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First Float of the Season

By Dan Parson

It was dark and cold when we met.

Lee and Shane stood in their waders, clouds of breath fogging their glasses, bundled up in layers hoping to keep the frigid temperature from seeping in. Even beneath the bulk we looked as though the holidays had been too kind in the calorie department.

The three of us are good buddies who hadn’t fished together for more than 2 months. We were pretty pumped to get after it, despite the certainty the day would hold a lot of icy guides, frozen appendages, and possibly a few embarrassing moments falling on your ass.

My drift boat was ready and they followed me to the put in an hour’s drive away. I never listen to the radio on the way out. I tend to obsess over approaches and patterns, talking to myself the whole way up, which is funny since it all goes out the window once the reality of the day unfolds.

We’d left too early and we all knew it. Winter fishing is best in the middle of the day, but for several years we made it a point of pride that to be the first boat of the new year on the river. I guess we worried some ambitious soul would beat us to the launch. It’s not important, but games like these lead to adventures, so I like them.

Floating a river in the Rockies, in January, is usually a dangerous proposition. The weather changes fast, vehicles can fail to start, and phone service is sketchy. I told the guys if we got stranded somewhere and had to survive until spring they could eat me – just let me get a few trout first.

Anyway, we had all the needed survival stuff on board and it’s a bathtub float with no rapids. The dangers exist but not prominently enough to stop us. Besides, I had a new 6 weight streamer rod from under the tree and it was begging to be baptized.

The sun was up about 40 minutes when I took the oars.

Lee and Shane always argue they should row first, but it’s my boat. Letting another guy row your boat is a little like letting another guy dance with your wife. It’s all cool and innocent, but at the same time you find yourself keeping a close eye on things.

One little trick to winter fly casting is to not strip much line through the guides and cause them to ice up. We fed out just enough to hit the fishy spots and keep the rigs a reasonable distance from the boat.

We played with depth and weight settings a little bit, and soon enough rods bent under the weight of trout. Shane landed a fat 16 inch ‘bow in a long deep trough and Lee hooked and lost a fish he thought felt pretty heavy. Little #20 flies pull free easy as they don’t hold a lot of meat, so you do have to baby them. Shane kissed his fish and released it (another tradition – your lips must actually touch the first trout of the season. Period).

Anyway, I rowed back up river and made the same run. Lee scored on a chunky cutthroat (which received the required loving kiss) and Shane grabbed another solid ‘bow. We repeated the drift half a dozen times, weeding through some whitefish but scoring a few good trout in the process.

As Lee said in his eloquent style, “Hey your rods bent and its freakin’ January. Don’t whine about whities.”

We eventually swapped out rowers and I got a chance to sling the new 6 weight. I chose a #4 flashy streamer I had spun up the day before, and worked it with quick short strips and long pauses. Trout won’t move very far for food this time of year, but a big easy meal right in their face, at a time when big easy meals are scarce, is sometimes productive. I love streamer fishing, but it requires extra patience in the winter. Every 4 or 5 you have to clean the guides, and my hands were quickly numb. I was thinking of switching to nymphs when I strip set on something heavy. After a solid fight, a thick butter belly brown came to net, breaking in that 6 properly.

It was my turn to kiss a trout.

That’s how it went the rest of the day. We caught a bunch of trout and white fish in the deep slow stretches, a few were over 20 inches, and everyone had plenty of action to feel like the cold was worth it.  We had a couple doubles and I even caught a small lake trout that slammed that flashy streamer thing right at boat side.

When we got cold we would stop and warm up with coffee or a few minutes by the portable propane heater Lee had brought along. We bantered around the way guys do when they are having fun, hardly saw a soul, and ate elk jerky, sardines and left over Christmas cookies for lunch. No one had to resort to cannibalism, and as best we knew we were the first boat on the river again. Honestly, I just don’t get why more people don’t fly fish in the winter. They must really love TV.

We got home a bit after dark. Music always sounds better on the radio after you have had a good day on the water and I sang loud and off key the entire way home, which is probably why Shane and Lee rode together in Lees truck. My wife had ordered pizza and it was still hot, so I warmed up with that and told her semi-embellished stories of our adventures, then sat down at the vice. Time to tie more of those flashy streamers and midge larvae.

Dan Parson is a fly fishing guide, school teacher, and adviser to the phenomenally talented Green River High School Speech and Debate Team. Contact him through Solitary Angler or look for his boat on the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge.