After a week of wind, cold and even snow, I finally returned to the river yesterday afternoon. Blue skies and sunshine greeted me, but not with that welcome warmth I cherish. Patches of snow still lingered along the banks, and there was ice in the backwaters outside the river’s flow.
The gage on the West Branch read forty degrees, four or five degrees warmer than the other rivers at hand, so I decided to prospect the last riffles in the hope that a couple of the Delaware rainbows that swam there in summer might have hung around. It was a vain hope, pure and simple, but it allowed me the excuse to walk the river once again on a day that looked and felt like winter.
Such a sudden transition as this month has wrought is a chore for my psyche to come to terms with. A week of summer like afternoons onstream, sitting on my porch in a dream state, savoring the last warming rays of sunshine and bidding goodbye to the day; then waking to snowflakes and heavy frost! I feel as if I was thrown from Nature’s bosom into an icy void!
So I walked, and cast, and walked some more, crunching the ice underfoot in my defiance.
Winter fishing here is very different from my many years in limestone country. In small waters, trout do not move far as the seasons pass; they make no long migration for the spawn. Even when they chose not to sample the angler’s fly, they are often visible, breeding confidence that one is fishing over trout. In our wide Catskill rivers I am still learning my quarry’s winter habits.
When fishing becomes strictly a subsurface affair it loses more than its beauty and art, for that confidence departs when usually productive waters give no hint of a trout’s presence. Logic dictates that the rainbows, spring spawners, should still be on the feed, and the riffled waters provide oxygen and cover, as well as most of the food. My logic seems flawed, as the only rainbow I have landed in the past month lied in a low water tailout, and took a swung fly.
Brown trout are expected to be displaced, as so many migrate to the tributaries to spawn, but when do they return? It is nearly a month since the last good runoff event, with enough flow to allow some spawners to ascend some tributaries, and it seems some portion of them should have returned to their favored haunts, but I have no evidence.
It is intriguing to have to step back and learn these rivers all over again.
Over the past two winters I have targeted the clearer and warmer days, when afternoon sunlight raised the water temperature a degree or two. Warming water has the potential to activate a few dormant fish to feed. During the first winter, river flows were higher, and more water requires more radiant energy to warm it, so the temperature gains were very moderate. I took a few nice trout that winter, and felt I had improved my spare knowledge of winter angling on the Delaware system. I felt confident with the next winter’s lower flows, and the knowledge gained that first year, and proceeded to go fishless throughout. Was I fishing over dormant trout, or was I fishing in the wrong places? I have no evidence from which to draw a conclusion.
Part of the magic of fly fishing is the grand mystery. Science and time on the water solves bits and pieces, but the mystery remains. An honest angler with a lifetime of experience will be the first to admit they are still learning on the water.
There is to be more sunshine today, I’d best get ready for school.