Walking in a Winter Wonderland

I heard the uncanny low pumping noise of a diesel truck approach as I searched endlessly through the box of winter hats and mitts for my winter fly gear. I checked my phone and of course Marc was exactly on time, 7:00 am and not a minute sooner. I hurried to get my things in order and grab the dog before Marc and I headed on our 3-hour drive over the border in search of trout. With my arms filled with wading gear and fly rods I stumbled out the door. The cold air hit my face, the stab of a thousand cold needles hit my nose and cheek before I pulled up my face mask. I wrangled up the dog and climbed the big steps into the gently humming F-350. Marc looked exhausted, but he said he’d been well rested. However, I must have looked much worse, sleep came in spurts the night before as excitement filled my mind rather than peaceful dreams.

I checked the air temperature out, minus 11 Celsius, real feel minus 16. She was chilly. Streetlights lit up the still darkened streets as we pulled out onto the main drag. This time of year always feels so depressing. The lack of sunlight plays tricks on the mind as the calendar approaches the darkest day, December 21st. We were a week off that mark, but I paid it no mind.

Soon the sun began to peek from beyond the horizon as the city gave way to rolling prairies. Familiar landmarks came and went as prairies gave way to hills. The snow covered foothills shimmered in the new morning light as the truck wound up through the twisted highways of Alberta’s backcountry. I stared out the passenger side window with eagerness, counting down each recognizable marker silently in my head. Every quiet tick in my mind meant that we were closer to our goal, winter trout.

As we neared the border Marc quickly reminded me to purchase the special license required to fish this area. In Alberta most of the rivers had closed the last day of October, forcing those with an insatiable addiction to travel west in an attempt to quiet the maddening beast within us. Most Alberta fly fisherman retire to the tying bench during the colder months, or some find solace upon the hard-water, but for the few of us willing to clear guides every second cast, winter rivers call our names like that of a siren hidden behind a veil of sea fog.

After a final turn and a long stretch of highway, we arrived to a small unkempt turn off, not far from the road. The crisp mountain air filled my warm lungs as I struggled to get my stiffened waders and boots over the thick layering of winter clothing. I should have known that leather boots were a poor choice, for when they dry it’s like trying to shove a feet into hardened socks. With our gear on and rods strung, we trudged our way through snow a few feet deep. The satisfaction of seeing no tracks is beyond jubilation. Soon the river became visible and I slid down the icy bank. My feet welcomed the cold clear water, allowing my boots to become pliable again.

The last time I viewed this very spot was deep within the summer months. The water was barely wadable, but now she took on the slow trickle of the last few drops in a draining bathtub. I slowly made my way toward the far shore, watching as Hudson bounded seamlessly through the cold rivers pull. In that very moment, he had become a puppy again. The arthritis had become a second thought as he rolled in the snow, feverishly trying to dry himself. In an instant, he was off again and I was left waiting for Marc to finish his trek through the snow and water.

With Marc in tow, we rounded the first bend and moved toward a familiar section of river. The water slowed and pooled near the far bank, showing me silently that riches were below. With my rod strung and my fly tied, I make the first cast. I watched patiently as my indicator bobbled along the surface. In one quick motion she dipped down, I pulled back, and the line tightened. A nice cutthroat trout made her way towards my net and I victoriously scooped her up. With a quick wink and a wave she was back in her honey hole and I was back casting again.

Marc and I walked to many more familiar spots, where several cutthroat trout were eagerly deceived into slurping up a passing fly. However, soon the sun began to dip behind the snow covered peaks and we made our way back towards the trail. Before we set our sights on leaving, I had remembered a friend told me that just upstream she wrangled with a 30 inch bull trout the winter before. I couldn’t leave without at least a cast or two, not with knowing their might be a monster that lurks below.

I was standing just downstream of where she told me this mysterious beast had been caught. I drifted my fly through the perfect zone and sure enough my line tightened. As my heart started to race, I soon noticed that the pull at the end of the line was not that of a 30 inch fish, but a much smaller bull. Yet, suddenly, my heart rate shot past two hundred. An enormous bull began to chase the bull on the end of my line. She grabbed a hold of it and pulled for dear life. My rod doubled over and I was yelling for Marc to come watch. However, he was embattled with a fish of his own and too preoccupied to notice my cries. She fervently bit down on my bull as I struggled to reel in both fish. Soon I witnessed her size and was left in awe. I reached down to scoop them both, but she noticed me and loosened her grip. She was gone. Exhausted, all I could do was sit on the side of the shore obsessing silently over what just happened.

It wasn’t long before my silent petulance was broken by the sound of a screaming reel. Marc’s rod was bent to the hilt and line was shooting out at a furious pace. He motioned for me to come over and I watched as he battled with an unknown beast. I asked him if he wanted relief and he looked at me like I was some sort of a loon. This was his fight, not mine. With each inch gained, it seemed like a foot was lost. He quietly mentioned that he only had 4x line attached and I saw in his eyes he was worried. Yet, soon he began to gain ground with the glutton and line slowly filled his reel to where it once was. Slowly the indicator became visible again and the beast showed herself once more to me. I slid into the icy water and got ready to scoop her into my net. With a final push of energy she rushed away from me before giving up and allowing her tired body to slide into my net. She was stunning, a beautiful bull trout that displayed her magnificent body for us both. Soon she was back in the water and headed back to rest along the visible drop-off. Winded, Marc turned to me with elation that we were able to catch such an elegant and wonderful fish.

All in all, Marc and I managed close to twenty bull trout in the last 90-minutes of fishing. It seemed that cast after cast yielded a powerful pull on the end of our lines. However, none surpassed the sheer size of the bull that Marc brought in. Soon the sun began to dip beyond the horizon, and we began to feel weary from clearing our guides so often. We called it a day and made our way back through the thick snow and into the awaiting truck. As we pulled away, I looked back at the fresh tracks we made and felt satisfied for now. Though the fishing beast within me was slumbering, it will not be long before its rabid calls force me out into the snow once more.