Snowshoes or fly rod?

Maybe both, depending on the weather

Published on January 18, 2014
My buddy Paul Kearley trying for a winter trout in the Waterford River.
— Photo by Paul Smith/Special to The Telegram

The thaw is on. After four or five weeks of deep-freeze temperatures, it looks like we are having a mid-January warmup.

I’m writing on Sunday morning, Jan. 12, and it’s pouring rain outside, a stark contrast to last week when I scribbled wearing my headlamp during a power blackout with a minus-30 wind-chill howling around outside.

According to the Weather Network, we will have plus-side daytime temperatures all this coming week, with more rain about midweek. By the time you read this, we will know the absolute truth. Only so much trust can be founded upon even the most modern weather forecasting technology, especially more than 48 hours out.

So, by publication time, our precious snow will have taken a deep cut indeed. There are many folks who find this pleasing. Those of us who love winter sports are poisoned and blue when the temperature in St. John’s is on a close par with Tampa.

There is hope for snowshoers, skiers, snowmobilers and kids building snow forts. The long-term forecast for later January — the week coming in readers’ timeframe — is predicting colder seasonable temperatures and snowy days. Keep your fingers crossed. After the December experience, I was hoping for a good, old-fashioned winter with lots of frost, thick ice on the ponds, and plenty of snow. Now I’m a bit pessimistic, but still not wallowing in the depths of Avalon Peninsula winter rainstorm depression; just a tad melancholy.

There’s a silver lining to every cloud, even the darkest winter rainclouds. I think people started talking about silver linings in clouds during the Victorian era. Something John Milton wrote got the popular optimistic expression started. I can’t for the life of me understand it literally, having never observed any silver in any kind of clouds, at least not without some serious Photoshop tinkering.

I do remember being forced to read Milton’s “Paradise Lost” in university, and he wrote some pretty wild stuff — had wild hair, too. In any event, I’m sure you all know what I mean by a silver lining. But what good is there in winter rain for outdoorsy folks?

Chasing silver fish is definitely a silver lining. Up until the big thaw, every estuary, even swiftly flowing brooks, were frozen solid. On the trail to our cabin there’s a brook that we constructed a log bridge over. I walked to the cabin after the last snowstorm and crossed on the bridge only because I knew where it was. The river, albeit a small one, was wiped off the landscape by deep winter snow powder.

I’m not sure what would have happened if I walked over the brook itself. I suspect I might have had wet snowshoes. Maybe I should have given it a try. There’s no trouble to know where the bridge is today.

The sea trout estuaries are wide open and the season will open Feb. 1. Actually, there are some places outside the low water mark where it is legal to fish right now. I suspect that this week I will be casting a few flies.

It’s strange, isn’t it? Snowshoeing and braving bitter chilling cold one week, and fly-fishing the next. But that’s the reality of outdoor life on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula.

The only thing consistent about our weather is changeability. So, to maintain your sanity, you must tailor and adapt your outdoor pursuits and activities to the environmental conditions week by week, sometimes even day by day. We were planning some winter camping over the next little while, but we might end up fly-fishing for sea trout instead.

One way or the other, I won’t be sitting in the house watching cable TV or playing online computer games. And it all depends on the accuracy of that 14-day forecast. We could be up to our necks in snow again by the time the trout season opens. I might be spotted walking the edge of the Waterford River on snowshoes with a fly rod in hand.

When February comes I’ll have flies tied and ready for sea trout, and I’ll have my ice auger honed and ready to go as well. It will be time to catch a trout either through a thick layer of ice or by casting a fly over open water.

I suspect most of you are quite familiar with the ice-fishing sort of winter sport. I don’t need to tell fellow Newfoundlanders how to go about snagging a trout through the ice. But not a lot of folks go fly-fishing in winter. There are a few of us, but I think we are a tiny fraternity. I’ll tell you a bit about winter fly-fishing just in case you want to try something different.

In many places, particularly Eastern Europe, winter fly angling is a very popular activity. Search it on YouTube and you will see video proof. When most of us think of fly-fishing for trout, we conjure a mental image of casting dry flies on the glassy, still waters of a peaceful pond, typically during warm July or August evenings.

At that time of year, there are all sorts of insects hatching and floating about, irresistible and nutritious sustenance for hungry trout. All you have to do is tie up an imitation of these mayfly or caddis juicy morsels and cast them with a rod upon the surface of the water. If you do your part, with a sufficient measure of attention to detail, trout will surely bite. This process is indeed the essence of classic fly-fishing and how it all began centuries ago.

Trout don’t totally stop eating in winter. Their metabolisms no doubt slow down, but they must eat something, no matter how modest, to maintain themselves. In modern times we have figured out how to catch trout in winter with specific and specialized imitations of fur, feather and tinsel.

The insects that hatch on the surface during warm spring and summer evenings are swimming about lower in the water column during the winter. They don’t have wings; in fact, they look totally different in this segment of their life cycle. They are called nymphs, the swimming form of aquatic insects, and trout actually eat more of these than they do the surface-sitting variety.

Nymphs are the trout’s stable and consistent year-round food source. The subsurface dinner table is just less visible to us terrestrial humans standing pondside with fishing rods. Nymphs are the only choice on the menu throughout the winter months.

Winter nymphing is a ton of fun. Anglers don’t do much of it in Labrador, but here on the Avalon Peninsula it’s a blessing during mild winters, and even during brief interludes of melting in otherwise normal or colder winters. It’s my consolation when my snowshoes lie idle in the shed.

Catching trout on nymphs is pretty simple. First you either buy or tie some flies that look like real mayfly or caddis nymphs. You will notice that these flies are weighted so that they sink, either by integration of a brass bead, or lead wire wrapped underneath the body. You tie a nymph on the end of your leader and flick it out into a river that holds trout in winter. Typically you cast upstream and let the offering drift downstream with the current towards you. When you feel a tug or see the line move in an unusual fashion, lift your rod to set the hook.

Another option is to use a small cork float — strike indicators, we fly angling purists call them — and secure it a couple of feet above the hook. When the indicator takes a dive, set the hook. It’s akin to the bobber and worm fishing that kids love so much, but we fly-fishing folk could never be arm-twisted into using a bobber, only strike indicators.

So, if you find your snowmobile or skis gathering dust this winter, maybe its time to try something different. Reconcile with the weather. After all, we must seek out the silver lining in every cloud.

But I still have my fingers crossed for cold and snow.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay,

fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at