Negotiating the imperfect bargains of wintertime fly fishing.
by John Gierach
From the April 2009 Issue
I drove down to fish the South Platte River on what was predicted to be a relatively warm January day before the next arctic cold front blew in.
It wasn’t supposed to be all that warm—just a little warmer than it had been or was expected to be for at least the next week. As it turned out, the projected high in the low 40s was just a cruel hoax by the National Weather Service. Still, it was the only apparent window on the river for the foreseeable future, and I was getting desperate.
For one thing, I hadn’t been fishing in a month because of the weather. It had snapped cold back before Christmas, and uncharacteristically for Colorado it had stayed that way. One bitter storm after another marched through, with record-breaking snowfalls in the mountains and none of the usual thaws in between that would let a guy run down to the river for a day to shake off the shack nasties. Normally, Colorado is one of the many places on earth where you can say, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a day,” and weeks of monotonously identical cold had become weirdly oppressive.
The South Platte is about a two-hour drive from home, and it’s my only close shot at fishing in a hard winter. It’s a good, strong tailwater that stays open for miles while the streams closer to home are either frozen or too low and bone-chilling to fish. That includes our own local tailwater, which for complicated reasons ices up bank to bank except for a few hundred yards below the dam, but that short stretch is usually too crowded with despondent fly casters and neurotic trout to be much fun.
There are other, more distant tailwaters than the Platte, but they involve longer drives through the mountains in risky weather, multiple days on the river to make the trip worthwhile, the expense of motel rooms because it’s too cold to camp, and so on. You shoot for one of those periodic midwinter thaws when daytime temperatures can get up near 50 for two or three days running, but those are often caused by bone-dry Chinook winds that can melt two feet of snow from the top down, leaving dry ground underneath, and that blow at near hurricane force and make fly casting an insane exercise. But then just the possibility of going fishing somewhere means that eventually you have to go. In theory, I’m delighted that the fishing season in Colorado never closes. In practice, a closed season could make life easier.
So my friends and I compulsively checked the weather on the South Platte at the little crossroads town of Deckers and called each other with the forecasts. Deckers is roughly 70 miles south of here as the crow flies and only about 400 feet higher in elevation, but it’s in a deeper, darker valley, and the rule of thumb is, if we see nighttime lows around 10 degrees here, it’s more like 10 below in Deckers. It’s no accident that, near the bottom end of the Cheesman Canyon stretch, there’s a long pool known as the Icebox.
That’s how things stood when the mailman delivered the long cardboard tube that contained my new Walter Babb bamboo fly rod. I’d met Walter the previous spring when I fished with him and his brother Jim in some small mountain trout streams in East Tennessee. For years Jim had been telling me that Walter made excellent bamboo fly rods, but the testimonial didn’t really register. Jim knows a good rod from a bad one better than most, but Walter is his brother and they’re close, so what else would he say?
But then while I was there I got the chance to fish with some of Walter’s rods, and it turned out that Jim wasn’t just being brotherly. I almost ordered one on the spot, but decided to give myself a cooling-off period to ponder a few things. Jamaica Kincaid once said, “If there’s something you really love, you should have more than just one or two of them.” True enough, but I still had more than enough fly rods already, and as reasonable as Walter’s prices were, I’m not made of money.
But then what is money anyway? Isn’t it just symbolic value that comes in hard and goes out easy? You spend most of it on necessary but mundane stuff like gasoline, utilities, insurance, and new tires for the truck: the interminable dreariness of bills that can begin to look like the entire meaning of life. There’s always some benefit there—though usually less than there should be for the price. It’s just that it’s not fun.
You can see where this is headed. I held out for a week or so after I got home, then called Walter to order a 7-foot-9-inch 4-weight built on a modified Payne taper that I knew I wouldn’t see until fall at the earliest.
Walter called in November to say he was “Fixin’ to start on the rod,” and when it finally arrived in late December, I dry-cast it out in the yard on an 18-degree afternoon. It was sweet, but casting is one thing and fishing another, so I kept waiting for the break in the weather that would let me get to the river, until my patience finally ran out.
I checked with Danny Brennan at the Flies & Lies fly shop in Deckers, and learned that things didn’t look good. The river was flowing at 40 cubic feet per second—barely a trickle—and with nighttime temperatures hovering around 20 below there was deep crusty snow, wide shelves of bank ice surrounding narrow open channels, and lots of slush in the water. (You can count on Danny for an honest fishing report.) On the bright side, the trout were pooled up in the low water, so at least you could find them.
I got to the river at about 9:30 the next morning and took all the time I needed and more to bundle up and rig my rod, stopping twice to sit in the pickup’s heated cab drinking coffee from the thermos. The sky was darkly overcast, and I guessed the air temperature in the high teens, with enough of a breeze to really sting.
