Throughout the week I kept close tabs on the local’s vitals, constantly checking cfs and temperatures for any signs of movement. Not much changed throughout the week except for the weather. The forecast earlier in the week was predicting highs in the upper 30’s to lower 40’s, pleasant by Alaska spring standards – especially for the end of March. That changed quickly when the front moved in earlier than forecasted. Highs were now forecasted to be in the low 30’s with the lows hovering just above 20…slight chance of snow. Not enough in my book to keep me off the water.
As usual I was up long before my alarm ever went off. At 3AM the crew arrived and while we shuffled around loading up gear into the truck, I felt every bit of 20 above standing there in the cold. It wasn’t until we arrived at our destination that I wondered if I brought along enough warm clothes. Probably not but it was too late now.
The drive is always fun and games. A rally fueled by giant cups of caffeine and sugar. The anticipation building as the destination gets closer and closer. The discussion always shifts between setups, techniques, leaders, tippets, trips past, and all importantly what fly each of us was playing to throw first. Once the truck is stopped and doors start flinging open…it is all about business. Not much is said after that.
Can you see okay?
When we finally see signs of the river we find ourselves behind schedule by over an hour. What started out with headlamps leading the way eventually ended with dawn staring us smack in the face. We had hoped to beat dawn to the waters edge…Mother Nature had other ideas. A slippery trail made sure we paid our dues with each of us taking hard spills to the ground, made worse by the fact that each of us, clutching expensive fly rod in hand, smacked the ice harder trying desperately to save the rod.
Once at the water’s edge, standing there at The Run, it all seemed surreal. That only lasted about 15 minutes though. The hike heated us up making it easy to forget 20 above. Once we stopped moving, 20 above came right back with a bitch slap, making it hard to cherish the moment.
With 12 1/2 feet of two-handed Sage rigged up, easing into the water was the next step. On that day, the water was hovering just above freezing with air temperatures at least 10 degrees colder than that. The Run is best fished by wading in deep…unfortunate for us. After about 5 minutes in waist deep water just barely warmer than ice, the heat is sucked out of your body and in its place is sharp, stinging pain stabbing at your muscles and bones. Really unfortunate for us, you can’t catch fish if your fly ain’t in the water swinging through the sweet spot which translates into more time in the water freezing your ass off. See how that works – wade deep for long stretches of time to keep your fly in the zone to increase your chances of a hookup while trying not to freeze to death. It’s a delicate balance.
Along with numbness comes what is by far the most frustrating part of fly fishing in freezing temperatures – iced up guides. Makes your already bad casting because of the shivers and numb body parts look like utter crap. Out of every 5 attempts, one is marginally fishable. All this translates into more time in the water.
An hour goes by, with several extended stints in the water. I have to say I’ve never been that cold in my life. My mind at this point is frosted over and the senses are numb beyond belief. Then it happens. A slight hesitation like the fly hanging on something gets telegraphed back to my numb fingers as I am working the fly back in to take another break. The immediate head shake from something at the end of my line snaps me back to consciousness and I realize that I am hooked into something living. As it breaks the surface I see nothing but dark red and immediately my enthusiasm is jaded. I hope it isn’t one of the rare late winter silvers clinging desperately to it’s last moments of life. As I slowly ease it into the shallows it becomes crystal clear that the dark red was from the stripe of a hefty spring rainbow. I’m immediately back into the game and quickly bring the first fish of the year to hand.
First of the new season for me. | Photo by J. Kim
I didn’t notice it until the fish was safely returned to the river the sharp pain in my hands. Even 10 seconds in the water leaves a lasting impression not soon forgot. Quickly gloves are put back on and handwarmers thrown in for extra warmth. The smile on my face however…nothing could have knocked that off my face.
Like the first fish always does, it intensified the enthusiasm and soon the rest of the crew was out plying the waters. I on the other hand was content on the bank refueling and playing back in my mind what had just happened. It is amazing how much warmer you feel after landing a fish. It is the best remedy for cold spring days on the water you will ever find.
After about 15 minutes I decided to ease myself back into the water. I figured the same spot with the same fly would be the best place to start. Half an hour goes by without a nudge. About at the end of my limit, I managed to flop a cast into the meat of the run and slowly worked the fly back towards me. The current too slow to get an honest swing, a slow retrieve along with a slow swing was enough to get a heavy tug at the end of my line. As I set the hook, I felt something solid and the head shake told me again that I was hooked into something living. When the fish broke the surface I overheard the crew getting excited. I felt the weight and noticed it was a lot stronger than the first but couldn’t tell when it broke the surface how big it was.
It took a few minutes to get the fish close enough to tell but once I did the excitement grew even more. In the shallows it was clear how big it was. At the end of my line was by far the biggest rainbow I had ever hooked! It took what seemed forever to get the fish close enough to attempt netting. The first attempt resulted in the rainbow turning and peeling line from the reel which only brought about nervousness in me that the hook would pull free or the tippet would break. It didn’t help that I kept hearing Tuber mumbling something about the fish not fitting in the net. The second attempt had the head in the net but not much more. With some fancy net work, Tuber finally had it in the net and relief settled in.
At this point I am so very relieved. The rainbow barely fit in the net. | Photo by J. Kim
As I came in for a closer look I could hear a voice that sounded like mine say, “HOLY CRAP!” It was unreal. I passed my rod over to Tuber to work the rainbow out of the net. I could hardly get my hand around the tail. With the fish out of the net and fully stretched out I was in shock.
A quick photo and I eased what is the biggest rainbow I have ever landed in my life back into the water. As I watched it swim away I felt euphoria rush over me. I can tell you after that moment I wasn’t cold any longer for the rest of the day.
You couldn’t tell from the expression on my face but I am a happy fisher. I’m just in shock. Still am to this day. | Photo by J. Kim
That was my last fish of the day but not the last of the trip. A little over an hour later, Tuber’s rod was bent into a heavy fish. I reeled up and ran for the net. After a little bit of give and take, we finally had it in the net.
That one looks suspiciously like a steelhead. | Photo by J. Kim
Around noon we all decided to take a serious break and build a fire. After a strong morning it felt good to sit and eat by a warm fire. By this time the air temperature had warmed to above freezing and iced up guides were no longer an issue. The afternoon session proved not to be very productive even though our casting improved dramatically, somehow though it didn’t really matter.
Says it all. | Photo by J. Kim
Great way to kick of the new season!