I planned to meet Smith on the water. Typically, we ride together or meet at some small woodsy pull off. But our start times didn’t quite align this time, so I told my friend to get a head start — I’d catch up with him later. As my life has become more complex over the last decade or so, with two young boys and a business that’s growing limbs, Smith is pretty much living the same life he was after the military. He’s single, has a stable job, tons of free time and a relentless desire to hit the river. Those are good qualities in a fishing buddy.
I followed Smith’s tracks through the fresh pile of snow that had arrived overnight. With schools closed and many local businesses shut down, you might think the river would be overrun with anglers. But no. Smith’s big boot tracks were alone in the clean snow. And at 10:00 am, when I’d pulled in behind Smith’s truck, there were no other tire tracks on the dead-end road — just a blank white canvas. I guess everyone was home shoveling. I’d do that later.
The snow was the powdery kind, so it was easy enough to bulldoze my legs through twelve inches. Smith’s path went over some fallen logs and hills that I would have gone around, but his trail was rapidly filling in with new snow, and I didn’t want to lose it. So I stayed on course.
I scanned the river and walked along a shelf of pines about fifteen feet above the water. When I rounded the bend, I expected to see a few hundred yards downstream to an ancient limestone outcropping, but the blowing wind pushed thick powder from the pine boughs, creating an impenetrable whiteout over the river. At length, I stood and stared into the upper reaches of the evergreens. I let my eyes roam and search for squirrels in the treetops, until I was finally distracted by a pair of Chickadees nearby. The friendly birds were close enough that I could see small red berries in their beaks for brunch. And the black-masked birds danced happily through nearby branches.
The wave of wind passed like a fading jet engine, and snow cleared over the valley. Then I saw Smith’s form, midstream in the dark grey river. He was casting with tight loops toward the best spillout for miles around. Of course he was . . .
I met up with Smith. After a short conversion with my friend, and some shared beef jerky, I learned that the fishing had been dead slow. He’d tried a little of everything so far, except dries. He’d nymphed three different ways and tossed streamers on the soft edges that held deeper water. Smith’s latest plan was to slow down and target what should be the best nymphing water, while rotating through his confidence flies and keeping the faith. He asked if I wanted to try covering different water types upstream, and I obliged.
This is one of the great things about having a like-minded fishing companion. Neither of us cares who catches the most or the biggest trout (pretty much). Our purpose is to solve the daily puzzle. Smith and I have enough confidence in our rigs and tactics that we can fairly rule things out when they just don’t work. And with four eyes instead of two, with two rods instead of one, we can theoretically weed through the great eternal question twice as fast — what are they taking?
It was my job to test various water types. I would hit the soft seams and glides. I’d fish the riffles and hard runs with likely tactics, paying special attention to the proximity of structure, water depth, the light angles and things like that. But I was to cover water, not stay in one spot for very long. Good. The strategy suited my mood.
“Every angler goes fishing to get away from things — and most times that means getting away from people too. So whether they be friends or strangers on the water, going around the bend and walking off gives you back what you were probably looking for in the first place.”
Smith, who had already covered a good bit of water and rotated through tactics, would hunker down and attempt to find a preferred nymph pattern in prime water. As this river cools through the winter, we’ve both noticed the trout’s tendency to move into the deep stuff to feed. When trout get cold here, they hold not in pools so much, but deeper water, big holes with good flow that keeps food coming to the trout. There’s not much water like it, but where it’s found, trout are always there. Smith would now fish one of the best of those holes.
We split up. And twenty minutes in, I finally got my first hit. I missed the take because it was right at the end of my drift — I wasn’t ready. But mercifully, the trout gave me a second chance. I unbuttoned the fish and released it. Then I turned to motion to Smith, fifty yards downstream. He gave me a little head nod. So I held my hands apart, gesturing at about double the size of the trout, and Smith’s head nod turned to a disagreeable shake.
An hour later, I’d covered many water types with a few different looks on nymphs and small streamers. I had just one more trout to the net, and that seemed like an accident. This is trout fishing, and there are days like this. But over the years I’ve learned to keep fishing anyway. Make a plan, find a focus and hang in there. What else are you gonna do? Give up?
