Saturday, February 29, 2020

Winter Nights

On cold, dark nights during winter—after work, dinner, dishes, bath and bedtime—now and again I descend to the basement. Down the stairs, past the finished area strewn with toys, through a door and into a slice of cellar left untouched. It’s unheated, dimly lit, and all mine. A shrine to my hobbies, almost every inch of the room is covered with something outdoors-related. A cement-floor sanctuary to unwind, tinker, and prepare for trips and seasons to come.

A simple workbench is the heart of the room. Above it a pegboard adorned with dozens of wooden plugs and plastic lures—some more worn than others, but each tell a story. They hang upside down by their rear hook in two neat rows; organized first by type, then by color. Some nights I’ll swap out old, rusty hooks for fresh ones or take random lures off the wall and inspect them like a kid does his army men. It’s reassuring in a way to handle artificial lures in winter while thinking of tides I’ll cast them come summer. Some nights I’ll hover over the bench and snell hooks or tie leaders and tuck them in individual baggies. Better to do it now than rushing before a fishing trip.

Next to the workbench is an old, fold-out wooden desk. It’s been furnished into a fly-tying station with a daylight lamp, making it the brightest spot in the room when it’s on. The desktop has open cigar boxes stuffed with various spools of thread, wire, and lead. It’s flanked by plastic organizers on either side with drawers chockfull of tying materials. Oftentimes I’ll sit at the vise, usually with a bourbon, or lately tequila, and fill voids in my fly boxes of proven patterns that I lost too many of. While tying this winter, instead of listening to playlists, I’ve been enthralled with an audiobook, Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary, by Joe Jackson. It’s a fascinating biography of the Sioux healer and holy man, and a sad reminder of some dark times in our nation’s history.  

A collection of fishing rods stretches the entire length of another wall. A few of them are long, one-piece surfcasting rods, so it’s helpful to have a full walk-out door at the head of the room with easy access to my truck—a far cry from the situation when living on the third-floor of my in-laws for two years (the cooking was top-shelf, but getting a 10 footer up two flights at 2 a.m. took practice). Most of the rods have reels attached and rigged from the last time they saw action. Near the door on the floor is a large Jet Sled laden with stickers and packed to the gills with ice fishing gear. It has a hole in one of the back corners, but I haven’t sprung for a plastic welding kit to fix it. The ice gear hasn’t seen much activity this winter, but I’m not packing it away just yet. Eventually it will hang in the rafters out of sight until next November, when optimism is once again renewed for a proper hardwater season.

On the opposite wall are two metal shelving racks full of tackle boxes, plug bags, storage bins, camping equipment, and a cache of artifacts I’ve found at ancient Native American campsites and villages around the area. Much of it is debitage, sharp-edged waste material left behind when indigenous people knapped stone such as flint or quartz into tools. But some of the pieces are broken or unfinished projectile points and scrapers that weren’t quite good enough to make their way upstairs into my shadowbox table with the showpiece stuff. There are nights I’ll just go through this pile of flakes and chipped stone, sorting and studying them, and thinking how cool it is that someone else held them thousands of years ago. 

Yet another section of the room is taken up by a bait freezer, buckets, nets, walking sticks, coolers, and a clothing rack on wheels from which hangs fly fishing packs, waders, wetsuits, and a myriad of bibs and jackets. In the corner, from the ceiling, hangs my fishing bike; an old beater that is spray-painted black and customized with two rod-holders, basket, and rear rack. It doesn’t get used as much as it could, but the bike is ready to spring to life for a Canal trip or a ninja mission to a private stretch of shoreline.

The room is not big by any means, yet its space is certainly maximized. Not much bare wall space is left—some of the last of it used for a framed photograph of my largest bluefish, caught and released on a September night 14 years ago. The plug that fooled that fish, a white Atom 40, is wired to the frame below the picture, full of teeth mark battle scars. On nails in the concrete block hang lanterns, chaffed leaders, and antique cookware, and sprinkled around the room are retired flies or lures, fishing keepsakes from a time gone by.

In spring, summer, and fall, there are plenty of nights I run down to the basement only to grab gear and go—I won’t think twice about tinkering with tackle or tying flies. But in winter, when the cold is numbing and wind is honking, on occasion I get the urge to spend hours in the place carved out for the things I love to do. Whether it’s a garage, trophy room, attic, tying room, or mancave, every outdoorsman has a special spot they store the things they are passionate about. I’m fortunate for mine.