As I write this, I am thinking about how grateful I am for all of your support and kind referrals over the years. Thanks so much and I hope the season brings joy in all ways to your household!
Before having you read this newsletter, I want to give fair warning that this has a bit of adult content, so if you are faint of heart regarding such matters, please don’t continue to the next paragraph. Don’t get me wrong, I’m NOT talking R-rated, but more like PG. In defense of the story, I want to point out that I heard the following at a Christmas Party that was provided for the elders of a local church. That being said…
I was told by one of the church staff about a mother-daughter encounter that happened recently one cold day at the neighborhood school bus stop. While mother and daughter were waiting for the 7-year-old girl’s bus to pick her up, the daughter looked up with all sincerity and said she was “freezing her balls off.” As you’d probably conjecture due to the comment coming from her daughter, the mother was quite surprised and inquired a little further. Ultimately her daughter pointed to her face and said, “you know… my eyeballs!”
All that to say, I went fishing in Montana last week…the last week of December. The forecast was accurate: snow with freezing temperatures in the morning, remaining cloudy, and cooling to single digits by afternoon. Winds of about 30 miles per hour with gusts up to 50 miles per hour. Wind chill well below zero. COLD.
Most of the time people ask if ice fishing is fun when it’s that cold out. I have no idea about ice fishing, but the fly-fishing can be a ton of fun, even in that weather. What most fly-fishermen know (and normal people usually don’t J ) is that no matter how cold it is outside, the water never freezes in the few miles below a tailwater release dam. The water is released from the bottom of the dam, and it’s much warmer than the frozen water at the surface. It takes a few miles before the water begins to freeze, so the first several miles below the dam remain excellent fishing. The fish move up and enjoy the plentiful food supply that the warmer water environment provides, and consequently, there are tons of fish there.
The river we were fishing was clear of ice except near the banks, and we had some of the greatest fishing I’ve experienced in my life. It’s like having a “once in a lifetime” fishing experience that you can plan on having each year. That is, if you can put on enough clothing to stay warm. This is not a trip that you try out new gear. You bring out your best and warmest clothes and hunker down for some all-day amazing fishing. My buddy John and I have done it just about every December for the better part of two decades. We camp as often as not, depending upon who is joining. This year John couldn’t make the trip, but I was able to go with another good friend, Mitch, who is a dry land farmer from northern North Dakota. His farm is about 25 miles south of the Canadian border. A good cold weather soul to spend some quality time along the frozen wind-swept banks of The River.
Fishing in those conditions is not without problems, of course. When it’s that cold, you’d better not fall in the water if you are far from a car. Definitely carry a good lighter in a waterproof container for sure. You are many times more likely to break your fly-rod as well. The odds are higher that you could fall and break a rod. Frozen felt-soled boots are excellent for traction on slippery wet rocks on the bottom of a river, but it’s quite another story when they freeze and you are walking on ice. But it’s more likely that you will break the tip of the rod when you are clearing the ice out of the guides. You have to keep the guides clear to be able to feed your fly-line out and also to reel a fish in without the line getting catchy and causing the fish to be able to break your thin tippet near the fly. And then, because you are generally nymph fishing, which entails using split shot weights, you are always one errant cast away from your split shot hitting your rod tip and shattering it due to the cold. At this time of year the fish are not feeding near the top of the water on hatching dry flies but are feeding toward the bottom on the larval stages of the flies. Fly-fishing in the winter is definitely a different game.
In any case, it was a great time and the fishing was amazing. We hiked down the river and crossed over to an island at about daylight and starting catching fish within the first 3 casts. I know fisherman are known to exaggerate, but it’s true that on this trip, if you went more than 4 or 5 five casts without having a fish on, then you knew that something was wrong… muck on the fly or missing fly (bitten off by the “one that got away”). Most of the fish were caught on small flies called midges, so the hooks we were using were less than a ¼ of an inch in size! Big fish on small flies can be a lot of challenge and a lot of fun. The particular midge that we were using is a fly that I tie, something I developed for this river specific to this time of year. It works! OK, a little boast right there.
It’s not just the fishing that is so spectacular on this trip, but the wildlife, especially the fowl are amazing. Gaggles of geese as large as a thousand or more fly by. They are sometimes so low you can see their eyes and the beautiful color patterns. They are such social creatures that they honk the whole time, and it’s quite an event to hear them going on like that. This year I saw a few Snow Geese as well. They are a lovely solid white color and seem like plump swans flying by. There are also all kinds of ducks like nowhere else I’ve been, and you can hear their wings beating and whistling through the air as they pass. By now I can recognize some of the types of ducks just by the peculiar noise their wings make as they buzz past.
We fished until dark and the hike out was COLD, dark, and single digits! River crossing and all. After fishing from dawn until dark when the highs are in the teens, the cold after the sun goes down can start to get to you. Mitch was next to me on the hike and mentioned that he was having a hard time seeing due to poor batteries in his headlamp. I looked at the beam and I didn’t have the heart to say it, but it looked fine. I’m sure he was having problems with freezing his eyeballs.
Although I was doing fairly well in the cold, on the hike out I was starting to get concerned about those two stones causing all the discomfort in my wading boots and hoping they were indeed really rocks! I mean, mom, it was FREEZING cold!