Knuckleheads for Steelhead

Fly-fishing on New Year’s Day is something of a minor tradition here in upstate New OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYork. A friend, Tim Didas, and I were about to give it another go despite the wind and snow and 16 degrees of Fahrenheit temperature. The tradition, for knuckleheads, if you will, has a vague connection to the conjuring of good luck for the new year. If you’d like to read my lighthearted list of reasons why anyone would venture to fly-fish at a time and place like this, you can view my post called To Fish on Winter Holiday, from 1/1/12.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOriginally we were planning to revisit Cayuga Lake where the outflow of a power plant keeps a steady flow of “warm water” pushing into the lake, thus giving die-hards like ourselves a place to cast in the cold, dark winter, but Tim discovered (at the last minute) that the power plant had been shut down (perhaps for the better) several months ago, and that it might be good to consider another option.

I hadn’t been to Oak Orchard Creek in a long while, having pretty much given up on the stream because of the angling mob that inundates the place in autumn when big fish run up from Lake Ontario. We figured, correctly, that there wouldn’t be more than a handful of crazy guys fishing the Oak on a frigid holiday, and that probably half of the potential crowd would be nursing a hangover from celebrations of the previous evening. Suiting up at the parking lot above the outflow from the reservoir, our fingers ached from DSCN2898exposure to an icy breeze.

Carefully descending the glazed bank to the concrete wings below the dam, we were cheered by a small campfire tended by a couple of hardy anglers, one of whom was landing a hefty steelhead of about five or six pounds. After the guy released his fish, I complimented him, and all he could utter was a curt and gruff-sounding, “Yah.”

A minute later, Tim would tell me, “Hey, if I ever get that jaded over a nice catch, give me a swift kick in the hind-end.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALake-effect snow was filling the air inside the gorge, but we were warmed up from the walk. For the first hour, casting our weighted nymphs and streamers was a fairly comfortable affair, despite the constant need to chip out ice formations in our rod guides. I made the best of my “across and down swing” of the fly, but as time wore on, the fishing became laborious, and even our words and laughter seemed to limp out of frozen lips.

Ring-billed gulls and a kingfisher, dropping to the cloudy water for sawbellies, offered the suggestion of hope if we could find an imitation of the prey food, but the lake-run fish gave no clue of their whereabouts. We stayed warm enough and gave it the old collegiate try, but when our fly reels started freezing and became inoperative, there wasn’t much more to be done.

After two hours of casting in the ghost-white gorge, we decided to hang it up. As I DSCN2914stepped out stiffly to the river path, I couldn’t recall any other occasion when my waders had looked like giant green icicles. At the parking lot again, my fishing pal, an excellent fly-tier and president of his TU chapter, presented me with four of his special steelhead streamers.

Just the sight of these colorful (and tested) patterns was enough to warm my expectations for an upcoming season on the streams. A better day of fishing was ensured. And the best way of getting there was (arguably) by the cold route we had taken.DSCN2909

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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10 Responses to Knuckleheads for Steelhead

  1. Les Kish says:

    My utmost respect just for getting out there. Yes, the fishing will only improve from here on out. Well, eventually…..if it gets above freezing. Pray tell, how warm was the water?

  2. Les, I was too cold to check the water temp, but it had to be warmer than the air, which isn’t saying much.

    • I found your blog last night and it’s tremendous. I’d be willing to bet that skunking on new years day is better luck for the coming year. Hey, at least you enjoyed skunking more than the grump with the five lb steelies 🙂

      Tight lines in ’14.


  3. Thank you, Mike, I appreciate your support and look forward to reading your own words, too. Yeah, it’s an odd thing, but it seems that lots of folks don’t know when they’ve got it good, and wouldn’t know the good life if it came up and bit ’em on the fat parts. Thankfully there are others who enjoy wild nature even if they’re getting skunked. Best to ya.

  4. Ken G says:

    The second photo looks like flowing slush, no wonder you didn’t catch anything.
    You’re a brave man than I Walt for being out in those conditions.

  5. Ken, For a while there was little evidence of slush except for what was hardening in our rod guides. The water actually looked promising, being high and a little off-colored, but when the sheets of ice began arriving from god knows where, we knew it was time to get smart.

  6. Alan says:

    You guys are pretty die hard “die hards”. But traditions are to be maintained.
    Nice streamers.

  7. Alan, Yes to that. I could probably name a few others of the ilk (but won’t). Thankfully enough!

  8. Really good stories don’t start with, “We decided to stay inside because it was cold . . ” And I’m pretty sure nobody’s deathbed regret is that they didn’t spend enough time in front of the television. Your readers appreciate that you were willing to go out in the harsh weather and share your experience with us.

  9. Willing, still able, but maybe not so smart… Can’t say it any better, Jim. Thanks!

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