Living in the North means waiting for spring. The winter has its charm, with its silent woods and clean whiteness; but at some point it reaches its annual apogee and begins to decline, through thaws and melts and mud and gasping blizzards. We notice this turn with our noses. Frozen air does not carry scent well and it's the first smell of earth and water that recalls our ancient memory of spring. At that point we stop enduring winter and begin waiting for spring.
In the primitive part of our brain, our sense of smell is closely tied to memory and emotion, and that first scent of spring touches us deeply. Somewhere in our genetic memory is relief that, this year, we won't starve or freeze before spring comes.
Today the stakes are not so high, but we still feel it, especially we anglers. Yes, there is ice fishing but it is at best a placebo. Dynamic, open, moving water is what we need. Of this we are urgently reminded by that first earthy smell, and so we wait for spring.
In the North we usually begin waiting in early March, when the extended forecast looks just like it did back in late November and running rivers and warm evenings seem imaginary. We begin to question our knowledge of reality: are our memories of last summer from the same universe as this Hoth-scape? Did those hot and sweaty alder swamp death-marches really take place? Have I ever actually left the house without a coat and gloves? Why do I own these flip-flops?
Fishing writers have covered this ground many times. We all do some standard stuff to try and maintain: spread our fly boxes, rods, reels, and other paraphernalia around the living room for sorting and organizing; hang our waders in the kitchen and patch last season's pinhole leaks; re-read "Spring Fever" essays by our favorite fishing writers. These rituals help, but treat the symptoms only. Some even seek outside satisfaction, like watching organized sports or riding motorcycles.
Of course, the secret is to savor the anticipation, rather than endure it. The smell of a loaf of bread baking is an integral part of enjoying the bread moments later, warm and sweet with melted butter; so too with the smell of springtime.
Fly tying is a perfect application of this. I'm able to distill the swirling expectations and dreams of the coming season, with the help of a strong beer, into full fly boxes. On a particularly good night of fly tying, music playing softly and my wife reading nearby, I find myself almost wishing the cold would remain so I could enjoy the moment a bit longer.
But eventually there comes a day each year when the final gasp of winter has passed and the earth is poised for spring. You can feel the pressure of the impending green: billions blades of grass pressing against the frosted topsoil, billions of tree buds straining to burst into leaves, and billions of gallons of water filtering from the snowy woods into the rivers, slowly swelling them until they overcome their ice dams to roar and foam to the lake.
These last days of waiting, full of potential energy, can be the hardest. These are the gray days when there might be fish in, somewhere, so we load up our gear for the first time and check our known waters to see if they're ready, and maybe explore new spots we would otherwise pass. We discover that we missed that pinhole leak in our waders, that our knot-tying finger calluses have gone soft, and that interesting-looking spot we've been wondering about for years isn't that interesting after all. Sometimes we actually find fish on these days. These days are good days, even if they are not exciting or picturesque.
If fishing is a metaphor for hope, then these acts of anticipation – the hours at the tying desk, the early days with no expectations – are some of the purest expressions of it.