I had layered myself from the skin out with cotton, flannel, wool, and fleece, topped off with a Gore-Tex windbreaker, fingerless gloves, and an
insulated hat with ear flaps. I’d also laced my wading boots loosely to leave more loft in my wool socks for extra warmth. (I’m sensitive to this because I once frostbit a couple of toes. I didn’t lose them, but ever since they’ve been the first things to get cold and the last to warm up.) This actually works, although loose boots make you more likely to stumble. Like everything else about winter fly fishing, it’s an imperfect bargain.
There were two other cars parked ahead of me at the turnout, and only three other fishermen spread out in that normally crowded half mile of river. We’d all thought the same thing that morning: If you’re willing to fish in the poorest conditions, you can have more water to yourself on these famous rivers, but then once you get there you remember there’s a reason why they call them “poor conditions.” I’d called two friends to see if they wanted to come, but after checking the weather report they both decided they were too busy, and I idly wondered if they were the smart ones.
There’s a certain long, deep run above the Deckers bridge that I had my eye on because it always holds lots of fish and would be one of the few prime spots in these low flows. (If you’re familiar with the river, you know where it is; if not, I won’t spill the beans.) Anyway, there was a guy already fishing it, so I fooled around waiting for him to get tired, cold, or frustrated enough to leave.
I fished a long straight run of pocket water 50 yards downstream where I could keep him in sight without appearing to hover, although of course he knew what I was up to. It goes without saying that it’s never permissible to crowd another fisherman—never mind that some people do it anyway—but I think it’s okay to present yourself at a polite distance as the guy who’s next in line for the spot. On the other side of the equation, if you’re there first you do have squatter’s rights, but that falls somewhere short of actually owning the pool.
So I blind fished the pocket water downstream, killing time at first and then getting into it. I managed to spot two rainbows in a good-size plunge pool and cast methodically to them. The smaller one mouthed my nymph, but I missed him. The bigger one finally got tired of me and swam away. I’d been casting to that second fish from an ice shelf, and when I went to move I found my wet felt-soled boots had frozen in place, although not permanently.
I finally ran into the guy from the pool as we were both heading back to our cars to warm up, and I asked him how he did. “I got two pretty much by accident,” he said, “but there was so much slush in the water it was almost pointless.” The man wore a pained expression that had nothing to do with the number of trout he’d caught, and his nose was red while the rest of his face was a bloodless gray. He looked as cold as I felt. He showed me the two nymphs he’d been using, but they were encased in ice so I couldn’t make them out very well. It would have been pleasant to stand there and talk for a while, the way you can on a slow day on a nearly vacant river, but we were both too cold for that.
The guy broke down his rod before getting in his car, but he didn’t take off his waders, so I guessed he wasn’t giving up and going home but moving to another spot too far away to walk. After letting his engine warm up for five minutes, he pulled out slowly and headed back downstream, skidding sideways a little in the packed snow.
I’d seen the other two fishermen leave earlier, so I had the leisure to rest the pool for half an hour while running my heater full blast and drinking leftover lukewarm coffee. I knew there’d be hot, though not necessarily fresh, coffee down at the fly shop, but caving in to that temptation would put me a step closer to giving up entirely, and it was too early to start losing my nerve.
When I got down to the pool, the slush situation wasn’t so bad as the guy had described it, meaning he’d either been whining a little or, more likely, that things had changed in the last 45 minutes. There was still plenty of slush in the water, but for the time being most of it hugged the far bank with the current, leaving better than half the pool on the inside open.
There were a few smaller trout strung out in the shallow tail, with more and bigger fish toward the deeper eye of the pool, which is the usual configuration for this spot: fish stacked according to size, from the worst to the best feeding lies. They weren’t in what you’d call a feeding frenzy, but they were suspended off the bottom a little, and now and then one would dodge to the side or elevate slightly to eat an errant bug. That meant I had a shot. You can almost always spot fish in this river, especially when the flow is down, but as often as not in the winter they’re sitting motionless on the bottom, and the only way you know they’re not dead is that they’re not upside down.
This is a notorious small-fly river in the winter (if not year around), so I put on a light twist of lead and a pair of midge pupa patterns—a size 24 and a 26, one dark, one light. I now carry 3X magnifier glasses so I can see these little bitty things and a pair of needle-nose tweezers so I can get them out of the box with cold fingers. I even fashioned a clumsy tweezers holster on the midge box using duct tape, but the design needs work. So far I haven’t dropped the tweezers in the river, but it’s only a matter of time.
To keep the guides from freezing, I fished a short length of line that I was careful not to either shoot or retrieve, and added weight incrementally as I worked up toward the deeper head of the pool. It was slow going. Every 10 casts or so the wet part of the line would ice up in a pattern resembling a string of pearls, and I’d have to chip it off before I could cast again. By the time that was done, a glaze of clear ice would form around the wet flies. I thought it would probably melt away once the hooks were back in the water, but I wasn’t certain of that, so I’d chip them free with my thumbnail. Then I’d have to stop and warm my fingers in my armpits for a while.
