Winter fishing can be a brutal (and often futile) exercise. It takes a foolhardy person to step into an icy trout stream in the middle of January. However, I’ve never considered myself to be very sensible.
I grew up in New York, where winters are described as a million things other than mild. When you’re shoveling snow off the driveway twice a week and donning your warmest clothing just to take the trash to the curb, spring becomes an abstract, intangible, even ludicrous idea. You start to believe that spring will never come.
Losing faith in spring, I decided to start fishing during winter, cold be damned, if for nothing more than to spite the powers that be who allow the sun to set at 4:00 in the afternoon. Long underwear, heavy fleece sweats, two pairs of wool socks, mid layers, sweaters, and down jackets were all required for a day of fishing. With that much clothing stuffed into your waders, anyone who sees you is liable to wonder if the Michelin Man decided to take up trout fishing. Warmth superseded style.
Looking back at my notes from the time, I discovered that one winter, I fished for thirty hours before catching a trout. My ice-breaking fish (pun intended) was a six-inch brown trout. I remember he ate a zebra midge where a tongue of current washed into a deep pool and that I was so shocked my indicator had submerged that I set the hook late. Thankfully, the hook still found its mark. I nearly wept over that fish.
Another poignant memory occurred after a brief thaw raised the water level in the reservoir upstream from where I was fishing. Sheets of ice were being pushed over the spillway, crashing apart as they tumbled to the river below. By the time the water reached me, it resembled an ice bath. After I broke off my fly on a chunk of ice, I quit for the day.
Most of my winter outings were less eventful and are recalled as long, monotonous days spent with numb fingers. However, I managed to achieve a few moments of snowy glory over those years.
I once caught a plump brown trout while swinging a streamer through a deep, dark pool. That fish satisfied me until spring did indeed arrive several months later. The only trout I’ve caught on a fly I tied myself was a brook trout landed in February. And there were several times when, on the first warmish, sunny day in March, on one specific river, a blizzard early black stone fly hatch would shake the trout from their winter doldrums and bring them splashing to the surface. When I timed that hatch, my faith in spring was restored.
I now reside in South Carolina, where it’s much easier to maintain my sanity during the winter months. While I have yet to see a stream completely frozen over and covered with snow down here, winter fly fishing continues to be a difficult endeavor that still results in many fishless days for me.
I typically make my first outing of the year in early January. In most years, I haven’t stepped foot in a trout stream since the prior September. This first day back on the river is a homecoming.
Driving through the Piedmont to the mountains, I became concerned that my first trout of 2024 would be hard to come by. Heavy rains had swelled the lazy rivers of the foothills into frothing, sediment-laden torrents, and my car thermometer displayed colder and colder temperatures as I traveled northward. The shady sides of the farm fields I passed were laced with frost. I fantasized about walking the fencerows, Browning in hand, watching a bird dog’s breath billow in the slanting morning sun as we searched for pheasants and quail and rabbits. A momentary slippage in my focus on the fishing, which I am sure can be forgiven.
When I arrived at the river, all thoughts of other pursuits left my head. The water charged over plunge pools, tumbled under rhododendron boughs, and displayed a pale turquoise hue. It looked like the glacially fed streams I’ve seen only in pictures. While certainly a little high, the stream was perfectly fishable, even inviting. I felt giddy as I rigged my rod for the first time in months.
I fished the first pool with a dry-dropper rig, carefully working the flies upstream from the tail out through the body of the pool. At its head, the current swirled behind a boulder, making a full circle before spitting across a gravel bar. I dropped a cast here and watched as the dry fly floated downstream before it retreated away on the circumvent flow. Then, the fly disappeared in a splash.
I can’t say if I was more surprised that a trout took almost immediately or that it decided to eat the dry fly, which I had really tied on to serve as an indicator for the nymph below. Regardless, I blew the hookset and hung my flies in a branch behind me. I breathed a sigh of relief. Catching a trout from the first hole on the first outing of the year, on a dry fly no less, must have an even worse effect on your fishing karma than catching a trout on your first cast of a day of fishing. It can’t bode well.
Juju intact, I stepped up to the next pool, where I missed another fish on the nymph. He cartwheeled across the surface as I held the rod overhead trying to strip in line and keep tension, successfully throwing the hook as I fumbled with the rod. It had been a long off-season, and I certainly was rusty. But with two bites in the first five minutes, it looked like the fishing would make my short list of fast-action winter days.
And then all went quiet. I changed out the nymph, added weight, removed the dry fly, continuously tinkering to no avail. I settled into the slow rhythm of winter fishing, where the day is measured by the metronome of running water and the sun’s tracing of the hilltops.
Until I felt a thump as my flies drifted through a fast run. I lifted the rod tip, expecting to have snagged a rock, but up came a small rainbow trout. He was in my net in seconds, and just like that, I had landed my first trout of the year. I reacquainted myself with the velvet touch of wet trout, rose-colored gill plates, flanking teardrops of sky blue, and moss green backs speckled with black spots. And then I released my delicate grasp and returned the trout home.
God, it felt good to be back on a trout stream.