There’s a large clearing on the far side of the cold river underneath some tall spruce trees. It’s a steep but quick hike to get on top of the ledge, but the canopy of evergreens have often provided me considerable shade in the summer, and I knew that on this winter day the heavy snow that I was walking through would be only half as deep on the other side. I tightened the balaclava around my face, crossed the river, scaled the sharp incline (made easier by the snow on the rocks forming a virtual staircase), and stepped up onto the shadowy plateau. It was as I expected.
The snow here was much thinner and still powdery — having avoided the short dousing of sleet earlier in the morning within the protection of spruce boughs. The rounded, snowy outline of a fire ring reminded me of a chilly spring weekday morning that I once spent here with my border collie, Dylan. …………
It had to be ten years ago at least. He was in his prime — a perfect fishing companion, and he loved this river completely, just as much as I do. I remember sitting at that meager ring of rocks, obviously unused for many season, and contemplating on building a fire but deciding against it (as I almost always do) because it would take away too much fishing time.
When I climbed out of the water and up the bank, Dylan greeted me and hung with me for a minute or so, then he took off through the woods at a full gallop, head up, nose in the wind, a smile on his face; and then he sort of set a perimeter. No doubt it was instinctual to his shepherd genes; and after running fifty yards to the south, he ran back past me on his way north; and while sitting on the ground with the spacious, air-pocketed root system of the spruce trees below me, I could hear and feel the drumming of his footsteps. Dylan was Troutbitten …………..
I paused at the fire pit with those thoughts, and then I moved on. Today was about memories; about beauty, about the scent of cold winter air in the woods, and about a perfect peace found only in loneliness.
I wish I could share this feeling with people who raise an eyebrow when I tell them that I wade rivers in the winter regardless of the weather conditions. It’s my favorite season for fishing because these experiences — these emotions — are only available when the sun’s arc is low and fresh snow is falling on an already white canvas.
I know there are some of you who enjoy this time of year just as much as I do, but there aren’t that many — I see the clean snow in the parking areas. The nastier the weather gets the fewer boot tracks are found.
I thought about this as the path on the plateau narrowed into a wide tunnel of younger spruce trees. It’s about knowledge — and that knowledge is only gained through experience. At the risk of being thought immodest, I’ll say that this winter game is something that I have figured out. Not the actual fishing (because no one ever really figures out trout fishing), but the ability to be out all day in any conditions, catch fish, and not only enjoy myself, but have some of my most memorable days of the year; and I’m not talking about getting out of the truck and hopping over a guard rail to fish the water for an hour or two either. I like to hike in and explore — to go somewhere where I’ve never been, or to get way back there into somewhere special again.
What I mean is that there’s a set of knowledge gained from your own experiences on the water — from your own failures mostly. Then there’s a searching and finding of solutions for those failures, and then you get back at it, waiting for the next set of failure/solution. Things like these:
— I wear size 11 boots in the winter, although my feet are really only 9.5, because I can wear more socks; and yet, I still carry toe warmers in my vest for those freestone river days where the water is as cold as it gets and I’m working slow pools all day.
— On the coldest days I carry a small thermos of coffee. The first couple that I bought were too heavy, but finally the third one fits perfectly above my belt, against the small of my back and inside my waders.
— After trying everything through the years, I still use finger-less wool gloves because they are simply warmer than anything else, they stay warm when wet, they are cheap and they wash well; and I carry a spare pair of gloves.
— The thick wrist bands that I wear over-top of my gloves also make a huge difference, and they serve to anchor a hand warmer heat pack to the inside of my wrist on the very coldest days.
— I carry an extra fleece pullover sealed in a gallon Ziploc bag because just knowing it’s available keeps me warmer.
— I wear up to three hats.
— A windproof outer shell is a necessity.
— God bless the balaclava.
— After years of attempting to deal with frozen guides and fly line with Chap-Stick, Mucilin, Pam, and Stanley’s Ice Off Paste, I finally discovered that using an all-mono rig pretty much takes care of the ice-up issues.
— And never, ever dunk your reel in the water.
It’s these small things, and so many others, that keep me (fairly) comfortable and in the game all winter long. It’s just knowledge collected over seasons past. Nothing special. Just a result of time on the water.
The spruce tunnel curved a bit, widened, flattened and led me down to the water’s edge. Effectively, I cut off a quarter-mile of walking through (deeper) snow by crossing the river and taking the inside of a significant bend in the creek. It’s been a couple years since I took that path, but today I just followed the direction that my memories took me. I fished a stretch of water and then walked to the next piece that I had my thoughts set upon, and then I did it again and again; that’s the reward of knowing a river deeply.
The fishing was excellent.
It’s all about time on the water.
Enjoy the day.