of course it did. In between botched casts I was able to swing the fly through water that should have held steelhead. In fact I’m sure that it did hold steelhead, but the fish were  simply unable to move toward the fly as they hovered near the bottom in a state of suspended animation: Catatonia. I came to this conclusion after an hour of working through what is normally a very productive run.  Albacore fished through behind me and had nary a bump as well. Not even the Meat Pole was capable of producing any action.

With the air temperature in the upper 20’s and the water a balmy 38.5 degrees F, I realize these conditions didn’t define cold in the way that, say, steelhead anglers from the Great Lakes might define cold.  Those folks would surely laugh at us for complaining whining. All I can say is that at least our steelhead are really steelhead. We were dressed for the weather, and with the exception of hands and toes that had lost all circulation, for a short while I was actually quite comfortable as long as I didn’t make and sudden movements or twist the wrong way or lose my footing on a slippery river rock or cough—any of which would result in lower back spasms.  When the body starts to get cold, a little dynamic movement can do wonders to get the blood circulating. When a little dynamic movement is out of the question due to a spastic lower back, cold sets it more readily. When the body gets cold, muscles begin to tighten up. My lower back was already tight, so it just got tighter. Guides on the Spey rod were icing up every so often, requiring that the ice be chipped away with the only tool suited to the task: fingers.  It’s amazing to me that pain can be felt even when complete numbness has set in.

After a couple of hours we decided to move on to another stretch of water, which was really just an excuse to sit inside the truck and warm up a bit. As we drove to our next destination the snow kept falling and the roads became increasingly more slippery, something we were reminded of given the state of the worn tires on the Chevy. Even with 4 wheel drive we had to chose our next parking spot very carefully: the thought of having to ask one of the locals for a tow was too unsavory to imagine. Had that happened I could have at least blamed Albacore and reminded him that we could have driven the Fish Taco. And he could have kicked my ass, too. Fortunately neither occurred, and I begrudgingly climbed out of the truck at our next stop.

For the next two hours we worked our way methodically through more water that undoubtedly held scores of catatonic fish that were willing but unable to move to our swung flies. It turned out to be a good thing that I didn’t hook up with a fish because my running line was completely frozen in iced-up guides, and my reel began to freeze up as well. Efforts to chip away at the ice were futile and it got to the point where all I could do was cast the 24 feet of Compact Skagit shooting head. At one point I found myself standing knee deep in a freezing river, so cold that as my fly settled into the hang-down, my mind became frozen as I drifted into a mental void. I had no idea how long I’d stood there when I heard Albacore’s voice, “Check out the eagle!”  Flying overhead at a distance of less than 50 feet was a Bald Eagle headed south. Probably to Arizona, I thought. The idea made me smile, then laugh. Then my back went into another spasm.

While hardware malfunctions seemed to indicate that conditions were at their worst, the snow did begin to taper and I could even feel the air temperature starting to warm a bit. For those who have ever had their fingers go completely numb, you know that the warming process – before it gets better – gets worse. As my hands began to thaw, the stinging pain became acute. Fortunately my feet were still completely devoid of sensation because I like to give one source of pain my full and undivided attention. While distracted by the searing pain in my finger I took an errant step on a particularly slick rock that resulted in the mother of all lower back spasms. For a few moments I could barely manage to breath. Somehow I was able to stagger to the nearest boulder, where I sat down and hoped a brain aneurism would take me right then and there. After sitting motionless for a short while I made my way delicately upstream past Albacore, who seemed to be enjoying himself almost as much as I was. Without the need to exchange words it was mutually agreed that the time of death would be called: 10:47 AM. Rigor mortis had already set in. Welcome to Catatonia.