Fly-fishing on New Year’s Day is something of a minor tradition here in upstate New York. 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.
Originally 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 exposure 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.”
Lake-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 stepped 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.