Old Woodenhead Skates on Thin Ice

Old Woodenhead was on the Allegheny River by noon. The weather had become more seasonal, turning sharply colder, with air temperatures peaking at less than the freezing mark. Winter fly-fishing is an exercise in patience and layered clothing, he thought. Fingers freeze while attending to snags and tangles. Every action, whether it’s short-line casting or the reeling in of a stubborn fish, is accomplished as if with wooden hands.

He was not alone there by the river. An army of eleven orange-clad deer hunters advanced across a wooded slope nearby. For safety’s sake, Old Woodenhead had added a fluorescent orange vest over his usual Orvis tans. He may have grumbled, wondering why he bothered with this masochistic behavior but, when all was cursed and settled, he would have it no other way. To fish in winter is to really feel alive.

thin ice of a new day

He was on an Allegheny River pool with depth and oversized trout. He could fish from only one side of this pool, and it was covered with 10 to 15-feet of thin ice. He watched the shadowy forms of trout shifting on the river bottom out beyond the ice. He  made several casts of an Egg pattern across the ice, mending his fly line so the Egg had time to sink down close to bottom.

Finally, a trout grabbed the fly and rose to the edge of the ice. Fish on!

a smaller one

Old Woodenhead kept the line fairly tight and scrambled downstream toward the tail of the pool. He didn’t want the ice-edge to sever his connection. Gaining the proper position in open water, he worked the fish into the net and removed the hook. It was a healthy brown trout measuring 17 inches. He took two photos then sent the fish back into the pool, with his regards for a happy holiday to all with fin or fur or feather.

Now, you ask, who the hell is Old Woodenhead, and why is he making an appearance on Rivertop Rambles? Actually, the fellow is a holiday tradition here on the blog. Longtime readers may recall that he’s a wooden statuette of fisherman Franklin, produced by Coudersport artist, David Castano, and presented to the writer at Christmas time by his wife, Leighanne.

Each December, Old Woodenhead advances toward the state of being human and resumes his quest for meaning in unusual ways. A traditionalist, he fly-fishes, hikes and makes himself a minor nuisance to those he loves and cherishes. But a lot of what he does occurs on the snow and ice.

He skates fearlessly on the thin ice of reality. No one will accuse him of being graceful or particularly wise, but he means well. And, by god, he catches trout! At Winter Solstice time, at Hanukkah, with Christmas coming soon, he speaks to everyone on the premises: Go catch that fish of happiness. Attain the peace of positive accomplishment. Enjoy the beauties of this earth. Be healthy, and don’t forget to change the calendar.

Happy holidays to all!

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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21 Responses to Old Woodenhead Skates on Thin Ice

  1. Jet Eliot says:

    I love this post, Walt. I WAS wondering who Old Woodenhead was, but as I read your delightful prose further, it became clear. What a die-hard you are, wading around in the frozen waters. This was my favorite line: “He took two photos then sent the fish back into the pool, with his regards for a happy holiday to all with fin or fur or feather.” Happy holiday wishes to you, too, my friend.

  2. plaidcamper says:

    Another welcome appearance by Old Woodenhead! I do enjoy how he manages to negotiate slippery slopes and thin ice with such grace and nimbleness in chilly December. Taking to those frozen waters takes commitment – good stuff, and I hope he warmed up after.
    Thanks, Walt, and happy holidays!

    • I’m pleased to say that so far that “commitment” hasn’t gotten him committed. Thus, O.W. is free to skate or blunder on or fish… Anyway he’s warm for now. Thanks PC. Enjoy your stretch of holidays, and I hope you get more snow!

  3. Brent says:

    Welcome back to old Mr. W. Head! His annual arrival foreshadows the shortest day of the year and, usually, a cold walk over the hill with whisky. If he helps his living, breathing counterpart land a few nice trout on a cold winter day, then all the better.

  4. Dale says:

    Happy holidays to you guys! See ya in the spring.

  5. Bob Stanton says:

    Old Woodenhead! Wouldn’t be the holidays without him!

  6. Nice fish Walt! Winter seems to bring out the larger ones. Is that a fiberglass rod I see? Happy holidays

    • Thank you, Mark, and yeah the fish came in with the assistance of a fiberglass wand. Years ago I picked up a nice second-hand glass rod, a no-name customized wand that’s always a pleasure to cast. Have a great holiday season!

  7. Nice to see old Woodenhead make his yearly visit. Merry Christmas to you and the family Walt. Looking forward to 2018!

  8. Ross says:

    What an enjoyable post; time on the water and Old Woodenhead back. Merry Christmas to you and yours Walt.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Walt, Great story as always! We’ll have to start planning for 1/1/2018!

  10. loydtruss says:

    Old Woodenhead can brave the cold temps much better than me. I can handle temps in the 50’s but when it get close to freezing then I’m inside. Beautiful trout taken, did Chester make a connection. Hope you and the family have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
    Thanks for sharing

    • Bill, Chester wasn’t in on this one, but a glass rod was. When it’s icy and cold like this, I like to go with fiberglass, although I make exceptions. Fishing in the cold doesn’t get any easier for me as I age, but I still like to give it a shot when I’m able. Thanks for the comment and the Christmas wish, and all the best to you in the holidays and in your relocation!

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