On my knees, hunched against the brittle cold in an immense wind-whipped landscape of frozen pines and icy river rock, I must look like a man in the last stages of exposure, praying that the end will be swift and painless. Or perhaps I suggest the promise of a little nosh for some insomniac grizzly determined enough to claw through wrapper after wrapper of polar-weight fleece before striking lunch, my death a silent monument to American consumer packaging.
In truth, I am fishing–freezing my butt off, to be sure, and catching nothing at the moment but a vicious windburn from the Arctic air mass that’s blasting down the throat of Montana’s Madison River Valley. This territory, so familiar to me from countless summer trips, is vacant and disorienting now. Past the dead of winter, the river has entered that no-man’s-time where it isn’t clear if you’re fishing beyond the end of one season or before the start of the next. Not that it matters much. The weather’s the same.
Except when it’s different. I arrived nearly a week ago to the kind of fluky shirtsleeve temperatures that sometimes visit the winter Rockies. The spring spawn was still as far off as spring, but some of the larger rainbows were already staging up in loose pods, and with them big browns claiming an early seat for the buffet of bugs churned up by redd-digging and the rain of caviar to follow. They were hardly pushovers, indifferent to anything but slim little nymphs–Serendipities, Bloodworms, Thread Midges–no bigger than an eyelash, rigged in tandem beneath a split shot and gently moonwalked along the bottom. The strong water, thin tippets, and tiny hook gaps conspired to make me lose fish, but nice, thick-bodied trout hit with enough regularity that I could forget it wasn’t summer.
That was then. Four days ago the bluebird weather headed south, and the fishing followed close behind. I’d come to try the place in a different season, and winter obliged with a vengeance. Today dawned to a single-digit thermometer and a hide-peeling wind. I packed my gear, drove upriver, and parked eight long hours ago in a makeshift pullout plowed at the head of a dirt two-track. In summertime it takes you to the river, but it is now impassable beneath 30 inches of snow. To avoid the powder, I walked a frozen snowmobile track for a while, then the packed prints of a lone snowshoer. Even then, my weight would break the crust every dozen steps or so, burying my leg to the crotch with a spine-jamming jolt, and the repeated effort of pulling free left me simultaneously sweaty and chilled. A hundred yards from the car, I considered turning back to leave a note on the windshield–my wife might want the body for sentimental reasons. But I pushed ahead and at a likely spot left the trail, post-holing the last 25 yards to the river. It took the better part of an hour to grind out less than one exhausting mile.
But it is glorious here. The ring of mountains around me looks fingertip-close in the crystal air. Except for the sound of the water, it is hauntingly silent. And mine are the only boot tracks along a river that, in a few months, will be upholstered with fishermen. No one wants it now. The fair-weather anglers are huddled at home; the guides have returned to their day jobs or taken off for Key West to work on their hangovers and melanomas. Even with a subzero windchill, life holds no feeling more luxurious than having a trout stream all to yourself.
Vast snowdrifts have corniced out over the riverbank, and dropping 6 feet through an overhang and into the water could quickly set the day rolling downhill. So I sit a couple of yards from the edge, kick a crude trough in the snow as I move forward, and sluice into the water. Ice clots the guides after half a dozen casts. Dipping the rod under water to clear them becomes a self-defeating gesture–like scratching a mosquito bite, it gives temporary relief but in the end only makes things worse. Eventually, I give up and cast a fixed length of line frozen to a fly rod that is now little more than a $500 cane pole. In between the convulsive, full-body shivers that pass for casting, I ponder the particular subspecies of madness that has driven me here, 900 miles from home, just shy of the Continental Divide, 6,800 feet up into the frozen no-when of the year.
A red-yarn strike indicator, bright as a blood spot on snow, is the luminous reminder. It curls around the face of a boulder and hesitates, just the slightest wink in the drift. Common wisdom holds that trout in winter water are lethargic and slow, but evidently the news has not traveled this far. Seventeen inches of rainbow, plump as a Buddha and colored like a slice of summer, decides to reconnoiter, vaulting from the water to nearly eye level, then bolting downriver. I intend to give chase, but my southern hemisphere, submerged in the frigid river for an hour, never gets the message. The trout and I part ways, and I stumble stiffly to the bank to rerig the broken leader and warm myself with fantasies of hot soup ladled over steaming cornbread.
Everything takes longer in the cold. Knotting a tiny No. 20 Brassie to a wisp of 6X tippet with deadened fingers feels like trying to assemble a watch while wearing catcher’s mitts. I tear open a pair of chemical hand warmers, squeeze them in my fists, and eventually finish the job. The minuscule flies, the fragile leader, the delicate takes–all are absurdly out of proportion to this season of enormity and brute force. It seems preposterous to be searching out trout as long as my forearm with flies the size of a hangnail in water that is only a few degrees away from solid ice.
What is more preposterous is that it works. You must first contend with the sluggish, plodding clumsiness of everything–wading with feet like frozen turkeys, hands anesthetized by cold, blood and reflexes slowed to a crawl despite the sausagelike bulk of clothing. But beyond these difficulties are trout. They hold in the protected depths of pools, along sheltered banks, in the lees of boulders, against ledges and dropoffs, in all the places you would hunker if the current were a winter wind. They’re here, thousands of them per mile, just as in summer, just as always. But you’ve gotta fish like you believe it. Winter trout are as much an act of faith as of fortitude.
Then along about dusk on a day like this, after the weather’s worked you over pretty good, comes the strangely warming sensation of minor heroism, a certain self-righteous satisfaction in pushing the limits while others are snug in their jammies at home. It is a sense that you’re a bit tougher, that you want it more–that you have what it takes and they don’t. That they may have large, well-developed brains instead never crosses your mind because it’s not the point. The point is simply that you love to fish, to take the pulse of a place frozen in sleep through a trout throbbing on the end of your line. Very few things make you feel this alive.
Some years back, I considered moving permanently here to the heart of trout country but finally gave up the idea–figured I couldn’t take the winters. Now, I’m not so sure.
FLIES TACKLING THE COLD
TROUT FEEDING PATTERNS CHANGE WHEN TEMPERATURES DROP AND INSECT LIFE CYCLES slow down, so you’ll have to alter your tactics a bit. One of these three approaches should coax a few fish from their icy lies.
SMALL & SLIM On most winter trout streams, tiny mosquito-like midges are the most active and available food form. Standard midge pupa patterns–such as Brassies and Serendipities–can be effective. So can slim-bodied nymphs, such as the Flashback Pheasant Tail. But size is often more important than the specific fly. Think small, and go for patterns in sizes 18 to 22 on 5X to 7X tippets.
HIGH & DRY Rising fish are a bonus rather than a mainstay of winter fishing, but it’s worth it to be prepared. A size 18 or 20 Parachute Adams or Parachute Black Gnat, or a Griffith’s Gnat in sizes 18 to 22, will cover the occasional hatch of midges or, on some rivers, bluewing olive mayflies. Low, clear winter water can make rising fish ultracautious. Keep a low profile and use long, fine leaders.
BIG & GAUDY If the microflies aren’t bringing them in, you might want to try the other extreme and go large–Bunny Leeches, Egg-Sucking Leeches, Conehead-style streamers, down to size 4 or so. I hooked my largest trout on an ordinary No. 8 Black Woolly Bugger. Fish near the bottom, and dead-drift with occasional short twitches. –T.L.