Sunday, January 9, 2011


It hits every year at this time. It's not like it creeps up on you. Those of us who choose to live in this part of the world have seen it coming for monthsthe warmer seasons inevitably surrendering to the sulking gray ceiling and scattered snowflakes of a long Missoula winter. The summer toys are put away, the rafts stacked half-inflated in the garage, quietly waiting it out like old dogs who know better than to go outside in the cold. The focus doesn't fade, but it changes.
Not that winter is bad—winter means watching the sun rise over decoy spreads bobbing in steaming side channels, football and, if we're lucky, lots and lots of face shots.

Freshly satiated off big game and upland bird seasons, late-season trouting and, again if we're lucky, a few swung steelhead, most junkies manage to keep the fire stoked well in to late December. A waxing ski year and a waning waterfowl season further lend a hand in keeping the shack nasties at bay.
Never is that more true than during a winter like the one we're having, what with La NiƱa frequently puking her frozen goodness in the high country and all. Two weeks ago, snowfall amounts at several Montana ski areas were ranked amongst some of the most famous snow meccas in the West, at least temporarily silencing the argument that our snow has a tendency to, well, suck. Early season has been deep, if not downright dangerousavalanches and tree wells have claimed the lives of multiple skiers and snowmobilers over the past few weeks as the snow continues to pile up.

But at some point, as if it's in fact too good to be true, things change again. In western Montana, that all too often means interrupting a perfectly good, crushing snow year with a week of warm weather and rain. This year, the unwanted warm-up and steady rainfall has the nerve to come just after the close of waterfowl season, effectively shutting folks like us indoors with little to do but hunker down and watch it pour while we wait for the snowpack to recover.

Having once again failed to plan ahead and figure a plane ride south of the Equator, I'm forced to break out my best coping mechanisms for this annual outbreak of S.A.D., or Seasonal Affective Disorder. An actual clinical term for cabin fever, S.A.D. always seems to hit me the hardest in mid-late January. With bowl season over, our beloved powder experiencing an old-fashioned flogging and every game animal in the woods breathing a collective sigh of relief, NetFlix downloads and used book sales take a decisive jump as Missoulians struggle to pass away the gray without sitting on a barstool
or gnawing their own arm off.

For me, this time of year forces me to start the always-daunting winter fly tying production. Up to this point I had all of the excuses I needed to avoid tying the dozens of these and tens of dozens of those that my clients will need to catch trout, trees and/or my various body parts come summer. But now, with the rain falling and the tying desk fully cleaned, organized and ready to be destroyed, it's time to start cranking.

As inevitable as each winter's S.A.D. outbreak, spring is not far off. It won't take many days of February sunshine to stir the skwala nymphs and the trout that are lying in wait to eat them. Once the circus starts, the rest of the season always seems to have a way of snowballing from one hatch to another, leaving little time to prepare for the next big event. If that weren't enough to get the fingers spinning, I know for a fact there are a few thousand B-run steelhead sitting in the main Clearwater, just begging all of us to come over the hill and hit them in the head with our miniature boat anchors and "flies" when the water starts to bump. The list of old stand-bys and new ideas needing to be twisted in to existence seems never-ending, and no matter how much I get done, I'll still run out of the most basic bugs by mid July, frantically running in to fly shops before my morning meet times to buy handfuls of Pat's rubberlegs.

There's no better time to get going. Then again, I could always watch another episode of West Wing...

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