On New Year’s Day, as temperatures dropped below 5 degrees and a steady wind made it feel even colder, a few friends and I planned to meet on a local river for some off-season fly fishing.
That’s right. Fly fishing. During the winter. On the traditional opening day of ice fishing season.
Our thought was simple: Let’s protest the lack of safe ice on the opening day of ice fishing season by proving, once and for all, that if you’re persistent enough, or tough enough, or foolish enough, you can fish without ice … even in January.
You can, that is, if you’re careful, and if you pay close attention to the state’s fishing regulations, which outline which waters provide those legal winter fly-fishing opportunities.
As it turned out, the trip never took place, in part because we were not persistent, tough or foolish enough to carry through on our plan. One pal was sick, another begged off, and the rest of us decided to spend the day indoors.
All of which, in hindsight, might have been a pretty good choice.
On Sunday, we … two of us, at least … finally got serious, packed up all manner of cold-weather gear, and headed to Union to give winter fly-fishing a try.
First, a quick disclaimer: Our idea was neither original nor uncommon. In fact, several hours before Dave Simpson of ABC-7 and I splashed into the St. George River, a much larger group of fly fishers gathered in southern Maine for their annual “Freeze Up.”
Organized by Kevin McKay, guide and proprietor of www.maineflyfish.com, the Freeze Up typically draws a couple dozen anglers who graze on plentiful food, compete in good-natured games, and fish the frigid Mousam River.
Simpson, who does the camera work for the weekly “Going Outdoors” segment we produce for ABC-7 and FOX-22, didn’t bring any chili or mooseburgers or cookies. Neither did I.
There was no celebration, nor casting contests here.
There was, however, this: Two middle-aged men determined to illustrate that (thanks to state efforts to increase fishing opportunity) there are plenty of places one can fish during the winter, even if they don’t own an ice auger or enjoy ice fishing.
In this case, it was the scenic St. George River, at a nifty rock ramp that holds back the waters of Sennebec Pond in Union.
For our purposes, it was perfect: The river is easily accessible, the wading is predictable, and plenty of fish (theoretically) were stocked during the fall.
Not that winter fly fishers don’t have a few obstacles to overcome.
Like, for instance, getting to the water in the first place.
The St. George, I may have mentioned, is easily accessible. What I may not have mentioned is that it’s so easily accessible, it’s quite possible to slide across the shoreline ice and splash into the drink before you’re ready to wade … not that I’d have any first-hand knowledge of that, of course.
I am cautious, you see. I am careful. I am … well … a chicken.
And this chicken quickly ascertained that the safest way to make a controlled splashdown in the easily accessible St. George was to sit down on the shell ice and slide into the shallow water.
Kind of like an otter … a very big, chilly otter … if, that is, otters slid on their butts instead of their bellies.
With splashdown (more or less) gracefully accomplished, it was time to fish.
I opted for nymphs. Big, chunky stone flies. Little, dainty copper johns. Both, many people tell me, are extremely effective when the water is cold, and the fish aren’t feeding too aggressively.
My handy (and extremely accurate) toe-mometer indicated that the water was 33 degrees. No fish were showing. The conditions seemed perfect for the flies I chose.
A half-mile away, on Sennebec Pond, ice fishermen scurried back and forth, checking their traps. Here, with a beautiful pool to myself, there was no such scurrying.
My sub-surface offerings were refused.
Well, I hooked a rock or two … or three. You might choose to say those hook-ups were accidents, and serve as an indication that I’m an unskilled angler.
Normally, I might even agree. But my experts (read that: friends who catch a lot of rocks) say it isn’t … and they tell me if you’re not getting stuck on bottom when fishing nymphs, you’re not fishing them properly … so there.
Simpson opted for a brown wooly buggger, a versatile fly that some claim can catch any fish, any time, anywhere.
Except, it seems, on the first Sunday of January in the St. George River.
We fished a bit, filmed a bit (this was a work trip, let’s not forget) and chatted a bit. We chipped ice from the rod guides every few minutes, and laughed at our own expense.
After an hour or so, work completed and fingers frozen, we adjourned, and headed back to Bangor.
After we thawed, Simpson and I agreed that we’d been persistent enough and tough enough and foolish enough to prove you can fish without ice … even in January.
We did not prove, however, that you can actually catch the fish you’re seeking.