Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Fly-Fishing Trip That Wasn't

I suppose you could blame it on the cold. This winter has been particularly frosty, with consistent temperatures below freezing, and wind chills reaching as low as -28 degrees. I had fully planned on going fishing. I had my gear all packed and stowed. I had tied flies the night before. I had even lined up the babysitter to watch Willie. What I hadn't accounted for was the deep psychological effects that a solid month of freezing cold would have on my psyche, and I just couldn't wrap my head around the idea of standing waist deep in spring water shivering away. And so, in a last minute audible, my second fly-fishing outing since Willie was born instead became a slightly warmer birding outing.

Tying flies while the baby's sleeping.

The first fly-fishing outing since the birth of my son came back in October. I was still reeling after the spotty at best success of my last trip, and my struggles with a Tenkara rod, so I decided to keep this trip simple and traditional. I'd use my old reliable 4-piece Redington Crosswater fly rod. I wanted to recreate my last trip to Maramec Spring as much as possible, only this time actually net some of the trout I managed to get on the line.

The plan seemed simple, right? I thought so. The fish were not so agreeable. I headed to Maramec Spring on October 28, and it happened to be their annual trout derby. While this meant there were a great number of trout released into the stream that day, it also meant that the park would be more crowded. It was your normal mix of fly rods and spinners, but also some loud Russians screaming at each other from across the river. If I wanted to be screamed at by Russians, I would have just stay home and screw around on twitter.


It was a gorgeous, crisp autumn day with barely any clouds in the sky. The air was chilly, but not necessarily cold, but I suppose the seasonal change from June to October was much more significant than I was anticipating. Back in June, the warmer weather seemed to have really pepped up the fish, and they were eager to strike at almost any fly that hit the water. October though (and I should realize this by now) was a different story. With the arrival of cold weather, fish's metabolism will drop, and the change is noticeable. Countless trout were watching the flies lazily drift pass their faces, the very same flies that were a hit back in June.


Lazy fish require more technical fishing, meaning casts need to be accurate and flies need to be more precisely presented. One challenge when fly-fishing with nymphs in cold weather (or any weather to be honest) is getting the sinking fly at the right depth in the water column. To do so, first you have to spot a feeding trout and eye ball at about what depth you think he's feeding at. Then, the indicator must be placed on the tippet at approximately the same depth, with a little extra to account for drag on the line from the current and the indicator. This can be more of an art than a science at times, and can be frustrating. Having to frequently change the depth of my fly is one reason I opt for the foam and toothpick strike indicators. I find that they are much easier to adjust than the popular Thingamabobber, but I'm sure there are plenty of fishermen who disagree with me on that point.

Once your depth is correct, you need to master the timing of your cast to coincide with the rate at which the fly will sink. I prefer that my fly finish sinking right as it passes in front of the trout. I don't have any animal behavioral science to back this up; I just have a hunch that the trout prefer a sinking fly rather than a fly floating at an unnatural consistent depth. Of course, you can nail your depth and your timing and still have a trout ignore or reject your fly time and time again. And naturally, you really will only have a small timeframe to get a few casts in before the window closes and the trout decides to either move on or simply change the depth at which it is swimming. Tricky devils.

After a few hours of fiddling around with flies, finding the right fishing spot, spotting feeding trout, and getting my cast, depth, and timing right, I finally did net a pretty petite Rainbow Trout. A petite trout, while obviously being no trophy, is still infinitely better than being skunked. It seems that morning, all I was able to spot were suckerfish, with many of the trout in the park being uncharacteristically shy. Or maybe they were all just caught already by the angry Russians. 

Skunk-Breaker
Towards the end of the day, I was fishing about a dozen yards downstream from the handicap access platform, when I spotted a large Rainbow lazily cruising upstream. I cast in his general direction and ended up wacking him in the back of the head with my nymph. The trout turned around and hit the fly incredibly hard. It looked like he was biting out of defense or revenge, rather than hunger. I set the hook just as hard and had him firmly on the line. He gave me a very good fight, and provided a few noisy, photogenic leaps out of the water. After a few minutes, I had him in the net and now he has a temporary residence in my freezer.


So not an unsuccessful trip by any means, but still, a very brief stint on the water. You'd think after two or three months I'd be chomping at the bit to get back out there. And believe me, I am. But that cold though. I admit it. This month, I wimped out. Instead of driving 90 minutes to stand in the water to freeze my ass off to catch fish, I decided instead to drive 45 minutes to walk around the woods and freeze my ass off to photograph birds.

The Audubon Center at the Riverlands sits in West Alton, Missouri on the Mississippi River, just north of the Confluence with the Missouri River. It's a massive migratory bird sanctuary that sees over 300 species of native North American birds throughout the year. There had been sightings of a Snowy Owl in the area, which is incredibly rare for Missouri. I decided to head up that way with my camera to see if I could spot him.

The Audubon Center at the Riverlands
At that point, my birding Life List was at about 40 species long. I was hoping not only to spot the Snowy Owl, but also some other birds of prey, such as a Bald Eagle, who should be hanging out along the river this time of the year. In addition, the Riverlands are the winter home of the Trumpeter Swans, North America's largest water fowl. These massive birds were once hunted nearly to extinction for their feathers (perfect for quill pens), but thanks to conservation efforts, they have made a massive comeback, and now return each winter to the Confluence.

Trumpeter Swans
The swans were the easiest bird to spot that day. Driving in, hundreds of the birds were hanging out on the frozen river. They would continuously fly over the area in low, wide Vs. And their name was incredibly accurate. The entire sanctuary sounded like a carnival due to their loud and continuous honking, which was much louder and annoying than even a Canadian Goose's.


As for the Snowy Owl, I swear I spotted him, or his wing at least, from the car as I pulled up. The ground was pretty snowy, so spotting him after that proved impossible, despite my trying the rest of the day. I didn't spot any Bald Eagles, but I did add a few new species, including the American Kestrel, Song Sparrow, Common Goldeneye, and Ring-Billed Gull to my Life List.

American Kestrel
Song Sparrow
Common Goldeneye
Ring-Billed Gull
I had a very fun time at the Riverlands and was shocked a few weeks later when Emily suggested we should go back up to the Audubon Center so the whole family could take part in their Eagle Days celebration. We packed some snacks and made the drive back up to the Sanctuary, and got to see a Bald Eagle and Eastern Screech Owl up close.

Although they weren't there in the hundreds, there were still a few Trumpeter Swans hanging around as well. Still, I was disappointed we didn't spot any Bald Eagles. However, that afternoon before dinner at Emily's parents', her dad and I did spot a pair of Bald Eagles (an adult and a juvenile) on the Meremac River just behind their house as we were loading firewood into his side-by-side. So long story short, I could have driven the 25 minutes to my in-laws' instead of going all the way to West Alton twice in one month.

Juvenile Bald Eagle
As for fishing, I'm still chomping at the bit to get back on the water, but it's still only 5 degrees in St. Louis, so maybe I'll just wait a little while longer.

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