After taking three wrong turns on unfamiliar snow-packed roads we found what looked like the road we were hoping would lead us to catching enormous wild trout. You know what that road looks like. There was only one set of tracks in the snow and if we met that other car the drive in reverse down the winding snow-packed single lane road would have been scary as hell. Luckily when I slid the truck into the tiny trailhead parking lot the other guy was walking back to his rig, a sad looking nymph rig in hand. He had Kansas plates, long curly hair, and was definitely a little bit on the stoned side. It was 10 a.m., Black Friday.
Without us asking how the fishing was he was all, “Yeah man, I tried nymphing but the ice flows were just too heavy man.” I was stringing up an ugly black streamer I had tied with bead chain eyes and black marabou and pretty much nothing else. But I’d seen this little fly swim through the current before, and I liked it. Jigging it along an ice shelf should do the trick, if I was lucky. The younger fella pushed his snow board helmet out of the way and broke down his rod saying, “I tried a streamer too, but the ice was just too gnarly. I’m heading up to the Colorado.” We older and wiser gentlemen bid him good luck and wondered why he was leaving when it was finally the time of day winter fishing really heats up.
I had played golf a week before this fishing excursion and the friend I was with asked why I would do such a thing as fish in the dead of winter. Oddly, I hadn’t ever thought about it. It’s just something one does who is dangerously obsessed with anything. Anal retentives are gonna clean, fishermen are gonna fish no matter the season. No judgement passed.
Trudging through snow to a mostly frozen stretch of river is simply beautiful and the kind of quiet only winter can provide. The kind of quiet a person needs to hit that hard to find reset button. Like an old digital watch, it will take some doing to find it, but it’s there, and worth finding. Once the frigid water presses your waders into your legs along with sub-freezing mountain air all that “happy just to be here” shit goes flying out the window.
It starts with the dinner plate sized ice burgs floating bumper to bumper down the narrower than usual river that grab at your fly, and line, and every little wind knot. But then there’s a break and the water mostly clears for some reason and that’s when you realize the upper three or four ferrules on your rod are frozen solid. So you clear them out with your rapidly numbing fingers.
After cleared out, you look down to see your whole eight feet of leader and three feet of tipped resemble on long diamond necklace, and weighs just as much. We having fun yet? The next task between four-letter-words steaming out your mouth is clearing the ice off all this portion of the fishing apparatus. With index finger and thumb nail, you run your pinched fingers down the line spraying ice chips in your already frozen face.
At this point the ice had returned in full force to the water, so I naturally cracked a beer with my two buddies and admired the stillness of this winter scene saying stupid shit like, “better than being at the office,” and “that sun sure feels good.” Stating the obvious is a fly angler’s strongest suit and we can’t seem to help ourselves. “Bet the fishing before this land was settled was amazing.” Oh shut up already and drink your beer!
Catching fish in such a wintery river seems to be achieved in two ways. One is nymphing the usual locations where they should be. They are holding under the ice shelf and patiently wait on something to float by, then pounce. The other location these trout hold is exactly where you wouldn’t expect them to. Up against a bank in very shallow water. Out in the middle of a fast-moving riffle. Or right at your feet. My best luck in catching trout in this tough time of year is to streamer fish to every last hole and piece of slow water in the river. Yet they are seemingly everywhere and nowhere all at once. A good swing, if you can manage it has been my go-to for big fish and it’s a perfect way to get a streamer under an ice shelf.
Swinging streamers does ice up your rig quickly though, but resting the fish while cleaning off the icy mess is probably what they need anyway. These fish are conserving as much energy as possible, so giving them time to forget about you trying to put a hook in their mouth never hurts. And when that magical moment does happen and a trout decides it’s hungry enough to swallow your fly, the fight usually isn’t one for the books since they tend to be a little lethargic, yet it is fishing and you have frozen your ass off and trudged through knee deep snow drifts to get to this point. So hoist it high for that feeling of accomplishment (or photo op), but return it to the water immediately. This time of year, a fish needs to be handled and played to the minimum otherwise they won’t catch their breath.
So get out there and enjoy the quiet, the solitude, and the chill of a beautiful winter river. That reset button is just waiting to be pushed.