A Mid-Winter's Dream
photography: Andy Anderson
(page 2 of 2)
Considering the effort Morrison has gone to—tying up half a dozen Chamois Nymphs and guiding me to his secret spot—I feel ungrateful when I find I’m longing to be cutting fresh tracks on Baldy’s high faces. Jerry Eder of Silver Creek Outfitters in Ketchum, however, while admitting it’s a tough choice, points out that when the skiing is good, the fly-fishing is better. Trout, creatures of the cold, seek deep, dark holes in the summer and wait at the head of still pools when ice chokes the banks. A snowstorm’s relatively warmer temperatures trigger hatches that, while they cannot compare to summer’s entomological fecundity, draw trout to the surface. To oversimplify Eder’s equation, winter is a harsh, killing season, yet trout must feed. When temperatures rise above freezing, trout will rise aggressively to insects—or anything that approximates an insect.
Eder told us that, after a morning spent chasing face shots in Mayday Bowl, a few local fishermen trade their boots and skis for a rod and waders. Standing knee-deep below the River Run Bridge or above Hulen Meadow’s drop structures, they are arguably the wisest of the fly-fishing fraternity: They know the huge, educated trout that haunt summer’s cold blue holes feed without fear in a winter’s ice-free pools. Northern ice fishermen, with their augers, worms, cans of corn, and heated shanties, have known this for over a century.
In the Wood River Valley, however, winter fishermen still represent a tiny percentage when compared to summer’s numbers. For that reason and others, Eder fishes the Wood far more in winter than in summer. “It’s easier to get away in winter, and I love the solitude,” he says.
I’m thinking that Morrison and I are wasting our time when I see a brilliant flash of rainbow red at the head of the pool. Gently raising the rod tip, I feel the #14 hook find purchase in the trout’s jaw. A second later, the rod bends to the rainbow’s weight.
I once believed I could judge the weight and length of a fish by how it resists the hook. But fish are as different as the pools and rivers they inhabit, and the fact that one fish hunkers down and shakes against the barbless sting doesn’t mean the next one of the same size won’t pour on the power and exit downstream.
The Chamois Nymph miraculously holds, and the fish stays out from beneath the ice. Minutes later, a sixteen-inch hen seeks the eddy downstream of my waders. Gently removing the hook, I admire her brilliant colors and turn her loose. I still do not know what Morrison’s Chamois Nymph variant imitates, but I’m beginning to wonder. My best guess is a caddis pupa but, for all I know, it could be an Australian Digeree Grub.
It must be tempting for Morrison to gloat, to parody my doubts. Instead he simply says, “Real nice fish."
There is pacing in the February afternoon. Making my way upstream I cast, then retrieve, take a step, cast again. There are places where the ice reaches into the river’s deep pools and I am forced to creep up onto the bank, then glissade into the water upstream. I can’t claim the action is red hot, but although I may not land a twenty-inch fish, the rainbows I do hook fight strongly. As the light gently fades from the high ridges to the river, the storm abates, the snow stops. When we can no longer see to cast, we climb out of the Wood and posthole through the drifts back to the truck.
Local fly-fishermen will tell you that fishing is their one weakness. Not golf, not red sports cars, not art, or even international travel—unless it is to Argentina, New Zealand or Kamchatka, exotic places where trout grow to mythic proportions. It is about trout: the rainbows, browns, brooks, and goldens that haunt the Wood River Valley’s spring-fed creeks, freestone rivers, and high mountain lakes—voracious fish that inhale tiny flies, then rip thirty yards off your reel and four weeks off your life.
I must confess that memories of big fish are branded into my cerebral cortex. I often dream of cold early mornings when the currents move in sinuous, circular patterns and rainbows rise without fear. Or, less often, I twitch with nightmares of fighting a giant rainbow seconds before my clinch knot breaks.
For these reasons and others, when the Wood River Valley once again basks beneath a warm August sun, the cottonwoods are fledged in summer green, and the streamside paths to my favorite holes are beaten to dust by anglers above and below me, I will open my fly box and wistfully consider—there, among the dozens of Cahills, Adams and Spinners—the merits of a lone Chamois Nymph.
Andrew Slough arrived in the Wood River Valley in 1973 with plans to ski one winter. Fortunately, he never found a reason to leave. In the thirty years since, he has fished both the Big Wood River and Silver Creek under sweltering suns, cold moons, and raging blizzards. Between fishing expeditions he has also found time to publish in SKI, Outdoor Life, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Sun Valley Magazine and others.