Whip Finish


Ralph Long - Jan 28, 2013

Intently focusing through the early morning glare cast upon the water, my gaze followed the little green indicator as it drifted toward my downstream position. It followed along the small seam formed by the upstream barrier wall, and then danced its way in a lazy circle as it turned into the small eddy formed where the gravel bar I was standing on forced the water to my right. Did it bounce? My mind rushed to keep up with the information it was receiving since the window to strike was such a short second. Then "YES" as the indicator ever so slightly dipped below the surface, signaling me to raise my arm. The pulsing weight on the end of my line let me know that my timing was correct, and a fish was on the other end. In the cold air my numbed fingers stripped in line that slid stubbornly through an iced-up tip and guides. To me, winter fish always seem larger at initial hook-set. I've always thought so, and likened it to the fact that through most of the year a fish that is hooked runs and jumps, unless it's of considerable size. A larger fish will tend to dog you into the deepest part of a pool and stage its fight in the depths before succumbing to the rod. But in the winter, all fish fight as such. Not willing to dance around the surface in the colder waters, but instead they take you deep and choose not to show their colors until they are ready to give in. This tricks your mind initially, and your first thoughts out of reflex are one of pleasant surprise due to the conditioning it receives. For me, it's not until several fish come to hand that my mind starts to re-calibrate itself to the expected winter fight. So as with so many first fish of the winter prior to this, I let out a short but excited "whoop" of success as I applied the brakes on the fish. Then as my mind registered a bit more accurately, I settled into a smile of satisfaction that signaled to me that a new year of trout fishing had begun.

The fish came to hand easily and I took a short moment to admire the rainbow, with it's beautiful but more orange coloration than its soon-to-be spring brethren. The subdued orange-red winter coloration along its flank would soon turn to bright red on silver with the lengthening of light and warmer waters. The fish was a fat 13 inches, and as I slid it back into the crystal clear water it hung for a second just below the surface. Then in more of a sinking action than a fleeing one, it slowly dropped back down to the bottom and disappeared. Looking up as I dried my hands quickly on my waders there was no sense of the cold. No numbness in my fingers, or breeze biting my face. It was simply trout fishing and a sense of success in a seemingly unlikely setting that always pleasantly amazes me. Even for those who know how the life-cycle of a trout works, it still seems unlikely to catch trout in winter conditions. But once experienced, it becomes just another season of fly fishing to enjoy along with its colder and slower requirements.

Looking across the slow pool upstream of the low stone wall, the morning air had steam rising off of the warmer waters. And although the sun was not out in full force, the light reflecting off of the surrounding snow applied a slightly overcast glow to the day. Here I found myself, along with 4 other fishing partners enjoying a pleasant break between the winter storms and biting seasonal winds. Each year for the holiday weekend of Martin Luther King Day, we gather to shake off the cabin dust of winter and rendezvous for a 2 day escape of fly tying and trout fishing. The second part of which is primarily dictated by the weather. But this year Mother Nature had cooperated, and we were taking advantage of it before the next bout with cold and snow was to come barreling in upon us.
The night prior was a period of catching up with fishing friends not seen in some cases for 6 months or more, enjoying some fireside food, and sitting down at the vise to tie up some of the stream-specific flies we would need to catch fish on this 25 degree morning. We could have tied prior to arriving over the weeks of anticipation, but something just feels right about tying flies on the stream for the next day's fishing. So we cranked out a handful of patterns, both the known standby's and some new ones in hopes of a good morning. Tying is always a good time when shared with both friends and a cold bucket of Lagers and the night had been an exceptional one. So with the morning's sun we found ourselves walking with rods in hand, through snow, while laughing at each other for being foolish enough to brave both the cold and the task of fitting ourselves into summer waders while wearing winter clothes. A task that none-the-less for some of us proved far more daunting than trying to catch trout in the middle of the winter. Our banter quickly changed to the stream however, as we got closer and realized just how clear and perfect of a morning we had been provided. With not a ripple of wind on the surface and crystal clear water, you could see the streams bottom from the slight position of elevation we were on from nearly 100 yards away. Talk slowed to a stop as we all took in the scene before us and our boots left the bank to settle into the gravel stream bed.

The day proved to be as good as expected, and a good number of fish chose to eat one of the flies I had tied up the evening prior. The bend in the rod shook off the winter doldrums, and the time on the water with friends proved as always to brighten an otherwise cold and overcast day. However, slowly folks began to leave the water. Some had prior commitments and a drive ahead of them requiring an earlier departure, while others simply felt the desire to feel their toes again after a long morning in the water. One other fishing partner and I found ourselves stubbornly hanging on as the afternoon was creeping in. I had decided that the next fish would signal my departure as well, and it soon came. The subtle take and anticipated bend in the rod brought a near clone of my first fish of the day to the net. And with that I left the water. A short few minutes to get a couple pictures before departing and we were heading back up the walkway to the lodge and trucks. As always, once you leave the water you suddenly feel just how damned cold you really were all along. So it was with great anticipation that we arrived back at the vehicles and struggled in the reverse of earlier to get back out of packed waders. Only now, the task carried with it the added difficulty of untying boots with frozen laces. Finally, with trucks warming up and a hot cup of coffee from the last remaining thermos, the last of us were on the road as well. While driving back to the realities that we all call normal I had the chance to better reflect on the day as the trucks heater warmed my feet. It had in fact been a great day on the water. There is something about the feeling of accomplishment after a day of figuring out the fish, and bringing a satisfying amount of them to hand that can certainly fill a day as complete. But looking back at things from the warmth of my truck, the exclamation point on the trips end was not the fish that had been caught. What remained in the forefront was the gathering of friends, the time spent at the vise pondering patterns and the mornings walk to the water.

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