I saw Smith exit the stream and walk over the white bank in my direction. The snow had stopped falling, and the day had brightened considerably. But the cold sun couldn’t break through a solid grey sheet of clouds. Smith waded out to me, and we shared more homemade jerky as we exchanged what we’d learned — it wasn’t much. After many fly changes, Smith had caught just one trout and moved another. I was still stuck at two fish.
I saw Smith’s eyes focus on something upstream, and I turned to see another angler fishing toward us. He was coming downstream and approaching fast.
“That’s Tim,” Smith said.
“You know him?” I asked.
“Yeah, I told him we’d be out here,” Smith replied. “Tim’s a good dude. Streamer junkie. Fishes quick. So he’ll have that angle covered.”
I looked at Smith and shrugged. “More data, I guess.”
I wasn’t really excited about sharing the water with anyone else, but throwing big streamers and stripping the banks was something neither of us had tried, and I supposed that was Tim’s job now.
Smith returned to his honey hole and continued rotating through confidence nymphs, and I waded over to a foot-deep riffle near some brush. It was a great spot for larger trout that might be looking to ambush a baitfish and then hunker down under a dark log for the rest of the day. I wanted to run a small streamer through there before Tim came downstream with the big guns. I caught one right away on a two-inch long Bunny Flash. It’s a simple little fly, designed for riding deep and getting down quickly. It’s attractive enough, but it doesn’t break your heart to lose a few in the brush — the Bunny Flash is a quick tie. Some would call it a guide fly, for that reason. But come to think of it, most of my flies are this way. I’m not one for elaborate dressings. A second trout hit the fly the instant it touched the water. I wasn’t ready again, so I blew the only other chance I had in that riffle. Then, when I got to the top, I walked along the dry riverbed and stayed back far enough to give Tim a crack at fresh, unspoiled trout.
We spoke when I passed. He seemed nice enough, I guess. Tim said he’d moved a few trout but hadn’t had any real takes — classic big streamer stuff. I sort of envied his commitment to the game. With one fly box and a spool of 1X, he was probably set for the day. He covered a bunch of water in rhythm. And he would keep that rhythm, likely until dark. If he got to the end of the day with no trout, he could still walk back upstream through the growing twilight, satisfied because he’d spent a day astream chasing trout on his own terms. He could say he was only going for trophy sized trout after all, and the prospects of such things are always low.
And here I was doing the opposite of all that.
I thought about it as I clipped back the tippet, tied a couple leader knots and changed flies again. I was looking to catch trout on their terms — not mine. My goal was to learn what the trout wanted today. So I was committed to testing and trying things until I answered the fisherman’s eternal question — what are they taking?
I like my game. But on days like this, a deep frustration creeps in if you’re not careful and guard against it — especially when a guy like Tim passes by to provide the perfect contrast. On a slow day, with no clear answer and no data gathered, the failure feels defeating. The other option is to pick a tactic and fish the shit out of it until dark. That’s exactly what Tim and Smith were doing, and their strategy had a good chance of succeeding.
By the time Tim fished down to where Smith was, I’d made my way to the bend. I crossed over to fish the inside flat, just to test a different water type, and I glanced back toward the guys one last time. Then, knowing I’d be solo for the rest of the evening, I walked out of sight. I think it’s fine to be reserved and reticent out there. Every angler goes fishing to get away from things — and most times that means getting away from people too. So whether they be friends or strangers on the water, going around the bend and walking off gives you back what you were probably looking for in the first place.
With a couple hours of daylight left on a short winter day, I’d cycled through just about every reasonable cold water tactic. I’d tied on at least twenty different flies, and I was coming back through the heart of my confidence patterns. I’d surely covered every water type too. And after all that, the trout tally was low enough for me to still remember — five. I thought about giving up on my strategy — maybe throwing on a big streamer and chucking it until dark. But I realized I was deep enough into the day that I’d probably feel more satisfied by seeing my plan through.
Then, an hour later, I said it out loud: One more fly change. I would fish a single stonefly on a tightline, and I’d cover water, alternating between dead drifts and jigs in the deepest, greenest stuff I could find. With darkness coming, the light for effectively tying knots and adapting rigs was fading fast anyway.
