Michael Pearce

A snow afternoon for fly-fishing

The Wichita Eagle

I should have known better, when I saw the guys from northern Minnesota were in their truck, with the heater blaring. They’d driven all the way to southern Missouri for a week of fly-fishing for trout and they had frozen out.

I also maybe should have taken heed when I was trying to work out line for my second cast of the day and the line wouldn’t shoot forward. Looking at the rod, I saw the ice totally clogged the eyes and the fly line was locked tight.

And just maybe, when my wet fingers instantly froze to the metal handle on my fly reel, I should have realized just how cold it was on the river last Friday afternoon.

But it was my last afternoon of a week-long vacation, and I’d just filed a trout fishing story for Sunday’s Outdoors page. I figured it couldn’t get too cold in just an hour or two of fly-fishing. Well, the fishing was good. The cold about as miserable as I’ve ever fished, including some ice-fishing days when the temperature was about 10 degrees below “you gotta be crazy.”

Earlier in the week I’d spent a sunny few hours on Lake Taneycomo, which is really a river fishery after it exits the dam on Table Rock Lake, with local expert Carolyn Parker. The temperature was never much above freezing that day, and harsh wind chilled exposed skin. But that had been nothing compared to what I felt Friday.

A check on my phone showed the temperature was around 20, and the windchill in single digits, when I reached the parking area. The first flakes of what would soon become a hard snow were starting to fall. Like the cartoon with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, trying to sway some poor sap’s judgment, I stood in the river for several minutes doing nothing but coming up with reasons for why I should head for Kathy and a roaring fireplace or tough it out and fish.

Maybe “dumb it out,” would be how most would describe it. So it’s always been with me and Mother Nature at her worst. As a boy I loved walking in blizzards, or playing outside in driving rains.

After five minutes without a take in one spot on Friday, I drove and parked near where Carolyn and I had our best success mid-week. Even the first 15 or so minutes there passed without a strike. My fingers were hurting from the cold half-way through that lull.

Fly-fishermen use their fingers to retrieve the wet line and also have to let it slide through their fingers on subsequent casts. By then I was telling myself, “OK, catch one nice fish and call it a day.”

Moving closer to shore I caught that nice fish on about my third cast, and its buddy about two casts later. “OK, after you catch five it will be time to go home with pride,” was then my mindset.

I backed into shallower water for a few minutes then, holding my rod under my arms so I could thrust my hands into my waders to warm up. They actually regained feeling pretty quickly. By then it was snowing so hard other anglers up an down the river faded in and out of sight, depending on wind gusts. During one short lull I saw another angler with a nice rainbow trout. Seconds later I was casting again.

I caught rainbows on my next two casts, the second fish a solid 15-incher that took the fly pretty deep. When I reached for my hemostats so I could get to the fly my wet fingers froze to those, too. The fifth fish came a few casts later, and with it the pledge to go to ten before quitting.

By then I’d pulled my turtle neck up as far as I could on my face. The start of every cast began with jostling the rod under water to thaw and shake the ice from the eyes. Even when the line was on a dead drift, I had to give it short jerks to keep it from freezing in place.

Unhooking fish was a chore as my fingers and hands seemed to go in slow motion. Fortunately I only got one knot in my line, and it came out easily. I made sure I was way up on a dry gravel bar before reaching for my cell phone to take a few pictures, figuring my cold fingers would surely drop the phone.

It didn’t take long to get to my twelfth fish of the afternoon, but a few casts later my line went slack because the line had broken. Stiff fingers had kept me from re-tying after every few fish.

By then it was snowing at almost blizzard conditions. Looking, I saw three anglers just upstream almost frosted in white from the snow on their clothing.

I’m not sure I could have tied on another fly if I’d wanted, but I’d had enough. I plunged the rod and reel underwater to loosen the ice, then reeled everything up tight before it froze again. On shore, I put on a pair of dry gloves I’d kept stashed in my hoodie for the walk out.

Cheap, jersey gloves never felt so good. Nor have a dozen trout brought such satisfaction.

It’s like a friend once said, “The only hunting and fishing trips I’ve ever regretted, have been the ones when I didn’t go.”