Tuesday, February 23, 2016


February is a hard month to love. The most ardent endure her harsh temperament--her changing moods--with some success, rarely without sacrificing self, in the form of numb fingers or wind-chapped cheeks.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    February is a time of change, one without which the climactic arrival of spring would be of muted contrast. Snowmelt, under the typically warmer-than-winter closing days of the month, floods rivers and streams with cold, dirty water, while small game seasons peter out. But if February offers any consolation, it’s that taking it by the horns and experiencing the true end of the outdoor year makes spring all the more grandiose.

High, Cold, and Dirty

    Six inches of snow fell over the weekend, and promptly melted, unleashing inches of 36-degree, muddy water on the landscape. If there’s a type of water that warrants hanging your hat up for, it’s this—but when the going gets tough, I find it unacceptable to accept defeat.

    When I arrived at the roadside pull-off, I could hardly recognize the creek that brushes the road. Under normal circumstances, a well-defined run-pool complex passes tranquilly under the shadow of a hemlock-lined bank. With the right angle of sunlight to facilitate, a half dozen or so dark, elongated forms can be seen waving in place like submerged grass in the lucid blue belly of water, fins grazing cobble below.

    This time, however, the scene looked and sounded of chaos. Green-brown water capped with foam rolled and chopped like ocean waves, ignoring the serpentine borders of the creek, and challenging the quiet forest highway adjacent to a contest in violent white noise it was sure to win.

    I learned a lesson in high-water trout fishing in western Maryland three years prior. That river was running roughly four times its typical flow. Wild brown trout filled the river, and I had considerable success fishing soft water behind big boulders along the flooded bank with a large, dark fly. That was mid-June.

    A third odd was stacked against me on that February day—cold water. I knew I’d have to fish slowly, and very thoroughly.

    When a creek jumps its banks, holding and feeding lies are tossed in the air. The food chain scrambles to reestablish footing in the changing system. Small fish are tossed around, and large, predatory fish cruise harsh current breaks, looking for a feeding opportunity.

    A few hundred yards upstream, I found the setting for the scene I prophesized in my mind. A long, hard run ran over chunk rock, tossing water in crests and pits. An abutting slab of bedrock calmed the churning, and pooled a few feet of calm water.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Several casts with a heavy crayfish-imitating fly into the seam ended with a hard stop and the turn of a massive female brown trout that ran downstream, broke me off, and became my latest heartbreak.

Two Triples

    A crisp, sunny afternoon in February beckoned me to the squirrel woods, amped with adrenaline, 20-guage pump shotgun in tote.

    Late season bushytail hunting, in my mind, speaks of delicate walking, skittish squirrels, and quick shots—a game tailored to the indiscriminate, somewhat forgiving reach of a boom-stick.

    Just barely inside the treeline, as I stood mid-way up a hardwood ridge, sun to my back, three squirrels busted from cover, nervous from my prolonged pause, and darted for independent cover. Swinging, and operating the pump-loading mechanism instinctively, I dropped all three on consecutive shots—a triple, for half a limit.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Another 45 minutes of still hunting landed me in position to take another bushytail. From a creekbottom, I closed the distance between me and the rustling I could hear near the top of the ridge, hopping and skipping in bursts, imitating the sound of a pouncing gray squirrel.

    The first shot was presented when an alarmed gray pounced from the trunk of an oak tree into the branches of another. As it was scrambling to establish footing, I dropped it with a swinging report from the 20-guage.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    A second bushytail peeked out from behind the trunk of a neighboring oak, curious, presenting a headshot that didn’t go unclaimed. Down went another batch of meat for the pot.

    A third held tight to the forest floor for 30 seconds before making a mad dash for a nearby hickory tree. I ran forward ten feet as the squirrel began its ascent of the trunk, and interrupted it, taking a quick knee, and firing a rising snap-shot—a second double, for a limit of late season bushytails.

 *Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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