** This story was published in February of 2015. A couple of days ago, I spent time in the same area, adding to my history with this favorite place. Now with my new Australian Shepherd, River, along for the trip, I was reminded of this story. So I’ve revised updated and shared it here again.**
There was a large clearing on the far side of the cold river, underneath a thick stand of spruce trees. It’s a steep but quick hike to get on top of the ledge, but the canopy of evergreens has often provided me considerable shade in the summer. So I knew that on this winter day that the heavy snow 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 thinner and more powdery — because within the protection of spruce boughs, the shady plateau had avoided the short dousing of sleet earlier in the morning. The rounded, snowy outline of a fire ring reminded me of a chilly spring morning that I once spent here with my border collie, Dylan.
It has to be ten years ago now. And Dylan was in his prime — a perfect fishing companion. He loved this river completely, just as I do. I remember sitting near the meager ring of rocks, obviously unused for many season, and I contemplated building a fire. I decided against it, of course, 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 beside me for a minute or so, then he took off through the woods at a full gallop, head up, nose in the wind and a smile on his face. Next, he set a perimeter. No doubt this habit was instinctual to his shepherd genes, and after running fifty yards to the south, Dylan ran past me on his way north. As I rested on the ground with the spacious, air-pocketed root system of 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 a 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 of us — I see the clean snow in the parking areas. And the nastier the weather gets, the fewer the boot tracks there are to be 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.
I’ve fished enough of the winter now to have a few things figured out — not the actual fishing, mind you (because no one ever really figures out trout fishing), but the ability to be out all day in any conditions, to catch fish and not only enjoy myself, but to have some of my most memorable days of the year. 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 into somewhere special once again.
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 finally, you get back at it, waiting for the next set of failures and solutions. It’s things like these:
— I wear size 11 boots in the winter, although my feet are really 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. It took a while to find that carrying spot.
— After trying everything through the years, I still use fingerless wool gloves, because they’re just better than anything else. They stay warm when wet, they are cheap and they wash well. I also carry a spare pair of gloves in my vest.
— 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 non-sick spray, and Stanley's Ice Off Paste, I finally discovered that using a Mono Rig pretty much takes care of the ice-up issues. But the Stanley's is still best when the temps dip into the low twenties.
— 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 knowledge collected over seasons past. Nothing special. Just a result of time on the water.
The spruce tunnel curved a bit. It 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 of 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, Then I did it again and again. That’s the reward of knowing a river deeply.
It’s all about time on the water.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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