March 4th, 2002

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By Eric Hardin, Kentucky

Kentucky, in late winter, can be a gray and gloomy place. There is mud everywhere and it seems to stick with unusual tenacity to anything that ventures outside, especially the feet of my house loving retrievers. The inconsistency of the weather makes the meteorologists look more like snake oil salesman than scientist. The land is forlorn and haggard. A look that will soon be replaced by verdant hills and pastures. Green seems like fiction in February. My wife says that winter is a time for the inside. But, I can only take so much inside. I have to propel myself into the cold as often as I can or risk that sunlight deficiency syndrome featured on the news-magazine shows. At least that's what I say.

So, with a heavy case of cabin fever and six predicted hours of sunshine I drove to the Sisters of Loretto convent. The convent is ancient. Situated on several hundred acres of rolling bluegrass the Sisters of long ago knew how to pick a spot. I drove up the short road leading to the mother house, past a kidney shaped little pond whose water was like the mirror of a telescope pointing skyward. I parked, walked past an art gallery and gnarled ginkgo tree into the infirmary where the Sister's business office is located. The Sister at the desk handed me a bumper sticker and told me where I could fish. I handed her five bucks.

Quite a bit of my fishing life has been spent on holy ground. I know most fishermen think their particular river or stream is holy ground but I am talking about real Holy ground, owned by the religious orders in our Catholic community. When I was kid my Dad would swap cases of beer for a key to the gate at a local Cistercian monastery. In the evenings he would drag our john boat through the fields and we would cast plugs for bass on the deep black waters. In the distance the bells of the monastery would sound, calling the monks to prayer, to bed, or to make cheese.

Later fishing at the monastery became strictly illegal by order of one liability concerned abbot. So, I poached. I would slip in by the light of the moon and belly boat into the wee hours flicking poppers at the lily pads. Some of the monks, out for late night strolls, saw me. On a hill above the lake there was a small brick patio, I could sense them up there, watching. They said nothing.

The Sister at the desk said I had my choice of two ponds. I chose the second. It's on the back side of the convent, away from the trails of retreaters and the easy reach of parking lot fisherman. I slid my jeep off the road and parked in a field of broom sage dotted with foot tall cedar trees. I could see the pond about a quarter of a mile away. Dark stumps protruded from the water. Perfect for crappie. Walking there I passed the skull of a long dead doe, the bones were bleached white with years of sun. With the foliage peeled away bones seem to be everywhere in February, even the trunks of the sycamore trees look like bones heaved up out of the frozen earth.

The Sisters do not allow any boats on their ponds. Much of the pond was hemmed in with a tight layer of trees. Without waders it would be impossible to fish those parts. The parts I could fish looked open and difficult, very little cover to hold the fish.

I tied on a sinking crappie fly and cast as far as I could into the heavy February wind. The fly drifted and bobbled as the rippled surface acted on the floating line. After a few minutes I began to catch crappie. I would move a little down the bank and then catch a few more. Finally, I reached a point where I couldn't fish anymore. The woods, bordered by shallow water pools and flooded grass beds kept me at bay. Most of the pond remained sanctuary for the winter fish. I cast a little more, fruitlessly. The sky wheeled above me and the cold winter light poured down all around.

I walked back with my creel of fish, thinking of Lenten fish fries and of the Sisters in the convent. How would it be to spend your days locked in the contemplation of something as big as the universe we fish in? I was thankful to the Sisters for providing both myself and the fish a little sanctuary this winter. ~ Eric Hardin

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