I found myself standing in the middle of a very cold river again today. I put my fly rod together, strung it up, tied on a buggy little nymph, put some weight and a strike indicator on and flung the whole deceiving contraption out into the current. Then, I intently watched the bright indicator flow downriver about 20 feet, then flung it back upstream to cover the water again.
This ritual had been preceded by the familiar gathering of gear, the drive on I-94, stopping for a cup of coffee, then a leisurely investigative drive up and down the quiet valley of the river I wanted to fish, scouting different accesses, seeing old sights. It was near 50 degrees, most of the landscape covered in snow that shone bright in the sunshine. Water ran over the road where the steep bluffs dropped down next to it.
I didn’t have more than a couple hours to fish, and no great ambitions to cover a lot of water or catch a bunch, so I crept downstream from where I parked my car on the side of the road. Not preferable, I would have rather fished upstream, but so it goes. After walking down past some nice looking water, even seeing a couple fish-shaped shadows in the deeper pools, I stopped and began fishing up.
It’s amazing how the rhythms of fishing come back, even after a six-month hiatus. Everything went pretty smoothly. I occasionally caught the streamside vegetation, or tangled up the complex rig of fly, weight and indicator, but that’s all part of the game. And the wader repair I made the night before luckily held up. If it hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long with 45 degree water seeping down my leg.
Nothing much happened at first, the indicator paused a couple times but there was nothing there when I struck. Maybe it had been a fish. Maybe not. I was fishing the tailout of a shallow riffle with a rock up ahead on the right side creating an eddy. I tried to focus on the seam between that water and the rippling faster water, thinking a hungry trout would like to hang out in the slow water but feast on the bugs being carried by in the fast. But the strategy remained unproductive through several casts.
Having chosen a pretty short stretch of water, I decided to try another fly rather than move on right away. I tied on a Copper John and sent it sailing up into the seam again. Very shortly, the indicator jerked definitively and I set the hook to find the line come alive.
It was a very small trout that spit the hook before I got him to hand. That was okay, I wasn’t sure it would have been worth reaching into the icy water for such a fish. How quickly the angler becomes picky, eh?
My next decent cast into the seam produced another sharp jerk on the indicator and this time I set the hook to find some weight on the other end.
Oh, did that feel good. As the fish zipped around the river before me, I stole a glance at my fly rod where I held it above my head, reveling in the elegant curve of it against the sunny spring sky.
The fish was not eager to come to me and I was reacquainted with the ache in my arm of wearing it down a little. I exerted sideways pressure on it as much as possible and after a couple runs where I almost had to give it some line, I brought it to my feet where I plucked it from the water. It was a beautiful, densely-spotted 12″ brown.
The barbless hook (regulation for the early season in Wisconsin) which had made the battle all the more tense also meant that it took only a moment to remove the fly from the fish’s upper lip. I admired it one more moment and slipped it back into the water, where it paused briefly and then shot away.
Pleased that my first outing of the season was not going to be a skunk, I could have quit fishing then. I still had plenty of time, so I kept at it, but I did no more catching. I got a couple more on, but was foiled by my own rusty reflexes and the barbless hooks.
When the time came, I clipped the fly off and broke down my rod, then hiked back up to the road and back to the car. I stripped off my waders and everything else and packed it up. As I drove back down the valley and toward home, I couldn’t help feeling lucky to have experienced the peace of the stream again, and to be bringing some of it home with me.