Winter Fishing

Winter fishing offers an opportunity to enjoy the subtle beauty of the season and partake of true solitude. There are not that many of us crazy enough to wander rivers when ice lines the banks and the cold winds blow.

I am still giving thanks for an honest February warmup, enough of a respite from a particularly frigid winter that I enjoyed two days of fishing. That turns today, as our daytime temperatures are expected to fall from a comfortable morning high right down the scale to freezing. Tonight, our lovely Catskill countryside will revisit the teens. And yet, I am smiling.

Sunshine was abundant on Wednesday, and I was fortunate to bask in its glow throughout the afternoon until the breeze rose late, driving a chill over the water. Yesterday was expected to remain cloudy after a brief taste of morning sunshine, and with strong winds from the south, usually a warmer breeze at this time of year. I was looking for a high in the mid-forties, but dressed for that wind as, regardless of its favorable origin, it was expected to blow at 10 to 20 miles per hour. The day outperformed on several counts.

While clouds gathered, that sun was strong enough to provide a bit of cheer, to the angler and the river. The winds were rough, buffeting me for all but a very brief period, and requiring the old sidearm casting style developed upon Southcentral Pennsylvania’s tiny creeks, albeit with a nine-foot rod and a long line.

If you have followed this blog, you are distinctly aware that I am a dry fly fisherman. Yes, back in the bad old days I cast (lobbed) weighted nymphs when there was no chance of surface action, but I had my fill of it during my many years in the Cumberland Valley. For most of the twenty-three years I resided there, our dry fly fishing came only between mid-June and August, terrestrial time.

Blessed to retire here among the rivers of my heart, I now enjoy six to seven months of dry fly fishing, content to sit along the riverbank when patience is appropriate to preserve good dry fly water. That still leaves six months of off season, winter if you will, to deal with. As confessed previously here, I no longer have the heart nor desire to lob weighted flies and bounce them along the bottom of the river. I still long to spend time along rivers during every one of those six months of winter, so I have taken to swinging flies when the elements grant me the gift of time on the water.

Our weather turned sharply in November this year, and it has been absolutely relentless, with many overnight lows down in the dungeons of ice, below zero. Thus, I have not haunted bright water since December, having to pick and choose my handful of days even then. As reported earlier, I luxuriated in Wednesday’s sunshine, even enjoyed a glimpse of a rising trout. Once, twice, before he succumbed to the chill of the river and the rising wind. I fished to him, or pretended to, but we both knew there was no chance for a union.

A sane man would have studied yesterday’s wind forecast and sat down with a good book. Apparently, sanity must have left me long ago, for the pull of bright water was far too great to resist.

I tried swinging a little North Country fly, a sparse little beauty of woodcock and orange silk, but I knew it was useless to hope to control the drift on the wind ripped river. As the blow intensified, I changed my fly first for an unweighted Hen & Hare’s Ear and at last to my small, brass beaded Copper Fox. The Fox would sink, while still being light and buoyant enough to allow the choppy surface to tug at it, giving it extra life.

The Full Dress Copper Fox came about in stages during the past year, as I played around with materials from my steelhead tying kit. The fly shimmers and moves at the behest of the microcurrents of the river even in still pools. The more current, the more life in the fly!

I tie the fly on a size 10 2XL shank hook, a relatively small fry for a streamer fly. The wing and tail of Red Fox tail provide movement and that touch of buoyancy. Fishing it on the swing lets the fly do its job, drifting slowly down beneath the surface, searching for an old hunter on the prowl for a winter meal.

Thought about and planned for, the remarkable occurrence of yesterday afternoon still relied a great deal upon serendipity. One can put themselves in a particular place at the warmest part of the day in hopes of such an encounter, then make the casts and relax while the slow swing and drift makes the offering; but something of the magic of rivers is required for the offer to be answered.

At just about the hour that the river reached its maximum temperature, my Copper Fox shimmied across the sight line of one of those old hunters, a trout moving in search of a meal to last him several days. The swing is different from my usual method of fishing, and it still requires some conscious discipline. One doesn’t strike back when he feels a pull. The rod felt heavier and rubbery for a moment, as the unseen fish pulled the loose coil of line from my fingers, and then I raised it slowly to bow in a very wide arc.

The trout was strong, with surprising vigor for the still very cold water. He ran, he shook his old head, and came up and boiled at the surface. I was into it, and really starting to put the pressure on when I remembered tying that length of twenty some year old 5X fluorocarbon tippet to the end of my leader back home in the comfort of my fishing den. It was a poignant moment for that memory, and I eased up on the rod immediately and gave the fish his head until he was ready to join me in the shallows.

The first time I slid the net underneath him I was astonished to see his length filling my big net and his broad tail sticking half a foot above the back rim. I lowered the net back down into the water and tried to secure my rod under my arm, and that old warrior jumped out of the bag and headed back for midstream! I pivoted quickly and pointed the rod at him, feathering the departing leader and line with my fingers until the brown began to pull against the reel’s light drag.

So once again we danced, running, boiling and finally scooped again with his tail waving in the breeze. I walked him back to the shallows and twisted the fly free. I was trying to lay him along, or beyond the length of my net to measure him, when he jerked away from my hands and darted back toward the middle of the pool. I had judged his length but had not yet been able to actually measure it as is my custom.

The wind calmed for a brief spell after that, and I stood there in the river tingling with excitement. I fished on down the pool and strode back to the top and fished it again, though the wind howled with renewed vigor.

Arriving home, I got a tape and measured along the inside of the net bag from rim to rim: thirty inches. With that tail out of the net, that brown’s nose was perhaps a few inches shy of the rim, certainly well better than two feet long, but I don’t believe he would have taped thirty inches. At least, I don’t want to think he was thirty, that he matched that milestone without the honor of being taken on a dry fly.

I have entered the fish in my log at twenty-seven inches, a conservative judgement, appropriate since I never completed my measurement in the water. He had that cold, steel gray hue of winter on his flanks, and plenty of heft to match his length; an old warrior wintering well.

My last brown trout from December. He was measured against the net handle quickly at, or just shy of twenty inches long. Note that cold, steel gray hue, much the same as yesterday’s leviathan. The net bag, measured along it’s centerline, spans thirty inches from rim to rim, without deflection of the rubber mesh.

Whatever tale the tape may have told shall remain a mystery. Alas my fishing camera was back in my fishing den, placed where I wouldn’t forget it, when I grabbed my gear for the day. Though my memory has limits, the vision of my largest Catskill brown trout with his tail waving above the net rim will remain as long as there is life in me.

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