Each year, I have a recurring New Years Resolution to take a new species of fish on a fly rod. Last year it happened to be a chain pickerel, taken late (October) purely by accident. The year before that, it was an 18-20" flounder, my first ever salt water fish (despite many vacation evenings spend in the surf with squid and blood worms...and two separate charters...all with spin gear). That fish was the result of a great deal of pre-trip research, tying, map-reading, and deliberate decision making as an angler.
This year, I've already got my new species...similar to last year, it was more dumb luck than anything else, but it was last year's research and exploration that allowed me to put myself in a position for dumb luck to take effect.
Yesterday afternoon I bought my 2012 license (probably the latest I've waited to get it in the past 5 years) and hit a tailwater that I'd explored for the first time last year at the peak of summer heat. It's not the classic image of tailwater...last summer it was barely 20 feet wide at its head, easily wadeable at any point, with the only real holding water being the first 100 yards from the outflow. Still, it was a source of cold water in late July, and in January, ironically, these sorts of places are among those that resist freezing (as any good angler with access to these flows should know). Even though we've been blessed so far here in PA with a winter that has thus far declined to bare its teeth, I was interested to see how this small area might fish later in the winter, assuming that it will eventually assert itself and lock up more popular water.
As I made my way to the water, I noted that it was definitely higher than when I'd last visited in the summer...and moving. While it was certainly still well within the realm of 'fishable', One would be wise to give careful thought to if and where they would cross this flow. Indeed, I made the decision not to attempt a crossing at all after giving the current a quick evaluation. This left me limited, obviously, to the side from which I'd approached, and while I had originally intended to fish the stream down, using streamers to probe likely water, I decided to check out the area right up at the outflow first. As it turned out, I never left that area.
As I approached the outflow, I noted that the area between the main and secondary outflows (aligned along the main outflow about 50 feet down, as opposed to parallel), which had been little more than a near-stagnant pool of shin-deep bath water in July was now a deep blue green, churning with the confusion of several different currents, pulling water in every direction. This would be a tricky flow to fish properly...especially with my guess that any fish present would be holding near the bottom. Undeterred, I peeled some line off, and sent my streamer...at the end of a short, heavy, fast-sinking streamer leader...into the churning water.
For a few minutes, I went without a bite, trying various tactics to get my fly down and still allow for a slow retrieve. Eventually, I figured out the best way to get my streamer down in the various portions of the pool, usually with two or three mends immediately after the cast, that let my fly sink a good ten or fifteen seconds before I had to begin my retrieve, or surrender the fly to depth-robbing drag. As soon as I figured this out, I felt a weight on the line. Not sure if it was a fish, a snag, or the effects of some strong undertow, I slowly tightened the line.
I felt a sluggish head shake, then my line went slack. I'd missed my first fish of the year.
This was repeated a few more times, and while I tried striking harder, each time, the fish was able to get off the hook. I was starting to think that either the fish were short-striking...somewhat odd for trout to do so consistently...or that I'd found a group of small fish that were just not big enough for the 2 1/2" streamer I'd been throwing. I changed to a smaller minnow pattern, tied on a longer hook, to try to account for both possibilities.
I was concerned that the smaller fly would have trouble sinking, but it turned out not to be a problem, as a few casts later, I again felt a little heaviness on the line. I waited about two second, then raised my rod and strip set hard.
The resulting head shake dispelled any thoughts of puny fish, as the weight and pull that came from the hookset put a bend well past the middle of my 4wt. Knowing that I was into a good fish, I quickly began reeling in slack to get the fish 'on the spool'. Once I had this accomplished, the fish started to fight a bit more enthusiastically, still too deep in the pool to see what sort of fish I was into. It was definitely the sleepy, slow fight of a winter fish, as opposed to the quick runs and thrashing of warmer months, but the fight was distinctly different from most trout I've caught, even in the winter. After the first head shake, I didn't get any more, and rather than a frantic back and forth, the fish seemed to prefer hanging deep and pulling steadily, with the occasional three or four short but strong dives even deeper. I had just about decided that I was into a winter smallmouth, when my leader broke the surface, as the fish rose. Just before my tippet came out of the water the fish turned and dove again, leaving me with only a glimpse of a long greenish side, easily in the 18"+ range. No matter what it was, it was a good fish, though the reflection seemed too long and lean for a smallmouth.
As it came to the surface again, clearly tiring, it turned again, and the bright orb of one of its eyes shined up at me and I knew what I had: my first walleye on the fly.
Now, a lot of things made more sense: the bumps at the line, the odd fight, the reflection.
As the fish came to hand, I was careful to avoid both the spiny fin, held high at attention, as well as the mouth, which I knew would be full of pretty wicked teeth for a PA fish...bested only by pike and musky in this state.
After the fish was very cooperative in coming to hand, allowing me to dislodge the fly and take a quick photo, he went back in the water. Though it may be just my perception, it seems like time spent out of the water is more taxing on a fish in the winter than it is in warmer times, and fish take longer to revive themselves. This held true for the walleye, as I had to hold it in a bit of still water for a good twenty or thirty seconds before it caught its second wind and swam away powerfully.
And just like that, my first fish of 2012 was a new species for me to take on a fly.