Both, of course. And what better way to spend one of our now-lengthening winter afternoons, than partaking in the two activities I enjoy most this time of year?
I’ve discovered that fishing, despite the cold, is a year-round sport. With the upper reaches of the Kenai still flowing and an estimated 15 percent of the trout population overwintering in these waters, there is simply no reason to put away the fly rod. Of course, one must prepare for the hardships of cold, and possibly wet, conditions.
I’m the first to admit that it appears somewhat crazy to even consider fishing when the mercury plunges so low your glasses regularly fog, the guides on your rod ice up time and again and when the mere thought of tying on a new fly is painful.
But there are reasons that inspire such madness. Perhaps the sense of urgency, of adventure, that comes with life in extreme weather, even in a place you know well. Maybe it’s also fisherman’s intuition, whispering that, as the mercury begins to climb even a little bit after the overnight freeze, the trout will become active and begin feeding.
Also, the long ski to the now-braided waters below Skilak Lake reveal a changed world. Not only has the water dropped significantly, but with the motorboats of summer long gone, it’s now supremely quiet. So quiet you can hear the brush of an eagle’s wings as they sweep the horizon, darkly silhouetted against the muted light of midday.
And there is not another soul within view. Even the most heated war zones in the summer battle for sockeyes have been relinquished back to the spirit of the river. The only footprints encased in the frozen ground now are a few wayward paw prints from restless bears that, like us, don’t know any better and have left the comfort of their dens for a day on the river.
This late in the season, our best hope for action might be a flesh fly, mimicking the decaying flesh of last autumn’s salmon. And if we spot some of the late-run silvers that continue to trickle into the river well past the first of the year, we might fish behind them with an egg pattern or egg-sucking leech. With less water in the system every pocket becomes more pronounced, the river easier to read, every hole ours for the taking.
It’s often a test of will. Just when fingers are beginning to numb and feet stiffening, that’s when the fly quietly drifts over the edge of a riffle, skirts the abyss of slow water, and suddenly stops. All at once the dull, muted rhythms of winter are interrupted by something spectacular. Fireworks burst at the surface of the pool as scales merge into a mosaic of black dots and a swirl of pink. Cold hands and frozen feet are instantly forgotten amidst the sudden sweet panic of playing a large fish.
It’s at moments like this that each one of your senses, every aspect of your being, is tied for an instant to the river. And it’s this that keeps us coming back, when the river is too low to float and the launch sites piled high with snow, skiing to our favorite destinations, warmed by our memories as well as the hopes and spirit of the river and the fish yet to be caught.
The best thing anyone can bring winter fishing is patience and a good attitude. By late fall and early winter, many resident rainbow trout have headed to the nearby lakes for winter, and those that remain tend to be slightly less active. Often a fly needs to be placed right in front of their noses in order to entice a strike.
The next most important ingredients for a good time are warm clothes, and plenty of them. Cold-weather survival experts agree that dressing in layers is essential, starting with polypropylene underwear, followed by polar fleece, a warm coat and a wind shell. For waders, many winter fishermen have turned to the heavy neoprene variety favored by duck hunters. My Cabela’s neoprene 1,600 boot-foot waders are probably the warmest piece of equipment I own. The downside is they are heavy, and can be like wearing a pair of leg weights if you are walking a long way. It’s also easy to work up a sweat, which in cold-weather conditions can be deadly.
You don’t need a large selection of flies this time of year. A few standbys will do. Start with “old” flesh flies, in brown, white and cream — flies that resemble the remains of last year’s salmon carcasses. Also carry a variety of egg patterns, egg-sucking leeches and perhaps a few muddler minnows and sculpins.
Most of all you just need the desire to get out there, wet a line and enjoy this unique time year.
Dave Atcheson teaches a fly-fishing class each spring, starting in March, at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus, and is the author of the guidebook “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.”