Monday, January 25, 2016

Flyfishing Below Freezing

I've often looked at photos of folks steelhead fishing in "cold" weather.  They're usually standing under overcast skies, soaked with rain, and generally looking chilled.  Having never fished for steelhead (yet!), I've often wondered if it would be worth it, and how I'd hold up to the colder temps, versus the warm summer days I'm usually fishing.

A window opened for me to finally try winter flyfishing this past weekend.  The 2.5 kids and their mom all had plans on Saturday.  The daily highs in most of Minnesota had ranged from below zero (Fahrenheit) to the mid-teens for most of Januray.  They'd finally break into the 20's F on Saturday.  "Warm enough to scratch the itch," I said to myself, thinking back to how jealous I was of fisherfolk I'd seen on the Missouri River in Montana the previous weekend.

In a true expression of my ambition, I overslept an hour Saturday morning.  Coffee was brewed, gear tossed into the all-wheel drive SUV, and I made the 3 hour drive from my home in central Minnesota to the southeastern "Driftless Region."  A quick stop in Chatfield, then a short drive to Trout Run Creek.  Another SUV was already parked, but the only thing moving was the water.  I'd been concerned about ice, given the somewhat prolonged period of temperatures near zero F.  Yet I found this spring-fed creek with only a little "shelf-ice" on each side in most places.  Definitely fishable, and not too dangerous.

The temperature was logged at 22 F when I arrived around 1 PM and barely warmer at 24 F when I departed around 5 PM.  I jumped into my waders, laced boots, added two jackets, and activated some hand warmers for the jacket pockets.  Vehicle keys and thin gloves were secured my sling pack, and off I went, rigged with a dual nymphs.  The first course on the menu: a pink squirrel and small black lighting bug.  The snow was six to ten inches deep along the trail, lightly trodden.  The variations of fluffy and crunchy snow made the hiking a bit laborious, so I was glad to encounter my first likely-looking riffle as I moved upstream.

The winter rust worked its way out of my cast fairly quickly, and I was getting some surprising distance with the nymphs I'd selected.  I noted that there was no possible way I could have made casts of this distance when I'd first fished this creek five months earlier.  Distance felt good, but no fish expressed interest in my technique or offerings at the first hole.  I secured my hooks, climbed a over a fence, and approached spot number 2.

After a few casts here, I gained firsthand experience in a well-documented phenomenon: Iced-up guides.  (Vocabulary:  on a fly rod, guides are the metal loops through which your line is "guided" out to the tip of the rod.)  When this happens, the line stops feeding out as you cast.   When you strip or reel line in, the water on the line builds up into ice pellets on the guides, eventually all the way down to the big stripping guild nearest the reel.   I also had ice accumulating on parts of the fly line occasionally.   Both forms of ice ruined my casting rhythm, resulting in humorous fails.

After one such poor attempt, my strike indicator dropped.  I set the hook and was rewarded with a quick run downstream.  The angler belonging to the other parked vehicle came around the bend just in time to witness the bad cast and the landed fish, a 9"-10" brown trout.  The other angler confirmed that most of his success had been on small patterns, like the size 18 lighting bug I quickly removed before returning my first fish of the day to the water.

I made my way upstream for about 2 hours before the chill set into my feet and it became painful to chip ice off the guides.  I was also becoming increasingly concerned I might inflict damage to my Sage Z-Axis. I took my next big tangle as a sign from the Universe that this portion of my day was over, and started hiking back downstream to SUV.  Well, it started as hiking, then degraded into labored slogging.  No, I'm not in great shape right now, and I'll toss some Parkinson's symptoms into the mix.  But, hey, this is exactly the kind of physical activity I need.  Bring it.

The snow sloth eventually unlocked the SUV and stowed his disassembled fly rod.  After a couple of swigs of water to wash down a couple of pills, I noticed that my feet no longer hurt.  The hands felt better as well, and I still had an hour-and-a-half of daylight left.  This unexpected second-wind powered me to assemble the wife's Sage One and rig it with another lightning bug and a size 20 zebra midge.  I hiked downstream a ways and fished my way back up.  The fresh rod and line made casting fun again for a while.  Inevitably, the line froze and the guides iced up.  Another huge tangle signaled the end of my angling day, with a satisfactory total of 3 brown trout.  Not spectacular, but I'm grateful for even one.  It's affirmation that I've got a handle on the basics.

I'm not worried about cold weather while waving a stick anymore.  I fished in blowing rain and snow at 36 F last year, and now I've tried it in subfreezing temperatures.  I need thicker socks, another layer under the waders, and maybe something besides a Polartec fleece as a midlayer.  Beyond that, no problems.  I'd prefer to fish above the freezing point to keep the guides clear, but I'd do it again, even if it means driving six hours round-trip to have four hours of trout fishing.

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