Saturday, February 9, 2019

Winter at Home

Home means different things to different people. Too me, home is a specific small mountain stream in Eastern CT, sheltered by hemlock and laurel and hidden in a steep walled canyon. Dace, fallfish, sunfish, and wild brown and brook trout swim in its dark, turbulent waters, and only a handful of anglers will ply those waters during the course of a year. My home isn't the most hospitable. Summers bring warm and low water and trout hiding under rocks. Winters bring extremely cold water, shelf and anchor ice, and blow outs the take down trees and scour the banks, forming ice and log jams, moving huge rocks and changing the shape of the stream in mere hours.

There have been winters during which I haven't been able to actually fish my home river for as much as two months. There was just too much ice to make it worth it, or even too much snow to safely get to and from the stream. This winter, though, has provided me a number of chances to fish. The water was still cold and the fish very much in winter mode, but I know this stream and I know it's fish. I also know how to approach and present flies to where the fish are holding. And I know that no matter how well I fish, I'm not going to catch a lot of trout despite covering a lot of water. But the ones I do catch are usually going to be of above average size. This post includes photos from three different trips out of six I made in January and February. In all six trips combined I caught a dozen wild brown trout. All 12 were larger than eight inches. A few were larger than a foot in length.

Because of its location and structure, my home water stays far colder than many streams. A general assumption is that liquid water must be above freezing, but this is not the case for moving water and this plays a part in fish handling. Ever get ice in your guides when you know the air temperature is above 32 degrees? I have. This happens when the water is below 32 but won't freeze because it is in motion. The water pauses long enough in you guides and on your line that the crystallization process is catalyzed. It is important to keep with in mind when handling fish, because the moment you take a fish out of water that's just below freezing and that water stops moving it will crystallize on the fish's skin, fins, and gills, and it may prove fatal. If you are getting ice in your guides, if you see ice forming on rocks on the bottom of the stream in fast water (anchor ice), or if you take the temperature of the water and its between 31 and 33 degrees, don't remove the fish from the water for more than one second no matter how warm the air is. A few of the bigger and more colorful trout I caught during these trips were caught during tines when I knew the air was above freezing, but I was still getting ice in the guides. I didn't even remove those fish from the water to extract my hook. I either let them shake it or poked it out with my rod tip. I am so careful now largely because I wasn't in the past. When it was pointed out to me I felt the ones doing so were trying to clarify their superiority, and I didn't react in a way I am proud of. I know now exactly why I was criticised. I was being provided with information, not being put down. That information has undoubtedly lead me to kill fewer fish that I didn't want to.

It is for fish like the one below that I put up with iced guides, leaky waders, shelf ice, cold hands, frequent tangles, and being forced to do nothing but fish extremely heavy nymphs. Panning for gold in the dead of winter is taxing, but when it pays, it is really special.

Winters at my home are often strenuous. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

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  1. That was a good read. I like that you included that thermodynamic stuff too.
    I have been so busy with (very enjoyable) work that I haven't been out on a stream in months now. Only a few excellent day trips in Florida, but you really made me long for a trek along my own home water. It was only a year ago, in those same icing guide conditions you describe, that I was delighted to catch holdovers in lots of different pockets. That's the best I can expect in my home water (well, there are the s-r browns but that's unattainables).
    On the other hand, my nephew recently caught a holdover rainbow--in the Wissahickon--In January! The rainy summer did something almost unheard of there.

    1. Thank you!
      I know how the s-r browns in your home water fish, I wouldn't call them unattainable. Fishing the tidal portions of that river put me a lot closer to getting a second s-r brown than any other stream I've fished with one exception.

  2. Rowan some very god points made in this post.
    Unfortunately there's not a warming trend ahead. So we must deal with what we have or stay home which I don't care for and from the photos you don't either.

    The tail on that first brown is impressive.

    1. Thanks Alan.
      At least most of the coming days are warmer than 32!

  3. Yes there is something special about our home waters. A history of learning that never ends.
    Good read Rowan.
    Tie, fish, write, conserve and photo on...

  4. Beautiful photos of both fish and scenery. I love those wild browns.

  5. Will, I accidentally deleted your comment. Sorry about that!

  6. Aha! Well I suspected the Tidewater. I also had two separate winter swims attempting that. Once, I lost a rod doing that! My outfitter told me, "be careful!"