This always happens at this time of year. The weather forecast finally shows a bump in temperature a few days down the road, and I begin checking river levels and water temperatures, making plans to steal a couple of hours along bright water. The closer to the hoped-for warming trend we get, the more I start to believe I will earn a respite from the bleak, frigid hand of winter. Alas, the day finally arrives, and that hand strikes down my hope. So it is today.
This venture of the heart began with a promise of forty-five degrees. There was beautiful, bright sunshine the past few days, a presage to lift my spirits despite the cold. I knew better than to get any sort of tackle ready. The reality today is a cloudy winter’s day, with perhaps a brief high near forty degrees, that the ten to fifteen mile per hour winds will make feel like just another day at the freezing mark. There will be no time upon the river today.
Though I acknowledge I am blessed to live here in these Catskill Mountains, I had to give something away to receive the many blessings of the rivers of my heart. In the milder climate of Maryland or Southcentral Pennsylvania, the little warmups actually occurred, complete with midwinter outings to various ribbons of trout water. Here in the Catskills, they are the stuff of dreams.
Though there were sometimes days available in January, I always looked forward to the February Warmup, a fairly reliable annual event featuring three to five days in the fifties, sixties, and in exceptional years, nearly seventy. Several seasons back, I stole away to the Little Juniata River for a February day in the sixties.
There was just a hint of the sun when I arrived in the village of Spruce Creek, and I harbored high hopes for the dry fly. I made straight for my favorite pool, geared up and hiked into the river. With no sign of an insect, I passed an hour or two swinging a small streamer along the deepest channel, even rousing a respectable brown trout from his winter slumber when I bounced it through unseen fallen tree trunks. I fished with improved concentration then, feeling the waft of warmer air as the afternoon advanced, but there was no further activity beyond the rhythm of my casting.
As the warmth of the afternoon peaked and waned, I accepted the inevitability that my dry fly dreams must wait until spring. I walked upstream, planning my exit at a well-worn path at the tail of the upstream riffle. Nearing my destination, my gaze wandered across the tailout of the next pool, and my heart jumped at the sight of the soft rings that appeared there.
Half a dozen trout were sipping midges in the clear, gentle water above the break, and I set about my preparations. Leader lengthened, and a size 22 biot midge knotted securely to three feet of 6X tippet, I advanced carefully into casting range, creeping to the very lip of the riff. The bow in my light rod was an electric ecstasy as I reacted to the soft take of that first brownie. I played all six in turn, though the last shook the tiny hook still short of the net. Such were those dreamscape winter days.
Come March there was often an opportunity on Big Spring, largest of the limestone spring creeks in the Cumberland Valley. Afternoons might bring a light flurry of olives for a time, and the patient angler could find rewards. Early black and brown stoneflies would hatch on sunny days, not in great numbers, but enough that a handful of trout might rise and be tempted by a sparse tie of hackle and CDC. On one bright afternoon the early brown stones came to play and I managed five gorgeous wild rainbows on the dry fly, the best pair easily eighteen inches! Alas the heyday of the invigorated Big Spring was brief.
My last memory came on a cold day late in February, fishing with my friend Andy. I spotted one good fish sipping olives, and my old Granger tamed that twenty-inch beast. My heart was pounding as I brought that fish to the net, while Andy filmed the battle on his cell phone. The burning sensation I felt in my throat was a sign, angina, I would learn the hard way. Those days on Big Spring are no more, but I am still here as witness to what it once was.
In earlier years I stalked the Falling Spring throughout the winter. When those lovely warm spells came early, magic happened. Once, guiding in December, I made a cast after my client had fished hard through a little run of broken water. I wanted to demonstrate the perfect line control those wild fish required, and a leaping eighteen-inch rainbow made my point brilliantly! The gentleman fished with renewed concentration throughout the rest of that unseasonable seventy-degree day.
That fishery waned too, though I have fond memories of a run of seventy-degree days in early March, more than a decade ago. Stalking the water meadows with a Shenk Sculpin, I landed one of the last great browns in the twilight of that deeply loved fishery.
The glory of a Catskill spring is worth waiting for, and truly, the trials of winter make it even more wonderful when at last those first dimples replace the drifting mayflies!