Wednesday, February 5, 2014

NEVER TOO COLD TO FISH

        I’m cold, wet, and tired; and I’m staring at the younger end of a day’s fishing trip.
 
        In a stumble at the truck, while fitting my wading boots to my feet layered double with wool socks, I planted my bare hands firmly on the icy ground, priming them early for the cruel wind flowing through the trees in the hollow.  Most would say it’s too cold to fish.

        Wading through a slow stretch of river to reach the trailhead is more than most would even consider on a day forecast to remain in a frozen dormancy.  Waders, two layers of Under Armour, gloves, a wool buff, and a waterproof shell grant me courage, and my body begins to regain warmth.  I knock the last trace of chill from my blood with hands tightly clasped around a coffee-filled thermos, with life-saving, heat-retaining qualities.  I drink slowly, and return it tenderly to my pack.

        The cold discovers another way to cling to my body and make its presence known.  The absorbent soles of my felt-soled wading boots collect water and cohere and freeze to the snow beneath my feet.  40 yards into the trek up the mountain, I’m trudging with 4-inch platforms, and the amount of fresh snow is increasing with elevation.

        Now, I’m not na├»ve.  I’ve fished long enough to judge by weather patterns and forecasts when fishing is less than ideal.  Though I have enjoyed bitterly-cold winter days when catch numbers came in double digits, that is not the norm, nor is it an easy accomplishment.  I am, however, human—one with needs.  And although my sanity is often questioned by concerned friends and family, sometimes I just need to go fishing.  My goal is typically to catch a single fish, to prove it’s possible, if only because the same people who question my desire to subject myself to wind, ice, snow, and cold meet me at the door on my return.   “Did you catch anything,” they ask, with a slim grin.  It’s a cruel game—one I do not like to lose.

        I laugh when the trail grants me the first observation of the water I’m after.  My brother lumbers up beside me, smashing the ice from his soles on a rock.  The tails of the slow, deep holes where I would expect to find feeding fish are all frozen, generously—almost a foot of ice covers some pools, enough to walk on and fish the main runs, at least.

        Winter fishing in small mountain streams is a game of pick-and-choose; and with clear water being the norm, careful casting is a must.  Deep pools are often times supplemented with direct spring water, keeping water temperatures at a stable 40-45 degrees along the river bottom, which is more favorable than the freezing water in skinny riffles influence by air temperatures. 

        We walk the trail, studying pools with a watchful eye and descending into the riverbed when an opportunity arises.  My brother sees a fish; I lose one.  We move on.

        Late in the afternoon, as the air temperature begins to drop noticeably, the trail leads us to a large, deep plunge pool cutting through the mountain’s bedrock.  I estimate it to reach around 16 feet, and its diameter exceeds that of a moderate-sized above ground swimming pool.

        Running a weighted fly deep along the bottom, under floating ice pods, I quickly tie into a first fish—an average-sized rainbow trout.  Several more similar presentations dredge up three more of equal size.


        The sun finally won the battle with the clouds just an hour before it was scheduled to set, bringing with it warmth.  After the last fish, we turned back down the mountain, knocking snow from our boots and drinking hot coffee from our cups, cheerfully.  For a day to begin wind-swept and bitter, I am content to make the return hike in 35 degrees, knowing the cold could not stand in the way of a few fish and a good time.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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