By Toner Mitchell
The boy is back in school, the trees around his soccer field the same blazing gold as the cottonwoods alon
g the Rio Grande and the flanks of the brown trout bucks I’m hoping to catch there. The aspens, now bare, were equally stunning a month ago when I hiked up in search of the year’s last cutthroats. My ankles flinched in what I can only describe as pain when I stepped into the creek. Mistakenly keeping my summer schedule, I had arrived too early, a fact reinforced by my stimulator drifting untouched for another two hours, by which time my brain had reached the same conclusion as my thoroughly numbed toes, that my day would be measured by a ridiculously blue sky and the trembling of orange leaves in the breeze. Clearly these things could be enjoyed from the relative warmth of dry land.
There was a long ago time when wader season meant nothing to me. I didn’t even own waders as a kid, but began my fishing season the first minute I could tolerate walking in solid and melted snow wearing jeans and Chuck Taylors. As April progressed, I knew the sun would wax stronger in my favor, as would the trouts’ appetites for my worms, Panther Martins, and dapped wet flies. In autumn, this progression ran in reverse. The stream temps started biting right around the time the fish stopped, and my thoughts shifted to skiing and basketball.
Leaving my parents’ nest changed everything, for not only did I suddenly have to pay for lift tickets, but my lack of a lucrative job – I didn’t enter the NBA draft for obvious reasons – taught me the all too literal meaning of being on my own dime. My passion for fly fishing had cut to the front of my line of priorities. Fishing dictated the jobs I would take and the places they’d be located, resulting in endless possibilities for year-round fishing.
Tailwaters and steelhead, bent rods in blizzards. Unlike most of New Mexico, many of the new places had actual rivers, where you didn’t stand a chance unless you spent most of your day in water over your crotch. In that sense alone, I don’t think I became a true angler until waders entered my life. To be more dramatic, I became my true self; waders showed me the world – Montana, California, Alaska, Argentina, as well as my own backyard – or at least the only world I wanted to see.
Over the years, my relationship with waders became deeper and intimate. On trips to the Green, we used our neoprenes as sleeping pads through freezing February nights. We’ve sashayed our waders around countless morning campfires, and waited out downpours with our waders in the cab, the heater and our rants cranked full bore.
As the volume of such memories has fattened through the decades, I’ve begun to see the downside. Wader season doesn’t just mean October anymore, but another October. Another out of how many? This is an important question as I confront the ominous prospect of being in October myself, when each wader season seems to bring a new hitch to my gait, a larger-sized fly I can’t tie on without my cheaters, or ten fewer casts before calling it a day. In spite of global warming, it feels like each October calls for another layer of clothing, which makes putting on waders a little more difficult, and the pain of taking them off so much worse.
In downer moments, I’ve come to think of my life of wader seasons as a bag of barbeque potato chips. When I opened it, the chips were big and round. Even as it seemed they’d last forever, I knew that a subsequent grab would bring up half a chip, then a pinch of smaller ones. At this point in life, I’m shaking the bag and pouring crumbs into my mouth, sucking my fingers as though believing I’m not still hungry.
My waders are leaky, and my boots have seen some miles. Yes, I can and will buy new ones, but for now they are a lesson in adopting a less morbid perspective. Like an old fishing buddy or dog, wader season, as always, is simply with you. You remind each other that you’re not the same as your younger selves, but usually you do so in moments you wouldn’t have allowed yourself back when. You pause more, you reflect. You have always been able to identify the things that mattered – sunsets and sipping fish, mayflies on the water, or how the silence of snowfall becomes a sound. But now you are closer to knowing why.
Of course you’re still hungry, but for now what’s most important is the taste.
Toner Mitchell is the New Mexico Water and Habitat coordinator for Trout Unlimited. He lives and works in Santa Fe.