Fishing in Winter

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We found out that Covid-19 had shuttered work two weeks ago. My co-worker Brendon and I had just finished an afternoon of fishing south of the Bitterroot Valley, a ninety minute’s drive from Missoula. Brendo (as he’s called) read the email aloud as I pulled away from the turnout. We weren’t surprised; it was only a matter of time. 

Brendo, a fellow Bay-Area native, is a close friend who I’ve fished and rock-climbed with more than anyone else. We tend to hyper-focus on either activity for extended periods of time. I’ll spend a considerable portion of my net-worth on ropes and quickdraws one summer, on reels, leaders, and streamers the next. We’re willing to drive for hours on consecutive days if we found a stretch of river with enough dumb fish or an escarpment with a line we must send. Somehow, over the course of changing between jobs, our respective weekends have always fallen on Monday and Tuesday. What follows is an account of a Tuesday afternoon of fishing, two weeks ago, for our year-long awaited return to hit two prized holes.

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Brendo, last summer.

Class is in session every time Brendo and I hit the water. He especially has a knack for nymphing, that is catching fish with wet flies beneath the water’s surface. It’s not as romantic as landing a fish at the peak of its rise, but Brendo, who worked at a reputable fly shop for five years, will always say, “People who don’t nymph don’t catch fish.” 

It being the end of winter, it’s tough to argue with his declaration, as the cold water all but freezes the fish. I hadn’t the slightest idea how to fish in cold weather until we hit this very spot a year ago. I was days into the throes of an unexpected heartbreak, and having caught nothing the prior afternoon elsewhere, I wanted to land a nice fish so badly it was a physical need, as if it were my only chance to lift the boulder from my chest. At the start of that crisp, sunny afternoon, I hastily postholed through snow and clomped through the water as I hucked line into what I thought were ideal structured holes and runs—the like of which I’d trade my tax-return to have to myself at dusk come May. Brendo hardly paid me any attention. Winter was a ballgame I didn’t know how to play, and the Fishing Gods took no pity on my lovesick eagerness. He kept moving, and his indifference confused me. I was worried I was high-holing him, so I trailed his slow gait. We walked nearly a mile upstream until Brendo was finally ready to fish. He stopped on the inside of a right-angled stretch of water, where a white riffle too dangerous to cross emptied into a deep bend that gently tailed out over thirty-or-so yards. He said where the fish were, and I was perplexed, confused even. We entered and walked across the sandy bed until we were more than waist deep, and he cast into water I’d have never thought to fish. Our nymphs dragged nearly ten feet beneath the surface, slow, very slow, sometimes catching the sand. He kept giving me unfamiliar instructions. And by God did my line finally tug. Elation, satisfaction, distraction—salvation.

There were some very simple observations I hadn’t made. I knew we had to fish beneath the surface, but I didn’t know why fish aren’t as hungry in cold weather. Which is to say that I never paused to comprehend that because they’re cold-blooded, their metabolism falls with the temperature; and fish who aren’t eating aren’t energetic, which explains why Brendo only wanted to fish the deepest slowest water he could find, the laziest possible shelter for a fish to hold position. 

I also could never have imagined the subtle nuances of nymphing, which is even frowned upon by purist dry-fly-fishermen. For example, we secured strike indicators (a pretentious term us fly-fishermen use to call a device that adds up to nothing more than a bobber) 8-9 feet above our wet-flies, which dragged slowly above the river-bed. At one point, Brendo gave instructions so subtle as to move my bobber a half-inch down the line, and however relevant you believe his advice was, I caught a damned trout by my next cast. 

This year, we arrived at the same river as shown on a map, but which looked far different at its banks. The water was lower, so the few holes we had driven 90-minutes for wouldn’t be as deep. The afternoon was grey and bleak, but the cold didn’t bite as hard. A few Canadian geese intermittently squawked away the silence as we slowly chased them upstream. The prospects for tugged lines weren’t very strong. At least we brought beer, I thought. (A cold-to-slightly warm beverage, or three of them, are always well received on a day of not catching any fish).

We fished first at the same bend of Brendo’s first stop the year prior, but the entrance riffle wasn’t very aggressive, the inside pocket as big nor deep. We caught nothing.

A little humbled by the goose egg at stop one of our year-long awaited and much discussed return, Brendo and I would have to adapt to a different river. We crossed a gentle ripple and headed upstream, the river on our left. We couldn’t find our prized hole from the year before, the one Brendo had said housed “every fish in the river.” We studied the eroded bank across from us. The branches and fallen wood that dipped into the water last year now hung high above it. We searched but couldn’t find the run. But then I spotted a drift log a hundred-yards upstream, resting on the gravel some fifty feet off the bank. “Didn’t we sit on that log last year?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Brendo said. It was at the water’s edge last year, and we had sat on it to switch our flies and enjoy the occasional smoke while we took turns fishing. Last year, this run was obvious. Now, there was only the slightest color change to detect, not enough to draw in the passive angler, but due to our knowledge, we had a feeling there were some trout in there. “Let’s go for it?” Brendo asked. 

“Sure, I mean why not?” I said.

We stepped out into the river, around twenty feet apart. We both drifted our lines along the subtle color change, fifteen feet in front of us. I got ahold of something big. As soon as it was visible, though, we both saw a white-fish. I netted it after a good fight. “There still in there!” I yelled, elated by the eradicated smell of skunk. Brendo pulled up a white fish himself, and I another one. Then he landed a nice cutthroat. We let the hole calm down while we each had a smoke but had no more luck when we threw our lines back in.

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Fishing the slight color change at our prized hole.

We walked back to the other side of the first bend we fished. There was a small eddy on its outside, pressed up against the steep bouldered bank, a small swirl of foam in its middle. “It’s worth a try,” Brendo said.

“You want first cast?” Brendo asked me as we stepped over the icy boulders.

“No, I’m good, man. You take it.” Brendo was silent at my response. I thought about the trout he might pull out of there before my eyes, how stupid I’d feel for the entire ride home. “No, man, fuck, I’ll take the first cast.”

Brendo chuckled. “I was wondering why you wouldn’t.” 

I stood on a small boulder directly above the narrow, six foot wide pocket of foam skirted by the fast current. I threw—or more like dropped—my line through the foam and watched my strike indicator slowly meander toward a drift when suddenly it disappeared. I thrust the line and felt violent jerks at its end. “Uhhh yea, bud,” Brendo said, dragging his cigarette. Whatever was on the end was pissed off. “A brown!” he said when it came into view. I dragged it into Brendo’s net. I took in its red spots along its brown back that faded into its gold belly. Nothing too sizable, but beautiful.

Brendo removed the strike indicator from his line and sunk his nymphs deep into a narrow skirt of slack water above the foam. It drifted far underneath the foam and before long he had a fish on. A whitefish. We hiked back to the truck. A half-dozen fish between the two of us, along with a half-dozen beers—not a bad day for an afternoon in early March. 

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