When I packed the truck and headed for Rose River Farm it was nine degrees out and the main roads were still covered with packed snow from the previous day’s storm. I wasn’t fully convinced this was a good use of a vacation day until I was almost there. Driving south in brilliant morning sunshine, the roads eventually cleared, traffic thinned, and finally the Rose River came into view. A clean, dark, glistening ribbon meandering through the snow covered landscape, frigid water tumbling over rocks and logs, leaving behind brilliant ice sculptures along her banks. I had forgotten how much I love winter fishing. Hell, I had forgotten how much I love winter. But I remember now.
I love having a truck. This was my first foul weather outdoor adventure with my Chevy Colorado, and it’s great fun. I love the workspace of a tailgate as I’m getting ready. While the temperature was quite cold, there was virtually no wind, and the bright sun reflecting off the snow made it fairly comfortable. I decided my ultra warm neoprene waders would be overkill, so I put on my Redingtons and a warm hat and met up with a friend who had been fishing all morning. Bob is a great guy, a fantastic fly angler, and he travels with more flies than I have seen in almost every fly shop I’ve ever been in. “Hare’s ear,” he told me. “They’re killing it.”
A hare’s ear nymph? This is not a fly I use very often. I think maybe because it’s kind of nondescript. Unremarkable in color and vague in shape, a single example sat in the corner of my fly box, long ignored like that drab sportcoat in the closet with patches on the elbows. You can’t remember the last time you wore it, but won’t throw it out because there has to be some occasion it’s perfect for. Well I can’t show you a picture of the hare’s ear I used, because it was in fact the perfect sportcoat for the occasion, and the trout hammered it until it unraveled. Then I trimmed the material that had come undone and they hammered it some more. Finally, the hook literally broke off of it. This is an example of a healthy hare’s ear nymph, courtesy of my buddy Joel of Montana Troutaholics Outfitters. Joel describes it as a “great and often overlooked nymph.” He also said in New Zealand they call it a ‘hare and copper,’ and it’s an extremely productive fly down there too.
The first fish of the day came quickly, as did my realization that wetting your hand to handle a trout on a 20 degree day is uncomfortable.
Catching fish is fun no matter the temperature. But when toes get cold, wading becomes clumsy. And when hands get cold, everything else gets clumsy. Removing a fly, releasing a fish, tying a knot, untangling line. Everything takes longer. I tried a few times to add a trailing fly behind the hare’s ear, but cold fingers and bad eyes (I was wearing a warm hat without a brim so I was without my usual clip-on magnifiers) made tandem rigs just too cumbersome to tie. In addition, trout spinning around in the net tangling in the trailer added a new dimension of frustration. So I abandoned that and stuck with the single nymph.
Anyone who fishes in cold weather has experienced their guides icing up. At first it happens gradually, ice building up from the water on the fly line gliding by. But once they ice to the point the line doesn’t move, you have to dip the guides into the river (which is warmer than the air) to thaw them. This of course means now your rod is totally wet, and in a couple minutes you’ll have far more ice than before. It’s just a part of winter fishing.
Once my hands froze, I tried my best to remove hooks with hemostats while the fish was still in the net. But some fish are worth the pain of wetting your hands for a photo. This fatty was my biggest of the day.
You can just make out this fish in the upper right as I released him. I was a bit late with the photo — did I mention my hands weren’t working very well? — but I thought the swirl of water he left in his wake was pretty cool.
By late afternoon, the temperature had risen to the high twenties and things began to thaw out. I love this curl of snow slowly sliding off the warm, tin roof of the gazebo.
The hare’s ear worked all day, until it didn’t. They just shut down for that fly for both Bob and I. Luckily, he had another winning pattern in his fly box and gave me an extra. It was tiny and pink, hard to really see and damn near impossible to tie on at that point in the day. I told myself I would fish it for another thirty minutes or until I broke it off and then I would be done for the day. But this fly too was extremely effective, producing another half dozen fish in that last half hour. This beauty wanted to pose with my beautiful bamboo rod by Jerry Nonnemacher.
I spent the drive from Madison to Loudoun County smiling about a simply wonderful day of winter fishing. And right around the time I reached Gilbert’s Corner, the feeling eased back to the last of my toes. With warmth and sunshine in the forecast for more than a week taking us into mid March, I think it’s safe to say the worst of winter is behind us. Unfortunately, so is the best of it.
This past weekend I spent a day wandering around central Virginia, not far from a town called Undisclosed Location. I was taking pictures, fly fishing and just enjoying the beautiful early autumn weather. I did not have much success fishing, but took a few photos I liked and did very well in the enjoying the beautiful day department.
It’s hard not to feel good on the water when you’re carrying a wonderfully crafted bamboo rod made by Jerry Nonnemacher, and a beautiful new net from Brodin Nets. Early on when the fish weren’t biting, I set up a little product shoot.
