The agony and ecstasy of fishing in winter
- By: John Gierach
About the time autumn ended last year, a friend announced half-seriously that he was getting too old for winter fly-fishing: standing all day in water just above freezing, tying tiny flies to tiny tippets with numb fingers and fogged magnifier glasses, often catching few if any trout. I thought, Yeah, me too, but I still end up doing it, if only because it's there to do. As often as I've tried, I've never been able to figure the odds in winter fishing. You know, what are the actual chances that you'll go fishing, hit everything more or less right-stream flow, cloud cover, temperature, hatches and the ineffable moods of the fishes-and find some trout you're able to catch? All I know is, the odds are noticeably lower in the winter, but it does happen, and by sheer force of numbers it happens more often the more often you go.Based on 30 years of local winter fly-fishing and the same three decades of hearsay, I'd guess that if you went out every second or third day all winter you'd hit half a dozen days that were downright great and about that many more that were good. All the rest would be dogs in terms of fish caught, but still somehow part of the process. There are those who deal with that by fishing "ferociously," as they say, but I've noticed that the happiest fishermen I know have simply developed a definition of success that includes any trip they live through. As my friend A.K. often says at the end of a slow day, "Well, we said we were gonna go fishing and we did." I naturally did more winter fly-fishing when I was younger. I may have been a little more impervious to discomfort then, but more than that I was new to the Colorado Rockies and still delighted that it was not only legal to fish with rod and reel year around, but that there were also a few stretches of open water-tailwaters and the odd spring creek-where you could actually do it with some hope of success. Growing up in Minnesota, I'd gotten used to a too-short summer fishing season and a too-long ice fishing season. I did ice fish, but only, again, because it was there to do and because staying home to play scrabble with your sister was for cream puffs. But even then it was painful and tedious. If you were sitting in the open on an overturned bucket, you were in real danger of frostbite. If you were shut up in a dark shanty with a heater, a bottle of schnapps for the men and hot chocolate for you, it was possible to die of boredom listening to the droning of the grownups while being told to be quiet yourself so you didn't scare the fish. The only advantage I could see was that there were no mosquitoes. Fish were caught now and then-northerns, walleyes or maybe perch-but that didn't seem to be the main point unless you were some kind of fanatic. In those days and in that place, the ice fishing shanty served the same purpose as the neighborhood tavern except that it was more socially acceptable. (Drinking in a bar had some ominous connotations, but drinking in an icehouse was medicinal.) There were times when I could tell by the tone of a voice or a sidelong glance that the men would have talked more freely without a kid around, so I'd act like I wasn't listening and try to learn something. Growing up, moving to the Rocky Mountains and learning to fly-fish opened up a new window on winter fishing. After the inevitable slapstick of learning how to do it, fly-casting was a lot prettier than staring down a hole, and wading and casting both involved movement, which is crucial in all winter activity. Waving a stick isn't enough exercise to keep you warm, but at least numbness and impaired coordination will tell you when you're cold enough to do something about it. The best day of winter fishing I ever had was years ago in the Cheesman Canyon stretch of the South Platte River during a blinding February snowstorm. The day was so cold that every time A.K. or I would catch a fish, we'd have to go back to our bankside fire to melt the ice from our guides, thaw out our reels and warm our hands. We had a pot of coffee going and the first sip of a fresh cup would melt the frost in your mustache. But even with all that time off the water, we each caught at least two dozen nice-size trout on size 20 Blue-Wing Olives and, as near as we could tell, we had the entire three miles of canyon to ourselves. It was still snowing when we left, and the drive home that night- which usually takes about two and a half hours-took more like five, and it was only a kind of pointless stubbornness that kept us from checking into a motel and waiting out the storm. We agreed that it was a glorious day of fishing and that we'd never knowingly do it again. Common wisdom says the best days of winter fishing are during periodic thaws with temperatures above freezing-maybe even up in the high 40's or low 50's at midday-and an approaching front that darkens the sky and spits a little light snow or drizzle. Bright days are sometimes OK, but too much sun is more likely to make the trout shy and keep the hatches down. Worse weather with more clouds, cold, wind and snow are usually better. The best two days I had last winter were when Vince Zounek and I drove over to the Frying Pan River on the West Slope. It was gray, chilly, snowing steadily and there was a little more wind than you'd want for fly-casting. We checked into a motel, stopped at a fly shop, dropped in on a friend for a few minutes and then hit the river, where we found rising trout in the first pool we went to. To someone who grew up fly-fishing the West, trout rising in the snow is only a pleasant sight, but as a transplant I'll probably never get over the amazement. This was one of