proof of concept
fishing in the depths of winter?
Having written all the content on this WNCflyfishing website – and having conducted the primary and secondary research supporting the content on this website – I know, unquestionably, that the Western North Carolina mountains offer the most concentrated, varied and diverse fly fishing “Trout-ortunities” in North America from November through April 1 - the start of open water fly fishing in many rivers up north - and continuing on through the end of May. Yes, there are tailwaters up here. Once you fish them, though, assuming your toes can take it, you can have EPIC days, then what? Is there another tail water up the road? Next valley over? Just up and over the Divide or the Blue Ridge Parkway? If you have been on this site, you know that there are a couple thousand miles of trout waters in the Western North Carolina mountains. Yes, some are more productive than others. Yes, some are more accessible than others. If you would like, we can only examine those waters where you can expect things to be “epic” on any given day and we are STILL talking about hundreds of miles. By the way, I was a ski bum in Taos, NM in the early 90’s and we had many hyperbolic ways to describe memorable activities but “epic” seemed to fit most.
…and before we get too far- a word about April 1. Many Anglers will make the pilgrimage to their favorite waters and in some cases, Grand Lake Stream, ME comes to mind, they are out below the dam at midnight and do their best, off and on, through the 1st but then hole back up by the 2nd. Dette Flies and the Beaverkill Angler both assure me that I’ll have the Willowemoc and the Lower Beaverkill to myself after the 2nd if I really want them. There ARE frequently still feet of snow on the ground in some of these places with floating chunks of thwarting any drift attempts you may make so the conditions are not entirely welcoming. April in WNC, however, hatches mayflies and caddis all day every day and features greening mountainsides with blooming wildflowers carpeting the forest floors. And then the conditions only improve through May!
For the record, this April 1, 2021 on Moosehead Lake at Wilson's On Moosehead. And for the record, ice-out this year was April 16, 2021. And AND for the record, it's only been this early four times since 1848. So, a typical April 1 can find feet of ice covering some of the major lakes in the New England interior.
But what about January and February? Are they as “epic” as the rest of the season? Only one way to find out other than by asking a salesperson (Brookings, DRO and Headwaters, no disrespect intended - just a knowing smirk) and that is leave the snow and ice of eastern Massachusetts devote 15 hours to savoring the minivan’s fragrances.
If you recall where we left off, the Greystone Inn had just hosted Fearless Fly Fishing and Cynthia Harkness for a few days in November and I had just introduced her to Jessica, Hannah and Chris over at Headwaters. When I helped to arrange that trip, I was 99.9% sure that it was going to be “epic” but you never know with the mountains. As Jessica Harrison says about the mountains in The Man From Snowy River (you know what, I like it) “It changes so suddenly. One moment it's paradise, the next it's trying to kill you.” That might be a little strong as we're not talking about the Snow Mountains in Austrailia and these particular WNC mountains are not trying to kill you but a sudden downpour or a days-long deluge can blow out a mountain river very easily. As it turned out, though, that Beta Trip with Fearless Fly Fishing went pretty well. 40+ fish the first day, including the two largest trout Cynthia had ever caught, and another dozen on the second day with the third largest trout she had ever caught paired with the Greystone’s Lake Toxaway generosity, it would be hard to imagine Cynthia NOT returning with friends in tow.
But now we’re into January. The average highs in and around Brevard are in the upper 40’s in January but that does not mean that it can’t get well below freezing. I know that the water temps in March can be in the 30’s so that sort of means that there must be some chilly days in January and February to bring them down. I know from those “salespeople” that anchor ice can form in shallower and/or slower moving water, but I really did not know how that would affect the fishing. As it turns out, it did not impact the fishing all that much. I’ll avoid “epic” but I imagine that you can see where I’m going with this.
Georgia was my home through the 80’s but as soon as I could, I went north because the heat never really worked for me. I went to undergrad up in Maine which is how I ultimately discovered the North Woods and all the incredible black flies and mosquitoes that they harbor. There is, of course, more to Maine than the bugs but I started making the drive between New England and the southeast beginning in January of 1991 and have made it a couple of dozen times since then and find that time to be exciting. Well, the drive down is exciting. I find that I don’t really sleep the night before anyway so I depart with a fully loaded car and cooler and coffee (if you read enough of me, you’ll note that I love these alliterative moments) around midnight and escape the northeast congestion before sunrise. There’s not much to say about the drive other than that by leaving that early, I can arrive at my WNC destination by midafternoon and get a couple of hours of fishing in on that first day. As such, I was on the West Fork of the Pigeon River a little after 3pm on my travel day which is exactly how I want to kick off a trip. By the way, for any considering this trip for themselves, one can leave Boston at 6am, connect through Charlotte and arrive in Asheville by 10:45 and be fed, wadered up and comfortably scouting the Davidson by 12:30. So, much like skiing Little Cottonwood Canyon, travel day is a ski day – or in this case, a water day.
Thigh-deep in some of the clearest water I have ever seen, gin-clear some might say, I broke the ice at 3:42 pm with my first Brookie, duped by a bead head Pheasant Tail. I know this by reviewing this picture. I would love to say that this was a size 2 hook that, by this photo, would indicate that I had landed a 3’ Brook Trout but not so the case. This was a size 18 Pheasant Tail so this would have been about 14” Brookie – just fine.
Of course, I almost broke the ice much earlier, but I was distracted. In the interests of thoroughly documenting my time on the water with a stream thermometer, I was bending over getting a temperature read while I was drifting a size 16 Blue Winged Olive in hopes of recreating what I had done the previous March. So, as it always happens, a flip and a splash without me getting a good set, 5 seconds of excitement yielded nothing but a light curse. Oh, and a reading of 44 degrees. I did try that BWO for awhile and covered about fifty feet of the seams on both sides of a deep channel before switching it up and that is when my trip formally commenced.
No need to get into too much detail of the rest of the afternoon other than to say that I finished with several Brookies – after all, who’s really counting when no one is watching – and one beautiful moonrise over the ridgeline to the east. Dinner was a picnic by a lake with a twilight that lingered far longer than seemed natural and was not cold enough to drive me inside. I am more stubborn than most so I’m less likely to be driven in by the weather or other conditions but it didn’t occur to me to miss a moment of that first day’s farewell. I’ve been a bit of a sucker for some of William Wordsworth’s better known poems but I will cheerfully admit the need to look this one up but the stillness and solitude of that evening brought me here:
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea;
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
Dear child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
And worshipp’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.
I know I was not on the ocean and the “mighty Being” was thundering in absolute silence just for me, I am certain, but thus concluded Day One in January in the WNC mountains.