This one is less about fishing and more about COVID and friends than my typical posts but it is fishing that brought us all together.
This weekend is our annual opening weekend trip to Viroqua. As the timing and name suggest, this trip goes back more than a decade to when the early season opened in March rather than January as it does now. Like so much this year, the trip is going to happen this year but in a very different, much more subdued manner. Last year at this time, we were making stupid COVID jokes, unsure of what this emerging disease was going to do. A year ago, a friend was just a week past a heart attack (at least he had a good excuse for missing "opening" weekend). A year later, a lot has changed.
Whether or not we know somebody that has died of COVID, it has effected us all. I am seeing it in my students, after all it has been a year and the year has been a tough one. My students are struggling - as am I. In these last two weeks, as the newness and energy fades from the start of a new semester, the fact that it has been one year seems to be hitting people - including myself - quite hard. Not like a smack upside the head but more of a "I am so damn tired I am going to fall down right here and not move for a week or so" kind of way. A year is a milestone, much like remembering when the number of deaths hit 50,000, then 100,000, then a quarter million, and more recently a half a million people. For a bit of perspective on that, hopefully you have had the chance to sit in a full Camp Randall Stadium or Lambeau field - each of which hold a bit over 80,000 fans. Think about emptying and refilling either of those stadiums five more times and you are just about at 500,000 people. Big numbers are hard and one year seems like a really big number in its own way.
This weekend also marks the fact that it has also been a year since I last saw my friend Todd. Sadly, I will not see Todd again as his heart gave out early this year after a long battle with an autoimmune disease that sapped his strength and nearly took his life only a few months after our March "opening" weekend trip a year ago. A year ago, despite a pretty grim diagnosis, Todd was in great spirits. He had his laugh that was instantly recognizable. Todd was a Southeast Wisconsin Trout Unlimited leader, a long time board member, and a former chapter president. He was the guy that greeted everyone with a friendly smile and was as kind and generous as anyone I have ever known. And he may have been the "fishiest" guy I have ever known. The guy simply caught fish - no matter what. Except for that one time we fished together on an "opening" weekend trip a few years ago. A story for another day but it was one hell of an adventure.
With or without COVID, this year's "opener" was not going to be the same weekend as the past 14 or so years because Todd is not going to be there. And it is not going to be the same because most of are not going to be there. I am not going to be there other than to meet a couple of friends to fish on Saturday before heading back to sleep on my own comfortable bed instead of sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor above the Driftless Angler fly shop. Fishing is always a bit of a crap shoot - some years we hit it right, other years the snow is in full melt and the streams are cold and the fish are uninterested. Based on the weather, we hold out great hope for the fishing this year but there may still be enough snow that the typical early season rules apply. On the water early - but not too early. Off the water once the melt turns the fish off. That is early season fishing and we shall see what this year's "opener" has in store for us.
In a "normal" year, the weekend is as much about the food and drink, the camaraderie, and the bullshitting. Particularly the bullshitting. But this year has been nowhere near normal. I will not see a bunch of friends as most are not making the trip this year or if they are, it is a day trip for a half day of fishing. I will not hear the fart in the jar story this year. I know the story so well I could tell it as if I were there but nobody tells a story better than Rich. I might not take a lot of shit about introducing friends to Jesco White and the Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (they love it, trust me). But not much about this last year has been normal.
Opening weekends are different each year. Over the years, I do not know how many have been part of the opening weekend crew. A person or two moves away or just drops out and often a "newbie" takes their place. A person that can hear the fart in the jar story with virgin ears. It is the ebb and flow of "opening" weekend. Sadly, we have lost a few of the "opening" weekend crew. Todd will be in my thoughts as will Rick who succumbed to prostate cancer in 2019 and Ivan a year to the week before Rick to the same cancer. I am sure you have your own traditions. Your own stories known by the crew - and only by the crew. Fishing is about so much more than just the catching.