Driving homeward along Route 36 from Greenville recently, my attention kept being drawn to the south, to follow the line of white-barked sycamores along the distant edge of winter-fallow fields. Trees which marked the winding course of Greenville Creek, a main tributary of the Stillwater.
I knew, first-hand, most of the twists and turns, pools and riffles and fishy hidy-holes, along this section of the bucolic little waterway. At least I used to; I hadn’t fished it for several years.
As I came to the crossroad, on a sudden whim I turned right, deciding to pay a visit. A quarter-mile later I pulled off and parked at a wide spot in the graveled shoulder, got out, walked to the middle of the bridge and peered over.
On any sunny morning in vernal-gushing June, the sparkling ribbon of Greenville Creek would appear the quintessential image of a prime Buckeye small mouth stream. The sort of pastoral waters we hopelessly obsessed anglers regularly conjure up in our dreams.
But this was a January morning. The sky was gray. Temperatures huddled below the freezing mark. Every so often, snowflakes spattered the sky.
The rural landscape was stark and windswept. During the long minutes I stood gazing down and around, not a single car passed. A foot-wide border of pale ice edged the pool above the bridge. The water itself looked sterile and cold. The creek and its surroundings felt empty, lonely, even a little foreboding.
Nope, on this mid-winter day, Greenville Creek didn’t look too inviting.
Yet once I began to focus my attention, I could hear the muted murmur of the creek below — a merry, liquid purling which seemed out of keeping with the frozen earth and ice-rimmed pools. And in spite of the reality of season and weather, I couldn’t help but think of spring and sunshine and a greening world filled with pastel wildflowers and birds in love … and also, naturally, of rising fish and that magical living tug that has been so vital a part of my life for so many years.
Alas, the mocking wind flung a handful of snowflakes at my face. I shook my head and sought to quell such wishful but foolish thinking.
Spring musings in mid-January have a way of turning into uncontrollable longings, and thence into an ache which sharpens and increases, like ice over an open pool, until it finally seals your heart and mind from the beauty at hand.
Everything in its season, my father liked to remind.
I decided to follow the bank side path upstream. Frank Snare and I used to fish this section regularly — about once a week, April through October, for nearly twenty years. I hadn’t been back since my old friend’s passing several years ago. Yet somehow, the mid-winter context helped restrain any waiting ghosts.
If you ignored winter’s starkness, the stretch seemed only superficially changed. A toppled tree here, a missing jampile there. But otherwise, as reassuringly familiar as a favorite room after a bit of furniture rearranging.
Winter lays bare many of nature’s secrets. Contour and shape. Outline and form. Color and contrast. Because our eyes are not so distracted by a myriad of easy clutter, in winter we can focus on what we’d otherwise miss.
Fundamentally, winter reveals the lay of the land. It allows you to see the big picture by disclosing the overall underpinnings of places you can only glimpse in bits and pieces when they’re covered by the usual mask of vegetation.
Moreover, this clarity extends to trees which shade a creek or fringe nearby glades. What summer’s green leaves hide, winter’s bareness reveals. At no other season of the year are the character of trees so fully disclosed, their shape and personality more lucidly expressed. In summer we look at a forest and see only the aggregate; in winter we notice the individual tree.
Winter-bare trees also reveal a surprising range of bark colors — hues from greenish-gray to chocolate, rusty-orange, pale-yellow, and bluish-black. Subtle tones we’d probably overlook during any other season.
At a pool where I once watched Frank take a three-pound bass on his preferred ultralight rig — a white 1/64th ounce jig, and gossamer-thin one-pound test line — I stopped to watch a trio of scolding jays. They looked surprisingly brilliant in their Maxfield Parrish dress blues. A splendid scarlet male cardinal and his more subtly lovely mate were holed up in a nearby briar tangle. And ten feet away, a diminutive downy woodpecker rat-tat-tatted busily upon a storm-blasted basswood, resplendent in his crisp black-and-white plumage topped by a sporty red skullcap.
Time never stops. Like the creek slipping under glittering sheaths of ice, its movement may be hard to detect, but it’s always underway. Patience is the key. Spring will arrive in time.
As often happens when we concentrate, intensity ushers in revelation.
Frank turned that big small mouth loose. Remembering, amid winter’s clarity, I thought perhaps it was time to do a little turning loose myself. Perhaps sufficient time had finally passed … and when spring and fishing weather finally rolled around, I’d visit again.