Summer along the Big Wood River explodes with life—riotous tangles of leaves, bird song, and groups of mule deer fording the stream—but this winter day whispers of survival. White aspens and black cottonwoods stand in skeletal relief against the gray ceiling of a building storm. Except for a lone ouzel dipping in open riffles or a single mallard whistling overhead, the river seems devoid of life.
To understand why any sane man or woman would willingly spend hours in the freezing, waist-deep water of an ice-choked river, you must realize that fly fishermen are an obsessive breed. Consider the equipment they need to catch a six-inch trout: rods, reels, waders, nets, vests, float tubes, books on streamside entomology, hundreds of floats, sinkers, tippits, clippers, hemostats, repellents, and a new SUV to haul it all to streams near and far. And that doesn’t include flies—thousands, even ten thousands of flies. A fly fisherman’s array of fur, feather, and floss imitations is large and diverse, often impulsively acquired, and invariably expensive.
I cannot claim that I am the one to divine the truth about fishing Chamois Nymphs in winter-bound rivers. It is Scott Morrison who, one Sunday afternoon in early February, whip-finishes the creamy-beige fly in his tying vice and drops it into my hand. Studying the nymph’s symmetry, he notes, “It’s the right size, shape, and texture.” Then, as if the fly is a talisman blessed by the forces that control fishing luck, he adds, “Huge trout won’t be able to resist it."
When I find a fly that works—whether it’s as pedestrian as a Royal Wulff or as exotic as a Moonlight Bivisible or a Bead-Eyed Deep Diver—it eventually claims a place of honor in the upper left-hand corner of my fly box. But for now (although Morrison’s faith carried some weight), I store the unproved Chamois Nymph among the rank and file—untried flies, and those that have been tested, found wanting, and returned to the box without honor.
On the day that Scott and I break trail through two feet of snow to the Wood River’s icy bank, I would bet five hundred dollars that within an hour we will have ascertained that fly fishing is strictly a summer sport, best practiced when caddis are clouding the Wood River or brown drakes are tacking across Silver Creek’s mirrored surface. It is simply not a day to be afield. The cold is pushing its way through layers of Gore-Tex, pile, and neoprene as we stumble through dormant thickets of wild roses to the river’s bank.
Aside from the cold, there is another reason why the Wood is deserted on that February afternoon. In a process repeated throughout the winter, the water has frozen and thawed and then frozen again, stacking blue cards of pressure ice against the river’s steep banks.
Not surprisingly, with the water temperature hanging a few degrees above freezing, the entry into the knee-deep current is at least as dicey as the hike in. I place my feet like chess pieces, testing the slick river rocks before committing weight to my wading shoes.
“Cast that nymph to the head of the pool," Morrison suggests. The white line and hair-fine tippit float the pale imitation into an upstream riffle, where the current tumbles it back down into the pool.
The fly settles into the deep water where trout could be hanging on the drop-off into the pool. The nymph should drift, not drag, so I mend the line by rolling the rod tip upstream. It is an unthinking process, this mending, and I study the drift for any hesitation until the line sweeps out the bottom of the pool.
The clouds that have been threatening slowly lower, and snow starts to fall. The flakes collide weightlessly with my rod before spinning into the dark current. I am surprised by how quickly the water freezes to the ferrules. Continuing to cast, I ignore the ice until it locks the floating line in place. Then, one by one, I free the ferrules and take a step closer to the head of the pool.
As the storm intensifies, I search for midges among the spinning flakes and watch the calm water for rises. Less weather- and season-dependent than most outdoor sports, fishing is based more on timing and focus. Fish respond to the mating rituals of mayflies, the mechanics of Gulf of Alaska low-pressure systems, the moon’s gravitational pull, the ebb and flow of deep-strata springs, and a dozen other factors—some knowable, most mysteries.