those perfect winter fishing days: dark and cloudy, breezy, with moderate snow coming and going in waves and not quite too cold to fish. The thermometer at our friend's house had read 42 at noon, but the wind chill effectively lowered that by another 10 degrees to near freezing. Still, it wasn't bad. We dressed for it with long johns, fleece, wool sweaters, down jackets, fingerless gloves and insulated hats with earflaps. (When you're fishing in winter-not moving around that much while standing in cold water-you dress two or three times more warmly than you would if you were hiking in the same weather.) We were only moderately miserable, with the inevitable numb feet and stinging fingers; the fingers made even colder by periodically chipping ice from the guides on our rods and releasing fish. The trout were lying toward the head of a long, riffly pool feeding on a hatch of dark midges. We started with dry flies because many of the fish were showing the head and tail rise that usually means they're eating the floating flies. During some hatches you have to go underwater with a pupae or nymph patterns, either as a dropper off the dry fly or with a little lead on the leader to sink it deeper, but I always try the dry fly first just because it's such a pretty way to catch trout. That afternoon I got my fish on a size 22 A.K.'s Midge Emerger-a sentimental favorite pattern that I often try first. Vince got his on one of the suspender midge patterns he'd bought at the fly shop in town. These are two very different patterns, but they're about the same size and color and the fish were eager, so that day they worked interchangeably. The hatch petered off by about 3:30, so we wandered downstream to look at some small slicks and runs to see if any fish were still rising down there. It was pretty dead, but then Vince located two good-size trout rising to leftover cripples in a smooth back eddy. It was a tricky cast and a difficult drift, made no easier by the wind. He hooked the bigger of the two after a few tries, but the fish broke off on the set. Then, with a fresh fly on, he hooked and landed the other trout, which turned out to be an 18-inch brown. All in all, it was a pretty nice job of fly-fishing. That night, watching the Weather Channel in our motel room, we learned that it had snowed hard that day back on the East Slope and that the passes we'd driven over that morning were closed by the storm. It had also snowed hard just to the south in Aspen. Earlier we'd talked to a guy from a roofing crew down there who said they had to shovel six inches of snow off a roof before they could shingle it. It was windy and cold as hell and he didn't much care for being two stories up on a slippery roof, but a guy has to make a living, right? I told him we'd spent the day fishing, but I didn't complain about the conditions. According to the weather map, the Frying Pan Valley was sitting in a milder backwater of the storm, protected by mountain ranges on three sides that took the brunt of the blizzard. It was brutal at higher altitudes, but down on the river it was 10 degrees warmer, only moderately crappy and pretty much perfect for fishing. The next day the weather held about the same. We drove to a different part of the river and went to a stretch I've always liked where, sure enough, trout started rising to midges 10 minutes after we arrived. It was almost the same deal as the day before, with the bigger trout holding near the riffly head of the run and a few smaller ones down in the slower tail. Vince caught four or five trout on the suspender midge right off the bat, but I wasn't doing well on the A.K.'s Emerger, although I managed to get one on a size 22 Miracle Nymph fished behind it as a dropper. Finally Vince offered me one of his flies, making it less of a big deal by saying, "You've given me enough flies over the years." That did it, and we both caught trout off and on until, once again, the hatch petered out in mid to late afternoon. We drove upstream then and tried nymphing a few more spots, but it was pretty much over. I managed to hook two trout on Brassies, but both of them threw the hook. Vince never got a strike. Then we went even farther upstream and saw four other fishermen, two still in the water, two more just getting out. Those were the only other fishermen we saw in two days on a normally crowded river. It's not that anyone was scared off by the weather, they just couldn't get to the river with the passes closed. By 4:30 the temperature had dropped, the wind and snow had both backed off a little and the river had gone completely dead. I was beginning to think in terms of a hot meal in a warm diner. (When you're out in the cold all day, your body burns calories like a blast furnace, so as soon as you start to warm up, you become suddenly and desperately hungry.) We stuck it out for another half hour anyway, even with all but the faintest hope of catching a trout gone. There's nothing prettier than a trout stream in the snow and since neither of us do that much winter fishing anymore, this would probably be the good trip for that year. That kind of knowledge makes you want to linger a little. And there was that good smell: cold, clean, antiseptic, slightly metallic, but still somehow organic. When I was a kid I had a terrible adenoid infection-possibly caught while ice fishing-that left me with a seriously impaired and weirdly selective sense of smell. Flowers are lost on me, so is perfume, soap, most dumpsters and many spices. On the other hand, I can smell new-mown hay, smoke and coffee and once in British Columbia I unmistakably smelled a grizzly bear. And I at least like to imagine that I can smell a trout stream in winter.