Spring had been planned by ticking off the days until sap ran. Somewhere in the middle of this, or around it, rivers would break free of ice, or warm up, and fishing dates were on the calendar. This was before winter hung on forever, and snow remained piled halfway up the bird feeders. Not a tapped tree dripped, and even geese were returning slowly. A hankering was afoot for open water, and I organized my fishing gear in neat piles.

Usually the first fishing outing is to the Mississippi at Red Wing. But ice clung to the boat launch in the Wisconsin backwaters, and my partner Ol' Griz was happy enough to stay home, twiddling his remote and watching fishing-show reruns. "I'm not as mad at walleyes as I was when I was younger,'' he said. This was a couple of weeks back, and Griz reported that trucks were still driving on lakes near Chisago City. "That should tell you something,'' he said.

A call to my older son, Trevor, in Montana painted a more promising picture. Warmth was a reluctant visitor there as well. But the Bitterroot's skwala hatch was taking hold, he said, and besides his spring break was approaching.

"I don't want to interrupt your studying,'' I said, unsure whether the long silence that followed indicated a medical emergency, or instead was intended to underscore the old man's cluelessness.

"Right,'' Trevor said finally, and plans were laid for a trip west.

I needed to work out the sap thing, and I worried matters might run off the rails in my absence. I hadn't cut enough firewood, and if the floodgates opened, my syrup-making partner John Weyrauch could be caught holding the bag. Ours is a bootstrap operation that makes fools of slackers, with 50 trees drilled and 50 more an option. "Give me five days and let's hope the maples stay stingy,'' I told John. "I look forward to working with you upon my return.''

So it was on a recent morning that I found myself in the Bitterroot's cold embrace. Our younger son, Cole, had made the trip as well, and he was in the bow of the drift boat, with me in the stern and Trevor on the oars. To the west, mountains rose steeply toward their snowy peaks, and the day, which had broken clear, was overcast and cool. Canada geese honked from the pebbled shore. But more common were mallards, slipping air through their primaries and splashing and rising from the moving water. Among these, in timeless swift cadence, and aswirl in eddies and riffles, the Bitterroot swept us smoothly downstream. Bracketing the river, cottonwoods swayed in a cool breeze, while spring arrived piecemeal, the fly rod feeling good in my hand.

We could have tipped the odds more in our favor had we cast nymphs, or subsurface flies, as the day wasn't quite warm enough to encourage a full-blown hatch. Still, the occasional bug was coming off the water, and we tossed big imitator dries toward likely lies near shore. We also targeted foamy seams where fast and slower water congealed, and Cole took our first trout, a hefty brown, in one of these divides.

"Nice fish,'' I said.

"We'll catch bigger,'' Cole said.

"A lot bigger,'' Trevor said.

By early evening our rain jackets had been snugged tightly. We were the last boat on this section of river, and Trevor was directing our casts to shoreline pools that formed behind deadfalls and boulders.

First Cole's fly drifted over these, then mine.

Not all that often anymore while fishing with the boys do I catch the biggest fish. But in the shank of this day, a 21-inch brown inhaled my fly and contorted wildly atop the now-shadowy river before succumbing to hand.

Happy for my good fortune, the boys suggested I celebrate by buying them dinner.

• • •

When I arrived home, John and I were quickly awash in sap, and I spent my days gathering tankloads of the stuff, my four-wheeler spinning beneath the sap's weight. This was a week ago, and snow was melting day by day, with geese joining trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes in a grand passage northward. We finally started cooking, moonshiners of a different stripe.

The operation took longer than planned. But by Wednesday evening we had seven gallons of syrup, and on Thursday morning, Ol' Griz and I were on the Mississippi, a spring-like day beckoning.

Uncharacteristically, we found the walleyes tightlipped, and the saugers, too, as did the hundreds of other anglers in the scores of boats that bobbed along with us atop the river just below the Red Wing dam. We were a veritable flotilla, and Griz and I wondered just who in this country works anymore.

"Even when I was in a motorcycle gang, I had to show up,'' Griz said.

Maybe it was the late spring that slowed the fishing. Maybe not. Either way, we caught 25 walleyes and saugers, good for but a fraction of the usual river bounty that Griz — guide Dick Grzywinski of St. Paul — collects for a day's work at this time of year.

Included in our larder was a 9-pound walleye Griz landed on a jig and fathead, his usual bait.

"Maybe that's why you're in the Fishing Hall of Fame and I'm not,'' I said as I netted the bulbous fish and presented it to Griz, who quickly released it.

"There'll be another,'' he said, and he rebaited his jig.

• • •

In early afternoon Griz dropped me on shore. I wanted to end this good day fishing for trout, and I drove farther south still, toward Whitewater State Park, about an hour and a half distant. The regular trout season would open Saturday. But the catch-and-release season had a couple of days to run, and few anglers would be around. The good spots would be there for the taking.

Bill Grehl, who lives just north of Nisswa, Minn., was thinking similarly, and I found him standing knee-deep in the Whitewater, a vintage Orvis fiberglass fly rod in his right hand. He had had a good day, he reported, catching trout here and there throughout the park. Now, soon, he would return to his campsite, build a fire and cook a pork chop.

"I've been coming down here as long as I can remember,'' Grehl said. "I wander all around. Today I heard turkeys gobbling. Geese were overhead. Eagles are always here.''

When Grehl packed his gear and angled away in a pickup that suggested he could fend for himself, I pulled on my waders, pieced together a rod, hung a reel and strung line through its guides. The afternoon was getting on, I was a fair piece from home and I could have called it a day. But the stream not far away tumbled between bluffs and over smooth stones, and I wanted more of it.

Living in this country you appreciate winter gladly or begrudgingly. Either way you're here, and on toward March you scan the pastures for bare ground, the horse for shedding and the maples for sap.

Then, open water.

On the Whitewater the other evening, I caught one brown trout, then another and another.

Happy for my good fortune, I bought myself dinner.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com