The break in the waters natural rhythm caught my eye as I watched my line drift below and begin its swing, pulling along with it my egg-and-nymph tandem. Not certain I was getting deep enough for the heart of the pool; I stripped in line, thumbed the ice from my guides and added another split-shot to the rig. The grey day was consuming in a heavy sort of way that only deep winter can bring with it. Yet somehow, with the press of water against my waders, the world seemed just a tad bit less heavy, bringing a calming to my bones and a breathe of anticipation to my soul. I eyed my target, flipped my line forward and then roll-cast my rig back out to the point across the stream from my position, instantly putting two good mends into my line in an attempt to get as deep a possible in my drift. My eyes followed the small bit of yarn and I caught myself holding my breath just a bit as my flies passed through the lie I just knew held fish. Nothing…..but there it was again, in the run just upstream. That break in the flow. Was it a rise? Or was it a periodic anomaly or burble in the current causing me to think it was a rising fish? I stood staring at the location for a good three minutes or more, expecting to see it happen again. No luck. Must not be a fish.
I had worked the hole with several dozen drifts with nothing to show for my efforts, yet confidence remained high as I switched the egg to a Skittle and added more weight. Patience is a virtue in cold weather nymphing, and I was sure with each change I would bring a fish to hand. I ignored my brain as it started nudging me about not being able to feel my fingertips. "Not important" I reminded myself. Warmth and comfortable digits is not a luxury afforded the winter fisherman. And there it was again. But this time, before I turned away it happened once more and I saw it. It was indeed a fish, and a sizeable one at that. The blood seemed to instantly return to my fingers.
Now comes the hard part. Deciding to "de-rig" while cold, for the off-chance that a January fish will rise for your offering and the odds are not on my side as proven by experience. Yet the increased heart rate is undeniable and it is something I find myself unable to turn away from. The nipper bites through the fluorocarbon and out comes the midge box. I'm hedging my bets against a dry, thinking a film offering may be the way to bring that big charcoal nose to the surface again. The choice is a size18 Little Olive Wet, and the tippet is 6X. The fingers are gone now, as I blow on them and watch again for another rise. Moments later it arrives on queue. I strip line measuring my distance as the energy of the glass rod greets my hand in the cork. There is no other sense in the moment but that of casting a fly as my tippet touches the current a few feet above the position of the rise. I cannot see my fly, following only my line and the knowledge of where my fly "should" be and them it happened. That same subtle burble I had seen several times before. The lift of the rod is met by a half second pause; most likely a moment of disbelief on the part of the fish. Then violent head shakes as the true weight of the fish is realized. Each run my heart is in desperation for the 6X tippet. Each headshake is wrought with fear for the size18 barbless hook. Yet I'm alone on the water and talking out loud to a fish that shouldn't still be attached to my line. Unable to turn the head in any way I watch as all 20 plus inches of it streaks past me toward the bottom of the pool and into the current below, I've lost the battle. And almost in tandem with the thought, it's gone. In a breath, the adrenaline that is coursing through my veins catches up to me....I am cold. My hands tremble as I bring my fly to the keeper, the warmth in my fingers gone with that amazing fish. With the rod under my arm my hands find warm pockets and I stand in the water looking out over pool. The heaviness of the winter grey is gone, replaced by the crimson flanks and dance of a fish that for a brief moment was part of me. That in itself is enough.