The sky is a lovely clear blue this morning, the air sparkling with early sunlight; but it deceives! The Weather Channel tells me it is eleven degrees, with the wind chill at zero – sparkling indeed! How I ache to take my river walk this morning and enjoy that sunshine, but I know the wind chill would wipe away all but its visual effects. It is cold enough here in the house!
Last evening I joined the open fly tying Zoom meeting for the Catskill Fly Tyers Guild, a new event, giving us a chance to talk flies and fishing while we are cold and quarantined. One gentleman hailed from my old haunts in Central Pennsylvania, and I found myself eager for news. I still remember the gift of winter fishing about the limestone springs.
It all seems so long ago now, the best of it that is; bright winter mornings along the Falling Spring, with frost on the grass and fog above the bright water! Over the last decade I fished her she nearly brought me to tears each time I remembered.
Any sunny winter morning offered the opportunity for a fly caught trout, and a good one at that. A Shenk Sculpin or Minnow, flipped into all the pockets, root balls and undercuts brought many jolting strikes in those years. My usual foil was a seven foot One Ounce Orvis rod, a battered CFO reel and four weight line. I had learned from the Master how to present the big fly low to the water with perfect accuracy, and drop it gently into the flow. Casting upstream, and twitching the fly downstream along the bottom, “sculpinating” Ed called it: the tactic produced in all seasons.
I found the short rod better with a good trout on the line, able to respond quickly in tight quarters to keep the trout from burying its head in cover, changing my direction and angle of pull, and forcing my quarry to do the same. The extreme lightness of that little rod belied its power; it could cast those streamers effortlessly forty feet or more when needed, and came alive when the hook was set!
There was a narrow run where the current dug deeper along the base of an old stone wall that held the road grade. A huge, overhanging willow brought some challenge to the casting! I remember one chilly morning when two fine rainbows and a big brown came to hand in that tiny reach of water, each deceived by Ed’s White Minnow! An hour’s fishing like that made for a great morning before it was time to open the fly shop.
If I close my eyes, I can feel my heart beating as I twitched a fly along the edge of a sunken weed bed on Falling Spring or the hallowed LeTort, ever watchful, as a big trout might dart out and inhale the fly in the blink of an eye! Line control is paramount in that game, as the strike must be quick and sure. If those wild trout came once, they would not come again.
Even in the bowels of winter, there was a chance for the dry fly. On Mondays my shop was closed, and I could angle the warmest hours of midday. By ten or eleven o’clock a hatch of midges or tiny olives might appear, and a trout discreetly rise. The rising mist helped hide the subtle rings sometimes, and they dissipated rapidly in the weedy channels. A stalking game, the leader built longer and lighter, for a size 20 olive or a smaller midge.
There was no gift quite so welcome as a colorful, spotted trout, taken on a dry fly from the crystalline rivulet of bright water winding through the snow covered meadows. The last such gift I welcomed came on Big Spring, seven years ago.
My friend Andy and I ghosted along the barren meadow with an eye toward the gravelly pockets between aquatic weed beds, for there were olives drifting on the quiet surface. Taking my turn, I cast my little dun with a vintage Granger bamboo, the fly alighting above a tempting shadow on the bottom. The wild rainbow rose gently, and the arch of varnished cane met his strength with it’s own, as I felt the strange new burning sensation in my throat. A twenty inch rainbow on a dry fly is an unexpected treasure on a winter spring creek, and the beauty of that gift gave me the strength to fight for life, when that burning was given a name in the nick of time: angina.
I recall lying in the hospital, an urban stream visible from my window after surgery, drawing upon the wonder and beauty of that moment and the passions it invoked, determined to survive, to walk bright waters again. I have been blessed to have done so, to continue as another anniversary of that day passes.