I like scotch neat; no ice. It’s also how I prefer my small streams. That’s more of a dream now than a possibility. Daily temperatures aren’t moving much north of freezing and in a few weeks the cumulative effect of all those cold nights will grip the streams tight. Even though I don’t like ice on my water, I still like winter fishing. Well, maybe that’s a bit strong, but my passion for catching trout on a fly rod cannot be diminished sufficiently by chilling winds and frozen precipitation. I’ll be out there as often as I can steal away enough time.
Lest I be misunderstood, I appreciate warmth. I am no stranger to a glowing, radiant hearth and have been known to stand in the mid-morning sun as it splays on the dining room floor warming my toes. Anyone who has a dog knows of the power of sunlight on a midwinter day; dogs know how to maximize it’s value. Ripley can be found most mornings sprawled in just the right place. She’ll slowly relocate herself as the box of sunlight navigates towards the kitchen. By late morning she can only get the tip of her nose in the warming glow but she doesn’t give up until the last ergs have been absorbed.
With the margins of the year upon us, even where the season is still open, the action has slowed. It makes no sense to be up early. Even the most ambitious trout won’t take a fly till mid-day. Along the edges of small streams frigid night air has built shelves of ice that soon will span the moving waters tucking Browns and Brookies in for a long winter’s respite. The real action junkies have migrated north pursuing Steelhead and Salmon. I long to follow them but the distant locales and the urgent demands of daily life make such trips a rare event.
I caught my first trout on a fly rod in the dead of winter. It was on a Gray Ghost stripped slowly along an undercut bank on the outside of a small river bend. I had just bought my first fly rod, a six weight Orvis TLS, had a lesson under my belt, and had fished this one stream several times over the course of a few weeks. I was new and hopelessly uninitiated. I was fishing all the wrong water in the wrong way. It was only through raw perseverance and blind luck that I had stumbled upon a Rainbow Trout so depressed witnessing my poor technique that he chose suicide rather than suffer another moment of torture. That winter spent casting in the cold air broke me of any inhibitions for fishing when most other hard core anglers had given up.
Since then I’ve gotten better at the winter fishing game. I now know the places that trout prefer to lurk. I’ve learned to fish the small stuff slow. I know a few streams that flow well except during particularly long cold snaps. And there is a tailwater about an hour’s drive north that is reliably clear of ice. But more than anything, I’ve learned to appreciate the places during the tail of the season.
It’s often been said that trout anglers ply the sport as much for the places we find trout as we do for the sport itself. I know no anglers who would disagree. But most of the visions we have of those places are populated with leafy green trees, rugged, snow free, river valleys and swarms of large mayflies ready for a spinner fall. None of these things can be found now, but there’s other beauty to behold.
The intersection of flowing water and ice can hypnotize. Crisp ice platters along the edge of a boulder create a screen upon which plays the random lapping and touches of the water beneath. Receding flows leave inverted forests of icicles in eddies that drip on warmer days; stars rising from icicle Christmas trees into the dark sky of the stream.
The sounds of the river are sharper in crisp air. The stream gurgles in strange ways as it passes through ice constricted passages. Curled mountain laurel leaves clatter sharply at my passage. The crunch of snow crust prevents any manner of stealth approaching winter water but the trout are deep and not disturbed.
As a photographer I appreciate the winter light the most. Low on the horizon, the sun casts shadows and contrasts that can only be found at the edges of the day during warmer months. The absence of leaves allows the glow of the late day to penetrate onto the stream’s surface. An otherwise gray and white landscape is turned into something more alive; something warmer.
The one thing that is mostly absent in the cold winter air is the smell of the river. All the heady organic smells of damp ground, overripe wild grapes and the sweet smells of blossoms have been put away. It’s the real gap in the sensory experience but my nose is normally cold and running profusely so it’s likely not equipped to appreciate anything anyway.
I don’t know whether I’ll get out this week, a lot of things have to line up perfectly to make it possible. But if I don’t, it won’t be so bad. I’ll pour another scotch, sit by the fire and savor memories of the past. I’ll embrace and be embraced by the slower rhythms of the season; even nap. Perhaps I’ll dream of milder days when the sun warms the water and the olives hatch and the trout look up, if only for a time.
Author - Steve Zakur lives and fishes in western Connecticut. As those around him know, he’s been bitten deeply by the fly fishing bug; scheming of ways and reasons to fish is nearly a full-time pursuit. When he’s not fishing he’s the spouse of the lovely, intelligent, and tolerant Ann, the father of two above-average boys and an executive for a large technology company.
Steve writes about fly fishing and related matters at sippingemergers.com