The Evil Empire

Mark’s Swingin’ Stone, Golden Brown

I managed to get through my first winter in the Catskills swinging soft hackle bead heads with an eight foot bamboo rod. Though it wasn’t what you would call productive fishing, I managed a good fish now and then, just enough to keep me interested and out there enjoying the stark beauty of winter among the mountains. Lets be perfectly clear here: there were many more hours spent in total than there were “nows and thens”; many more.

My second winter proved “less productive” a convenient euphemism to relate that I didn’t have a strike until sometime in March. No fish were actually hooked until that first little foot long riser near the end of March, though I am pleased that he took a size 20 dry fly and was landed; and thanked profusely for his efforts!

I offer this information by way of apology and explanation for my personal failings at the present time, namely that I have been considering actual nymph fishing as a viable activity during the forthcoming winter.

My experiences these past two years have left me with the cold, hard knowledge that our Catskill trout will not expend the energy to rise from the bottom to chase a deeply swinging fly in the thirty-seven degree water temperatures I have encountered on the warmest winter days. The hopes I maintained for the occasional rise to midges or early stoneflies have been completely dashed. I had been confident that I had outgrown the terrible affliction of subsurface fly fishing, but perhaps not.

Back in the limestone country, dry fly fishing around my home in Chambersburg was generally stimulated by the appearance of terrestrial insects in late spring and summer. The last decent sulfur hatch I fished on my home water of Falling Spring was in 1994. Trico’s provided some morning fishing in July and August for a few years thereafter, but the mayfly populations continually lessened over the years. Other than in summertime, fly fishing the spring creeks meant nymph and streamer fishing.

Back there twenty-five to thirty years ago, I worked out a system for “stealth nymphing”, developing the right combination of tackle and techniques for catching our shy, pressured wild trout in shallow, gin clear water, particularly during what I referred to as “the bare season” from mid-autumn through early spring. As the aquatic vegetation died back, the streams became even shallower, and much of the cover the trout held in, beneath and around disappeared. Stealthy approaches and presentations were absolutely required for success.

My system included a long, light rod, specifically an eight and a half foot three weight (yes, that is a very long rod for the classic limestoners where Ed Shenk taught us to angle with five to six foot rods!), a low visibility gray fly line, Airflo intermediate Poly Leader, and six to eight feet of fluorocarbon tippet in either 5x or 6X diameters. This tackle was ideal for presenting a small Shenk Cressbug, or Mark’s Limestone Shrimp without any weight on the leader. The long tippet, turned over marvelously by the Poly Leader, allowed the fly to be cast several feet upstream of a skittish holding trout. Only fine tippet laid down on the water above the fish, and the fly enjoyed a few feet of drift and thus time to sink before reaching that trout’s lie.

Eventually I ordered a nine foot three weight Sage rod to provide some additional line control and the stiffness to cast streamers more effectively with the light tackle, but the rest of the system stayed the same, working magic when more traditional methods failed.

I used small brass beads on some of my little nymphs back in those days, expanding my array of bead heads when tiny tungsten beads became available in black and dark brown colors: weight, without the flash! Over the years, as bead head flies exploded in popularity, painted and anodized beads offered a wide range of colors, though I prefer either copper when I want some flash, or black and brown when I don’t.

Freshwater shrimp or scuds are common in tailwater rivers, but I have avoided fishing my Limestone Shrimp in my Catskill waters, as I have avoided dead drifting sunken flies, period. The dark thoughts I confessed to at the beginning of this blog have me contemplating the resurrection of that deadly fly and my stealth nymphing rig.

There is still time before the rivers reach the awful thirties, time to swing those soft hackles on bright bamboo and perhaps find a taking trout, though this morning’s twenty-four degree dawn tends to lead us toward those winter river conditions faster than I would like.

Forgive me for my failings, brothers of the dry fly, but I have been too much of a hermit this year with the threat of the virus, and I fear I cannot pass five months of winter weather without the balm of bright water to soothe my spirit!

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