By Christopher SpannWeitz, Jan-Feb 2021
“We have reached the time in the life of the planet, and humanity's demands upon it, when every fisherman will have to be a river keeper, a steward of marine shallows, a watchman on the high seas.”
- Thomas McGuane: The Longest Silence
Some years ago, in what nostalgic and story tellers refer to as “simpler times”, winter always brought with it and unparalleled sense of wonder. As a young kid growing up on lake Sunapee, the cold months were a portal to another world. Everything from our space-like apparel to the familiar blue water, turned vast lunar desert, gave the season a sci-fi like quality. My brother and I would spend days on the ice traversing the latticework of snowmobile and ski tracks. Ice boats gliding silent. Inspecting recent auger holes from fishermen provided a porthole to the mysterious depths. listening with you ear to the ice to the eerie growing pains of the frozen layers supporting you was admittedly a reminder as to why having an adult with you was the rule! Fortunately for us, our dad was a model rocket guy. On the crystal clear days the proud efforts of the family space program could be seen from Blodgett's to Georges Mills… with varying degrees of success.
Out at one of the familiar roadside haunts, on a crystal clear and crisp day late January, I’m reminded of those rockets on the lake. Like the corkscrew of an out of control rocket, I follow my leader back to the red twig dogwood that I’m hung up in. first day in the water of the new year. I’m fishing a double nymph rig with a strike indicator. Not my strong suit, and its exposing my lack of competence. Inexperienced, too excited, rushing it. It’s a classic pitfall of angling, losing your sense of place. Not focused enough on where you are. Your intention out of sync with your environment.
Pause. Reset. I take time fishing my tiny nymphs out of the sprawling crimson dogwood behind me. There soon wont be any open water here. The ice jam just below me will fill and glaze over this little pool in a weeks time. Chunks of incoming ice from upstream collide with the growing cover ice, crumpling and folding over sounding like crushed aluminum. A large Jay in a Hemlock on the bank opposite eyes my Copper Jon fly, perhaps thinking it a meal if I’d gotten it stuck a little higher. Recent beaver work on saplings of Yellow Birch and Beech are evidence that despite my frozen fingers, life is busy around me.
I suppose winter can be considered the off season for many anglers. Time to tie flies, attend expos, workshops, etc.. But with many events canceled and limitations on social interaction, I find myself back in the water. Limited holdover populations of trout means fish are few and far between. In these cold months the fish become lethargic, expending as little energy necessary to feed and maintain their position in the water. Their bodies are only slightly warmer than the surrounding water and they will seek deeper slower water, opting to let meals come to them instead of chasing prey. They can become so selective during this time that you may literally have to bump your bait right in their face.
However, fishing moving water this time of year is not always an exercise in futility. Some insects like midges, small flies that resemble mosquitos, seem to hatch year round. Others like caddis larvae can live in the water for a year. Many rivers and streams that were once seasonal, are now year round fisheries. The lack of foliage and competition from other anglers can offer the intrepid angler previously inaccessible territory, opening up new opportunities for old stretches of water. Modern gear is also making year round fishing in the north not only tolerable, but comfortable.
This will be a year unlike any in recent memory. As our nation and local communities continue to grapple with social justice issues, the political landscape, and the COVID saga, we as anglers find a renewed necessity in our pursuit. Fishing is ancient and unifying. It allows us to dive deeper into understanding our ecosystems and therefore ascribing a higher value to their preservation. Fishing not only connects us with nature, but with each other. It is ironic that an endeavor so often dependent on isolation can bring people together in such a way that transcending social, racial, and political barriers. In this day, that’s no small task. I’m routinely reminded of this phenomena of camaraderie on social media, where people from all walks discuss, share, and support each other. Whether its offering fly tying advice, promoting conservation efforts, or reuniting anglers with lost gear, phones and car keys, the sense of shared responsibility has, in my experience, always been cordially reflected in the online community. As we get into the season, take the time to deepen your connection to your favorite spots. Become invested in that sense of place and renew that appreciation for the awesome resource that is our watershed. Pick up a piece of trash, you might just catch more fish!