A Sense of Place By Jason Abraham. Illustrations by Bill Reynolds.
It was a perfect day to hunt squirrels. The winter sun, still weak from its slog through much of February, would be warm enough to coax bushy-tails from their dens around noon. My plan was to be nestled under a snowy oak tree to meet them.
I was in the basement piling on heavy winter clothes when I noticed my fly-fishing gear, abandoned in the corner since the last warm days of autumn. A patch of blue sky, brilliant as summer, showed through a window. Something inside me snapped—winter had gone on long enough. I wanted it to be warm and green outside. I wanted to swat mosquitoes and need a cold drink. Most of all, I wanted to wade in moving water and fish for trout.
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Until this day, I'd never considered going trout fishing in the winter. I'd fished the spring end of the winter trout season, which runs through March 31, on many streams in the southeast. But that was sans the ice, snow, and cold that make winter, well, winter. Today would be much different. Catching fish wouldn't be a priority; catching an early taste of summer was my goal.
I shucked the heaviest coat for a fleece pullover and grabbed my thick neoprene chest waders, a pair of wool fingerless gloves, and my fly-fishing gear. I headed for Beaver Creek, a small stream that drops 450 feet as it tumbles nearly six miles from its source near Plainview to its confluence with the Whitewater River. The creek shares its name with the village of Beaver, a small settlement that once thrived at the creek's mouth. New Englanders who settled the area and cleared the hillsides of trees to farm named both&38212;creek and town—in 1854. Most of the village was abandoned by 1906, after a series of devastating flash floods, exacerbated by denuded hillsides, made the area unlivable.
In the years since then, Beaver Creek and its surrounding watershed have reverted to wild countryside. Today, the stream twists and turns through dense hardwood forest, permanently protected in the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area. I stop my truck and survey the stream from the warmth of the cab. I note the one advantage I'll enjoy on this day—the absence of streamside vegetation, now buried under a foot of snow, should make fly casting a bit easier.
Tossing my fishing vest onto my shoulders, I breathe in the pungent smell of sunscreen and mosquito repellent, returning me briefly to warm days. An icy wind snaps my reverie, and I plunge into my thick waders, hoping for warmth. Opening my fly box, I know I should select nymph imitations, since trout feed primarily on insects in nymph stages in winter. I should also pick some heavily weighted fly and focus on fishing deep holes, where lethargic fish would logically be gathered in winter hideouts.
Instead, in this quest for summer, I tie on a shrimplike scud and a hare's ear—two lightly weighted flies that ride high in the water column. Snow squeaks under my boots as I walk toward a short riffle, one of the only stretches of the creek not clogged by ice. This fast-moving water is perfect for summer fishing, when trout have the energy to hold in the food-rich current. In winter, however, trout prefer pools, where they have less need to exert precious energy.
I step into the water, which at 32 degrees feels much warmer than the surrounding air. Frozen fly line splashes hard in my first cast. The guides of my fly rod clog with ice. Even my flies coat with ice during the few seconds they're exposed to air between casts. On the verge of quitting my reckless rush toward summer, I cast to the head of the pool, the fastest water and least likely place to find trout. The instant the flies hit the water, I see a telltale tug on the line. My arm instinctively flails backward, setting the hook.
I try to bring the brown trout in quickly to preserve its energy reserves, but it's strong and it fights hard. The snowy banks and icy water slip away as I focus only on the flashing fish at the end of my line. It could be summer again.
Oblivious to the cold, I remove my fingerless gloves and plunge my hands into the water to gently cradle the fish. The brown trout's dark red spots and tan body stand in stark contrast to the drabness of this day. I slip my barbless fly from its jaw and watch it swim back to the head of the pool.
I think about that fish as I head home and wonder why it would stay in such fast-moving water in winter. Maybe it, like me, had tired of the winter routine and needed a quick reminder of summer.
Jason Abraham, staff writer for the DNR divisions of Ecological Resources and Fish and Wildlife, grew up in the bluffs of southeastern Minnesota.