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WINTER ON THE BIG WOOD
Fly fishing’s most poetic practice
photography nick price
It’s during the cold and quiet days of winter when fly fishing on the Big Wood River is its most poetic. Snow falls, silence reigns, feathered hooks gently float, fishermen are few and far between, trout are hungry, insects bounce about, the wind shows its strength, eyelets freeze, fingertips numb, the river keeps on flowing.
Certainly, winter fishing on the Big Wood is by no means easy. Nor is it as celebrated as its fellow seasons, especially the autumn around here that Hemingway made so famous, “and best of all he loved the fall … leaves floating on the trout streams and above the hills the high blue windless skies.”
In the winter, the leaves give way to falling snow and drifting ice. The skies can sometimes be high blue, but are rarely windless. Winter fly fishing in the chilly heart of Idaho usually requires the angler to pack on more layers than a walrus, and some fishermen—just like the aforementioned sea mammals—may have icicles freeze to facial hair.
It also means that outside of local tackle shops and Grumpy’s in Ketchum, most folks will look at you as if you’ve just escaped from a loony bin if you tell them you just went fishing on a day when the temperatures barely hit double digits. And skiers or snowboarders will treat you like you smell funny if they find out you went to the river instead of going up on the mountain (if you’ve had any success angling, however, you’ll happily smell a little fishy).
But that’s okay. Let them think what they will. They just don’t get it anyway. They can’t hear the lyrics of the wintry river or feel the rhythms of the cast. They don’t notice the verses of the rainbows or the tempo of the stoneflies, midges and nymphs. As Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver so brilliantly asked: “And when has happiness ever required much evidence . . . ?”
Ed Northern is the president of the local Hemingway chapter of Trout Unlimited. A retired fire captain and paramedic originally from Southern California, Ed seems far too sane to ever be caught wading into an icy river to cast for trout. But the winter is his favorite time to fish the Big Wood.
“You can cross-country ski or get on the slopes and still get some time to fish for big, healthy, beautifully colored fish and you have the solitude and the beauty of winter here. When you combine all these things together, it’s just magical,” explained Ed, who also does some guiding for Silver Creek and is a published poet.
Poetry and fly fishing do, naturally, have a few things in common. In their truest forms (like winter casting on the Big Wood or the works of Mary Oliver), both are essentially philosophical and downright spiritual practices—art forms if you will. Still, those who don’t fish or only cast in pleasant weather often look at us winter anglers not as if we’re artists, but more like we’re deranged finger painters. They obviously think of fishing in terms of prose, not poetry.
So our response starts and ends with a couple of quotes from an essay on the matter by arguably the best fishing prose writer there is, John Gierach. First, “Fishermen openly enjoy being thought of as crazy.” And finally, “Any idiot can fish in the summer.” -Mike McKenna
Tips from the trade
ı. Winter conditions are hazardous and even in its mellow off-season flows the Big Wood River is more powerful than any person. Always err on the side of safety. The river isn’t going anywhere. There’ll be other days to fish.
2. Wading boots must have good soles and be able to handle slick rocks and slippery snow and ice.
3. Always tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be returning.
4. Keep the fish in the water as much as possible. As Tim Alpers, whose family has been farming their famous “Alpers monster trout” in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada for three generations, once explained there are two main concerns when handling trout in winter: The first is that handling trout, especially with dry or gloved hands, removes the protective slime layer (a fish’s insulation in the winter); And prolonged exposure to cold air can freeze a trout’s gills. “Winter can be hard on trout,” he said.
5. Pick the right flies Dave Faltings from Silver Creek Outfitters in Ketchum is what you’d a call a professional trout bum. Dave has a passion and knowledge for fly fishing that runs stronger than the Big Wood during a monstrous spring run-off. So naturally, he loves to fish in the winter.
“The winter is a great time to fish around here,” Dave said as he opened his fly box atop the counter at Silver Creek. “It’s mostly a midge time of year. The bugs are really small in the winter.” Dave has three favorite winter flies for the Big Wood River:
Rubber-legged Stoneflies range as large as sizes 6-8.
Trailing Shuck midge is a small dry fly, ranging in size from 20-22.
Zebra midges in assorted colors and sizes.
Even the coldest winter days have midge hatches.
[Get the basics of winter fly fishing by taking advantage of Silver Creek Outfitters’ special winter guide rates: just $300 for one to two people a day, including all the gear right down to the flies.]