Essay by Sam Larson
Fall ends too suddenly for my taste. One weekend I’m out slinging dries in a local stream, and by the next weekend winter has arrived. So it goes. I’m left feeling like all I needed was one more good day. This fall I was too busy with the messier aspects of adult life; the work thing, the relationship thing, the money thing. And all the while the last, best days in November slipped away. All too soon there’s snow on the ground, ice on my windshield, and mountain streams that are already freezing over.
Winter tenkara means one thing: nymphing. Well, two things; nymphing and cold toes, but that’s just an inescapable part of the experience. It’s a chance to pull out the 7:3 rod I call The Broomstick and swing weighted nymphs without shame or regret. Now I am an inelegant nympher, getting the job done without fuss or poise. Gone is the light and subtle cast that drops dries with delectable precision. I muscle my nymph rigs upstream and land them with a plop, a simple arching forward toss into the top of the seam. It’s not pretty, but neither is standing knee deep in an ice-filled stream.
I actually prefer tenkara gear for nymphing, especially in the winter. I would love to tell you it’s because I’ve done the math, put the time in, and realized some Zen-like truth. Something about line control, presentation, the perfect drift, and the essence of high-stick nymphing. That the absence of frozen guides or reels took me to a new level of angling bliss. I guess it does all that, but I like it because I can keep one hand tucked into my coat pocket and keep casting with the other.
But the tenkara rod does offer some benefits. That thirteen-foot rod provides a nice high-stick presentation to any fish finning along the bottom of the seam. And the rod tip, sensitive enough to detect even the daintiest sips, makes it easier to feel a strike when my hands are cold and stiff. Which is perfect because I miss strikes with my western rod when I fish in the cold, not even noticing that I have a fish on the line until I go to toss the flies back upstream.
I do feel an obscure guilt in catching fish in the winter. I can tell they’re tired, recovering from a summer’s worth of jangled nerves and pierced lips. Now they’re sunk low in the water, eating what the river brings them. They’ve lost their summer fight. Hooked fish feel like the dead weight of a stick, a slushy, sludgy pull on the rod. The sight of silver scales rising from the river bottom tells me that I’ve rousted yet another trout. The accusatory glare from their eye heaps judgment upon me. “It’s cold,” they seem to say. Unreasonably so, and yet here we are, me in my waders, shivering and with aching toes, and the trout, gasping, hauled from their winter’s rest. “Go home,” the trout say with a final flip of the tail, “Come back in the spring.”
During the summer you can spend all day leapfrogging other anglers just trying to find a spot. But winter fishing, if your state doesn’t close down the season, offers an opportunity for some true solitude. In the Front Range it’s easy to have the river to yourself for a whole day, even easier if you can sneak away during the week. But of course you’re never truly alone.
There’s always that guy. You’ve seen him before, wrapped in ten millimeters of RealTree neoprene and a balaclava. On every river, every winter, he’s there, somewhere. He’s faceless, stalking the only good seam within a reasonable hike of his car, patiently running some triple-nymph rig through the likeliest looking seam. He’ll be there in the morning when you arrive, and when you give up he’ll still be there, high-sticking through the same seam. Perhaps he’s ice-locked into the slushy sand he’s buried his booted toes in, thinking of warmer climes and unable to walk away from the river.
Each winter offers another opportunity to tell myself that it’s time to hang up the waders and give it up until spring. But the season doesn’t close in Colorado and aside from reasons of personal comfort why wouldn’t I go fishing? I’ve wondered what it would be like to have an enforced off season, a respite from the lifestyle. But then Colorado will throw one bluebird day into the middle of February, when the clouds clear, the sun fills the sky again, and temperatures kiss the 40s. When I can almost count on an afternoon midge hatch and a bare handful of sipping trout. And like a fool who hates the comforts of home I’ll drag on my long johns and wool socks and head for the water. Because I’m always on the lookout for one more good day.
Sam Larson lives, works, writes, and fishes in Colorado’s Front Range. Given half a chance he’ll shirk responsibility and disappear into the woods for days at a time with his tenkara rod and a selection of largely disreputable fellow anglers.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016-17 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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