Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sentinel Duty

Sometimes you have to push the season, if for no other reason than to protect your sanity.

For a committed fly fisher, casting through frozen guides while it snows sideways isn't unusual--winter fishing can be quite productive. But it takes commitment and discipline, like sticking to a diet ... or a budget.

Winter's long in the Rockies, and most of us will cast aside better judgment in favor of stretching some fly line in inclement weather. Success is hardly guaranteed. Gearing up is a process, and you often wonder if it's worth the ordeal of donning layers, and fingerless gloves and tying tiny, tiny flies to tiny, tiny tippet.

Oh, for a summer day, 3x and a Chernobyl.

But then, after you've post-holed through thigh-deep snow to the river, and you've worked up a good sweat under your layers of fleece and Gortex, the just-above-freezing water embraces your ankles and your shins. The water seems ... thicker. And, save for the sound of the river moving reluctantly downstream, it's quiet and calm. It's cold.

Somehow, before that first length of line is pulled from the reel, before the first tentative tug from a February trout, things feel balanced again. Centered.

Then the snow starts, light at first. It arrives whimsically, almost playfully. Fat flakes settle on the dark water and wistfully disappear. Just minutes later, the wind starts, and flakes turn to BBs of ice that sting the face and hands upon impact. Then it stops, and the sun bores through the clouds pushed by a patch of blue sky. Winter in the Rockies.

Chasing trout this time of year is more of hunting endeavor. Like a Midwestern whitetail hunter, sometimes it's best to park it in a stand and wait for the quarry to come to you. For fly fishers, that means settling over a likely run and waiting for whatever it is that triggers trout to move and feed during this austere season. Sometimes it's a dose of sunshine. Others, the snow does the trick.

This sentinel duty can be a lonely job, and there's no guarantee the fish will bother to awaken from their cold-induced slumber to do battle. There are diversions, though. Mallards and goldeyes cruise the bottoms looking for slow water on which to land. A bald eagle soars over the river, perhaps watching those ducks, hoping they get careless. A moose crashes through the river, spies the waiting angler and eyes him carefully before moving on. Then the fish come to life, and a slick starts to boil with feeding trout plucking midges from the film. The time spent waiting and watching pays off.

Now it's time to wade quietly into the water below the feeding fish. Rises are random, but they're frequent, so a target isn't vital. It's fly fishing horseshoes. Just get it close.

That first cast is emancipating. It's been weeks, maybe months, since the last time. It feels ... foreign. But as the rod loads, and the line carries through the guides with a cold hiss, the familiarity returns. When the tiny dry fly lays out on the calm water amid the rise rings, you're ready. You're a drawn bow.

Then the sip--because that's what winter trout do. The light tightens, the rod lifts. There's life at the end of that tiny tippet, and it feels good.

You can't wait for spring. It'll come on its own. You have to fish.

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