I don’t mind when the fish aren’t biting, I really don’t. So I decided to leave the area and find another activity. As I was leaving, however, I stopped at one more spot and had a look in. Brown trout, just what I was after. I hiked down the embankment and set up to fish for a bit. Remember when I said I don’t mind when the fish aren’t biting? I may have meant that I don’t mind as long as I don’t see a monster trout just sitting there! The smaller trout here are probably 8-10 inchers. The one bruiser had to be pushing 20 inches. I wanted him. Bad. So I fished to him. Over the next couple hours I tried countless variations of flies and tactics. I justified hammering him with everything but the kitchen sink because it takes me so damn long to tie a new fly on, I figured I had given him ample time to rest. But here’s the thing. You can’t fish one pool for two hours. You can’t throw your fly box at one fish who has no interest in feeding. I was just about to give up, when I tried dead drifting a San Juan worm right in front of him. I’ll be damned if he didn’t take that San Juan and shoot downstream with it. He broke me off after less than three fun-filled seconds. I was proud to have gotten him to bite, though … until I saw him a minute later with my fly stuck in his pectoral fin. I had foul hooked the beast. So with his fin and my pride stinging a bit, I called it a day. I had hooked two or three small ones earlier but lost them all before I could get them in my still virgin net.
I wish I knew my trees better. I look forward to the orange and red maples of Virginia’s fall palette. But the early yellows, poplar I think, made for stunning reflections. And, fish or not, this time of year just makes me feel more alive. October in Virginia simply can not be beat.
A friend asked me a while back why I liked fly fishing so much. He said it seemed more difficult and less productive than, say, spin fishing. And I have to admit there have been days when I have paddled a kayak and fought wind and current and tangles and snags and have wondered the same thing, why do I like fly fishing so much? The answer snuck up on me recently when I wasn’t even pondering the question.
I spent a day fishing at Rose River Farm with a very special rod, a 7’6″ 5-weight ‘Rose River Special’ made by master bamboo rodmaker and good friend Jerry Nonnemacher. I had treated myself to the rod this spring for my 50th birthday but haven’t had much opportunity to fish with it since. So I was looking forward to casting it again.
Just sliding the two finely crafted pieces out of the tube makes me think about the painstaking, skillful work that went into creating the rod. Jerry was kind enough to send photos of my rod at every stage of the building process. The rod is a thing of pure beauty when you first lay eyes on it. The fit and finish, the detail and quality of the craftsmanship are all immediately evident at a glance. But it’s not until the rod is in your hands that it truly leaps to life.
Standing in a river on an unseasonably warm December morning, stripping line out in a puddle in front of me as I watch for the pattern of rising trout upstream, I am unhurried. Perhaps for the first time in weeks, I am unhurried. I have nothing to do but fish for trout, and I have all day to do it. I lift the rod tip up and immediately feel the perfect balance of rod and reel in my hand, and with the drag of the water on the fly line, the rod bends. It bends more as I accelerate the back cast, and fifteen feet of line silently slips behind me overhead. The feedback I get from this rod on the very first cast is loud and clear: Wait. I see a trout rise ahead as I feel the rod loading behind me. A gentle, firm forward stroke and the rod moves forward, bringing fly line with it. I let go of the line held snug against the rod with my finger and fifteen feet becomes twenty five. Drab olive line shoots easily, parallel with the water. The leader unfurls after that and my size 16 Parachute Adams delicately lands in the center of the rings now fading from the earlier rise. This trout has moved on, or has chosen another unseen meal, and the Adams drifts gently toward me. It matters not. After one cast I was already having a great day. And the answer to the question posed months earlier became as clear as the waters pushing my fly downstream.
There is something about the rhythm of fly fishing that causes a physical reaction. I feel like my blood pressure drops, and the water pushing on my legs eagerly washes my stress and worries downstream. This occurs whenever I fly fish, but the feeling is somehow more immediate, more acute with a finely crafted bamboo rod in my hand. It forces me to slow my body, and my mind simply follows. I lift the rod and repeat the cast, a foot to the left this time. And again, a foot left of that. On my fourth cast of the day, a trout breaks the surface, rolls in a red, purple, silver arc and my fly disappears beneath the surface. I tug upward and feel the firm resistance of a hook set into the mouth of the rainbow. As I strip in line, the delicate tip of the Rose River Special dances, sending vibrations from every turn of the fish’s head and beat of his tail down to my hand, and a good day got better.
I brought that fish to hand, and several more throughout the day. But I didn’t count, and I didn’t care. I enjoyed standing in the water, casting. Sending line out through the guides, watching flies delicately land on the surface, and watching intently for the bubble and then waiting for that tug of life on the end of the line. The rod performs wonderfully even in my oft clumsy hands, and I feel like I’ve been fishing with it my entire life.
Jerry Nonnemacher’s custom cane fly rods are a masterful blend of performance and art. And this 5-weight will not be the last Nonnemacher rod I own. The small and stunning native brook trout of the equally beautiful Shenandoah National Park seem best suited for the delicate feel of a 2- or 3-weight cane rod. In time, a person could imagine owning one for every fishing occasion. Here is the rodmaker himself, Jerry Nonnemacher, enjoying fishing a little creek in Montana recently.
So if you ever find yourself on the water and you’re having trouble recalling what it is you love — or used to love — about fly fishing, talk to Jerry. Find a way to make room in your budget, and your life, for a little performance art. It just might lower your blood pressure. Hell, that makes it practically a doctor’s order.
(Photo by Steve Hasty)