The dashboard thermometer ticks 30 as I pull into the sparsely occupied lot. It’s mid January and the streaks of hazy golden light filtering through a low cloud ceiling are the first signs of sun in recent memory. I throw the shifter into park and soak up the illusory warmth the rays provide, scanning the lot for signs of other anglers; 4WD vehicles, fishing stickers, spare rods, or sunglasses hanging from rearview mirrors. Selfishly, I want this river to myself today. If there’s one thing you can hope for and reasonably expect to get out of winter steelheading, it’s a little peace and quiet. Judging by the looks of the half dozen cars in the lot, I may get my wish.
There are certain advantages afforded by fishing your home water, particularly in winter. Moving a fish to the fly in 34-degree water requires near perfect presentation and a certain degree of intimacy with one’s surroundings. The precise coordinates of the bucket, the presence of a submerged boulder, the length and angles of the shelf… this knowledge can all make the difference. Unfortunately, this is not my home water. It is liquid, though, and there are steelhead in it, and that’s about all I can ask for given current circumstances.
I break some shelf ice loose to make room for an anchor, and begin working down the run. The pace of winter fishing with the swung fly allows one plenty of time to contemplate their pursuit. As I take another step downstream, the increasing pressure of waist-deep flow forces ice-cold H2O through the pinhole leak in my waders and down my leg, & I think to myself, Why am I doing this? Yes, it’s nice to be out and the snowflakes are awfully pretty and the peace and quiet is more than welcome. But the truth is, I’m hunting for a moment; Win the moment and satisfy a certain primal urge that could keep me sane for the next 6 weeks of winter. Miss an opportunity, and we're going home hungry.
As my fly turns the corner at the bottom of another long tailout I’ve still nothing to show for my efforts. The afternoon light is just beginning to fall. This could be a good thing or a bad thing. My time is running out and it’s getting harder and harder to ignore that leak in my waders. Even the dog looks cold. But the next run looks too good to turn back now.
After hours of practice my off-shoulder stoke is rhythmic and fluid, the velocity of the cast helping to pull frozen fly line through ice-choked guides. An upstream mend and a lift of the rod allow the heavy tip to bury itself in the thick winter water. As I lower the rod into the swing the fly comes under tension and begins to swim. In time it straightens below me, I strip in and repeat the process until I achieve the perfect presentation. I know it is the perfect presentation because the ensuing strike is savage, jarring line off the water. But I am frozen in place, unable to process fast enough to seize the moment. The line goes slack – I let it hang, hoping for a second chance & trying to tease the fish into a game of cat and mouse. Nothing. I take a few steps upstream and change flies in a frenzy. My cast is sloppy now, the presentation anything but perfect. A dozen more casts go untouched.
I take up loose line and turn my back on the run to look on the dog. He hasn’t left his perch on the bank throughout the whole ordeal. He gives me a look and turns from the river too, as if to acknowledge what I already know: we’re going home hungry.