The best trout of the day ate on my second cast with the stonefly. And I welcomed the quick shot of adrenaline and hopefulness — I breathed it in deeply. I doubled down and refocused.
A few minutes later, another trout hit. Then another. And by the time I could no longer see any part of my line through the growing darkness, I’d easily lost count of how many trout came to hand — all on the stone with extra legs. All while leading the fly with a little speed through a one-seam drift.
Maybe the trout just turned on. Maybe a bite window finally happened a half hour before dark. And maybe I would have caught one fish after another with a bunch of other flies or tactics. Maybe not.
I texted Smith that night to ask how the last-light-bite was for him. But he told me he and Tim had called it early to go grab some food and beers at the brewhouse.
I tend to believe that success came from the stonefly. And I think it was the presentation — the slight speed lead. I think it was the water type too — deeper and greener, the good stuff for a winter fish to stage in, with just enough flow to keep the bug buffet moving through. I think I finally found the right combination. It just took all day to get there.
Who knows? But tomorrow, I’ll start with that stonefly, and I’ll fish the green water, adding a little motion to the fly.
And if that doesn’t work . . . I’ll try something else.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
I don’t know if you were ever a writer in your past life, but you are damn good at it. You really paint a picture and make it feel like the reader is out there with you (despite you trying to “get away”, we are there in imagination – lol).
I was an English major.
Many years ago I would occasionally keep a wild trout to eat, and I would always examine the stomach contents. Except for trout caught during a hatch, the stomachs contained a variety of organisms. There would usually be a crayfish, some terrestrials, and a lot of mostly small mayfly nymphs. So, one would think that a size 16 or 18 pheasant tail nymph would always be a killer, but we know that is not always the case. Do you have any idea why trout that are seemingly willing to eat whatever natural that comes down the stream are so fussy about which flies they will take? In the winter the rivers that I fish have BWOs, little black stoneflies, and midges, so you would think that nymph imitations of those insects plus nuke eggs would be a sufficient selection of flies, but it is not.
I don’t know, man. That’s just fishing. So many variables. If you think it’s the fly, then change SIZE more than anything else. Then flash level.
Maybe it was my very slow weekend (no fish to hand), but this spoke volumes to me. Thanks for the great writing and all the valuable lessons.
You got it.
Beautiful. Thanks for another nice journey.
Wow….. I enjoyed the story so much and it written so well I felt at the end, I was also in the river.
Nice story. I really felt I was there, tying on that stone at the end, and getting all those eats. Nothing beats a big finish after a tough day. Gotta love those happy endings.
You mentioned that “As this river cools through the winter, we’ve both noticed the trout’s tendency to move into the deep stuff to feed…they hold not in pools so much, but deeper water, big holes with good flow…” And also that your success at the end of the day was “…in the deepest, greenest stuff I could find.”
This type of water seems to be a “standard” (I emphasize the quotes!) location for fish to move into in winter as the water temperature gets colder. So I was interested in reading that you were also experimenting in all water types including a foot deep riffle (which seems almost a polar opposite of deep stuff).
I know all rivers are different, but have you found in general that in winter fishing the deep stuff isn’t the only option? And especially shallow riffles? That tends to be the warmer water temperature spot (again, “standard”!). I need to experiment more myself with this but was wondering about your experience.
It was a very interesting and well written story…thanks!
Oh my, yes. Trout can be anywhere they want to be. Deeper and slower in the winter is just a starting point. If the action is slow, you HAVE to try different water, in my opinion. I fish mostly spring creeks in the winter, and trout can literally hold anywhere, all year long. But there are trends, of course. Tailwaters can be the same in the winter. Freestone waters are different. It’s less likely that trout will be in the riffles, for example, but we just can’t take anything for granted, especially if they don’t eat where they are “supposed” to.
It’s always interesting to read about trout fishing across the Atlantic.In Britain the season doesn’t start until mid March.
We dont have rainbows in our rivers,which are high and coloured with rain.A fish pattern and spiders and some dry mild weather ,perhaps an early hatch of olives would be on the list.Tying some Snipe and Purples and bead hares ears will be a plan.Some lovely looking browns in your photos.
Time to also think of salmon as well.Simon in lockdown ,Manchester UK