I’ve repeatedly promised myself that I won’t fish if it’s so windy I can’t keep my hat on or so cold the line freezes, but most years I end up doing both a few times anyway, sometimes by accident and occasionally on purpose, because, as Annie Dillard said, “Tomorrow is another day only up to a point.”
Of course every time I took a break, I’d start thinking about the heater in the truck parked no more than 75 yards away, but then it was the proximity of relief that let me stay where I was. If I’d been upstream in the canyon, with a mile or more to go to get out, I’d have already been walking back or building a fire. As it was, I was oddly happy in the hellish sort of way winter fishermen become used to. In fact, most stories about winter fishing center around how cold it was. A friend recently told me he got so cold fishing the Frying Pan River one January that he could have cut glass with his nipples, but he didn’t mention whether or not he’d caught anything.
I’m sure it’s just my Midwestern upbringing, but I think being too cold makes you feel more immediately alive than almost any other non-lethal extreme I can think of. Cold forces you to confront actual reality instead of what someone once called “the usual rehearsal of abstractions.” Life becomes as simple as it is uncomfortable, and there’s the thought that assigning meaning to reality and peeling away layers of meaning so reality herself can breathe amount to the same procedure. Your ambitions are reduced to catching a trout or two and then going to warm up. Larger considerations of sex, money, and career can wait until the feeling returns to your extremities.
There’s also a kind of perverse pride in the idea that this is something anyone could do but that not everyone would, which reminds me of those old Swedish guys I remember from my childhood in Minnesota who would celebrate the new year by chopping a hole in the ice on the nearest lake and jumping naked into the freezing water. Reporters never tired of wanting to know why, but the interviews were understandably brief and usually disappointing. Clearly these guys had gotten beyond asking themselves that question or trying to answer it for anyone who didn’t already get it. I never had the guts to try it myself, but it was my first hint, at about age 13, that not being taken seriously could be a kind of saving grace. And of course the reporters always left too early, recording the spectacle but missing the fact that the real celebration came later, with central heating, schnapps, and bratwurst.
I don’t know how long I fished the pool. It seemed like a long time, but in the cold fishing time is subjective, and I hadn’t looked at my pocket watch since I got to the river. After that it was buried under so many layers of clothing and waders that I might as well have left it at home. I felt okay about hogging the spot, because the three fishermen who’d been there that morning had all left and no one had come along to take their place. As far as I knew, I had the whole river to myself.
I usually try to avoid the implied competitiveness of keeping score, but on a day when all indications pointed to a miserable skunk and I got some anyway, I can’t quite forget that I missed two trout in that pool and landed seven. The last one was a 14-inch rainbow hooked by accident while casting to a much bigger fish I could just make out holding deep in the tub at the head of the pool. It was one of those tricky drifts where the current wants to pull the flies out and away while the weight wants to pull them down and in, and although I thought I knew where my flies were, the trout I hooked was three feet to the left of the one I was casting to.
I played the smaller fish downstream so as not to spook the big one, and made a point of giving him his due. He was a fat, handsome rainbow that put up a good fight on 7X tippet, and I didn’t want to be disappointed by him even though he wasn’t the one I was after.
Back at the spot, I needed a few minutes of staring into the water to convince myself that the big trout wasn’t there anymore and that it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because in the space of just a few minutes the water had filled with slush. It must have warmed up a little: not enough to make me feel any warmer, but just enough above freezing for more bank ice to calve into the current, making the water not only opaque but pretty much unfishable even with heavily weighted nymphs. I’d spent most of the day wishing it was warmer, but I hadn’t foreseen the consequence of a slush hatch, proving once again that what seems like misery can later turn out to be luck you didn’t recognize at the time.
The rest is anticlimax. Back at the truck, I left my rod in the rack and my waders on while I blasted the heater and gnawed on my sandwich: a gut bomb bought at a gas station in Conifer consisting of two slices of tasteless white bread around a vaguely egg salad–like substance. My thermos was ice cold and it was past three by the dashboard clock, so there’d be no more hot coffee at the fly shop. Danny closes at three in the winter so he can fish for a few hours before dark, or on a day like this go home and start a fire.
I was still a little too keyed up to go home myself, so I drove downstream to see how much of the river had stayed open. A lot of it, actually—all the way down past the bridge at Trumbull—except by then it was choked with so much slush that the current had slowed to the consistency of syrup, and an icy tinkle reminiscent of a gin and tonic had joined the usual quiet rush of the river. The forecast was for colder weather, but I didn’t know then that within a few days the low at Deckers would reach 33 below zero and the river would freeze solid from bank to bank—something no one I know had ever seen or heard of before.
I de-rigged at a turnout below a spot known as the Beaver Pool and began mentally composing a letter to Walter. All rod makers like favorable reports, but I know some who’d be offended to learn that I’d been chucking lead between ice shelves with their elegant little bamboo dry-fly rod. But then Walter is nothing if not practical, and I didn’t think he’d mind.
John Gierach is a freelance writer living in Colorado where, for better or worse, there is no closed season on fishing.