Wading upstream, it occurs to me there is one pleasant difference between summer and winter: the lack of people. Except for the trophy houses that litter the Wood’s banks, the river is empty… and pristine. I have seen otters and beavers riding the current in summer, but most animals that don’t hibernate or live beneath the snow have migrated out, and if I do cut across a set of fox prints, they are days old. >>>
Considering the effort Morrison has gone to—tying up half a dozen Chamois Nymphs and guiding me to his secret spot—I feel ungrateful when I find I’m longing to be cutting fresh tracks on Baldy’s high faces. Jerry Eder of Silver Creek Outfitters in Ketchum, however, while admitting it’s a tough choice, points out that when the skiing is good, the fly-fishing is better. Trout, creatures of the cold, seek deep, dark holes in the summer and wait at the head of still pools when ice chokes the banks. A snowstorm’s relatively warmer temperatures trigger hatches that, while they cannot compare to summer’s entomological fecundity, draw trout to the surface. To oversimplify Eder’s equation, winter is a harsh, killing season, yet trout must feed. When temperatures rise above freezing, trout will rise aggressively to insects—or anything that approximates an insect.
Eder told us that, after a morning spent chasing face shots in Mayday Bowl, a few local fishermen trade their boots and skis for a rod and waders. Standing knee-deep below the River Run Bridge or above Hulen Meadow’s drop structures, they are arguably the wisest of the fly-fishing fraternity: They know the huge, educated trout that haunt summer’s cold blue holes feed without fear in a winter’s ice-free pools. Northern ice fishermen, with their augers, worms, cans of corn, and heated shanties, have known this for over a century.
In the Wood River Valley, however, winter fishermen still represent a tiny percentage when compared to summer’s numbers. For that reason and others, Eder fishes the Wood far more in winter than in summer. “It’s easier to get away in winter, and I love the solitude,” he says.
I’m thinking that Morrison and I are wasting our time when I see a brilliant flash of rainbow red at the head of the pool. Gently raising the rod tip, I feel the #14 hook find purchase in the trout’s jaw. A second later, the rod bends to the rainbow’s weight.
I once believed I could judge the weight and length of a fish by how it resists the hook. But fish are as different as the pools and rivers they inhabit, and the fact that one fish hunkers down and shakes against the barbless sting doesn’t mean the next one of the same size won’t pour on the power and exit downstream.
The Chamois Nymph miraculously holds, and the fish stays out from beneath the ice. Minutes later, a sixteen-inch hen seeks the eddy downstream of my waders. Gently removing the hook, I admire her brilliant colors and turn her loose. I still do not know what Morrison’s Chamois Nymph variant imitates, but I’m beginning to wonder. My best guess is a caddis pupa but, for all I know, it could be an Australian Digeree Grub.
It must be tempting for Morrison to gloat, to parody my doubts. Instead he simply says, “Real nice fish."
There is pacing in the February afternoon. Making my way upstream I cast, then retrieve, take a step, cast again. There are places where the ice reaches into the river’s deep pools and I am forced to creep up onto the bank, then glissade into the water upstream. I can’t claim the action is red hot, but although I may not land a twenty-inch fish, the rainbows I do hook fight strongly. As the light gently fades from the high ridges to the river, the storm abates, the snow stops. When we can no longer see to cast, we climb out of the Wood and posthole through the drifts back to the truck.
Local fly-fishermen will tell you that fishing is their one weakness. Not golf, not red sports cars, not art, or even international travel—unless it is to Argentina, New Zealand or Kamchatka, exotic places where trout grow to mythic proportions. It is about trout: the rainbows, browns, brooks, and goldens that haunt the Wood River Valley’s spring-fed creeks, freestone rivers, and high mountain lakes—voracious fish that inhale tiny flies, then rip thirty yards off your reel and four weeks off your life.
I must confess that memories of big fish are branded into my cerebral cortex. I often dream of cold early mornings when the currents move in sinuous, circular patterns and rainbows rise without fear. Or, less often, I twitch with nightmares of fighting a giant rainbow seconds before my clinch knot breaks.
For these reasons and others, when the Wood River Valley once again basks beneath a warm August sun, the cottonwoods are fledged in summer green, and the streamside paths to my favorite holes are beaten to dust by anglers above and below me, I will open my fly box and wistfully consider—there, among the dozens of Cahills, Adams and Spinners—the merits of a lone Chamois Nymph.
Andrew Slough arrived in the Wood River Valley in 1973 with plans to ski one winter. Fortunately, he never found a reason to leave. In the thirty years since, he has fished both the Big Wood River and Silver Creek under sweltering suns, cold moons, and raging blizzards. Between fishing expeditions he has also found time to publish in SKI, Outdoor Life, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Sun Valley Magazine and others.