Even when it’s much too cold to fly fish, you can do fishy things. For example, a warden from the Game and Fish gave an interesting presentation on the recent discovery of the New Zealand Mud Snails in the North Platte. I gathered the usual subjects and met downtown at Don Juan’s for a pre-talk meal. We were all interested in the topic and what it might mean for the future of fly fishing, but when two of my colleagues learned that the mud snail is tiny, that it holds no culinary value whatsoever, they bowed out. The rest of us finished our enchiladas and went to the talk. The warden was a young guy interested in stocking fish in lakes all over Natrona County. He had wild ideas about what will stick and what will not. He mentioned seventeen inch grayling and Snake River Cutthroats that push twenty inches. A vile of mud snails went around the room. They were not much bigger than grains of sand. We were told that 409 cleaner takes care of them pretty quickly. But it was the topic of what the Game and Fish has been up two these last few years that caught most people’s attention. There were credible rumors of tiger trout in Goldeneye Reservoir. I saw grown men getting out their legal pads and taking copious notes. When it was over, men of advanced age rushed the poor warden as if he was Sam Cooke, 1963.
“Now just where, exactly, did you stock those grayling?” These guys wanted specifics. The young warden tried to steer the topic back to mud snails, but it was too late. We had all been cooped up in our houses. Even if there was a solid lid on these lakes, we wanted to imagine the fish down there, under the ice, growing hungry for springtime.
I’d rather not ice fish if I can help it. I won’t go to wintry wine tastings, especially if they’re serving Prosecco. During the shortest days of the year my dog walks aren’t what they should be. But a guy needs a way to pass the winter months. Luckily there were fly fishing events, or happenings that somehow related to fishing. These types of things remind us that we are only one decent Chinook wind away from the best fishing of the year. In Casper this winter there were little informal gatherings where we could talk about leaping trout and full blown hatches of yellow sallies. There was a fly tying challenge held at a brewery where fly tiers of all stripes hovered over their vices and tied “flies” from a myriad of disconnected materials. I saw a teddy bear in the center of the table. It was seized and sacrificed to become oddball materials. Grown men put on blindfolds and tied San Juan worms. It was remarkable that they had trained themselves to be able to do this with no advance warning. The flies, at least some of them, looked like they might work. It was fun to be around other fishermen, even if all we could do was laugh and talk what we’d do with the cold snap snapped.
And what else did I do when it was too winterish to fish? I read Sparse Gray Hackle’s Fishless Days, Angling Nights, and paused at his descriptions of the Neversink River, before the dams went in and flooded the riverbed and woodlands. I recorded a podcast for one of the national fishing magazines. I peeked into my bee hive to see if anything was stirring. I put a college basketball game on and I hauled out all of my tackle and fly boxes for a major undertaking. I wanted to get organized for the frenetic pace of March fly fishing that was just around the corner. I found my boxes ravished by last season. The streamers were all in my dry fly boxes and my dry flies looked crushed and used beyond recognition. Loose split shot bounced around in the dark recesses of my fly vest. I needed indicators; I needed forceps. And I needed some of those cleaning pad to “dress” my fly lines. I got to work and noticed that the afternoon slid by. There was a certain pleasure in getting ready, a certain nod toward tradition in cleaning my lines. It’s not so bad, holed up with your dogs, cleaning your gear and listening to the wind outside. Why not accept things the way they are and live in the present like the Buddhists do? I asked my dogs.
You may not think the grip of winter will ever let go. But it will, I promise. Suddenly, the big rainbows appear on the gravel, their great fins breaking the surface, their sides aglow with red and copper slashes. Some of these seem more akin to salmon than trout, and you can hardly believe your eyes as pairs of trout slowly reveal themselves to you—they were there all along. Hen and buck, they jostle for position, and use their great tails to carve out redds in the streambed. We don’t fish for these. Instead, we take the appearance of spawning fish as harbingers for true springtime, better times. Same for the Nelson’s sparrows working like crazy in the dead apple tree to build a nest. Same for your neighbor who suddenly appears, a bit scrawny from hibernation, in his front yard with a paintbrush.
In March the snowman in my yard is but a clump of hard ice. I toss what remains of him at a tree trunk to celebrate the end of something. I fish way below the redds to pick off the feisty fourteen inch trout lurking there. I’m coming and going to the river so much I hardly give my waders a chance to dry. I go around town dazed and slightly out of sorts, trying to maintain the appearance of productive citizen as I sit in meetings dreaming of being someplace else.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Five Year Planning Commission, The Board of Traffic Flow, the Bureau of Distant Romance, there’s nothing going on in your two hour meetings–the real action is on the river. Just the other day I was caught in the glare of sunlight on water. March, finally March, I thought to myself. The fish were taking leeches. I was releasing a scrappy little trout as a serious gust came upstream. A spray of sparrows were caught in the same blow. I saw them, midair, like acrobats, grab the swaying willows with their pink feet. They gathered themselves until the gale passed. And then the little birds dropped to the exposed mud to feed. A hawk passed overhead and the sparrows vanished. The tiniest of prints in the silt–like miniature pheasant tracks–was the only proof that they traveled through.