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A Winter's Tale
Winter Fly Fishing In The Driftless

by Jeffery Skeate

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Trade Paperback
158 pages
Sattre Press
ISBN 978-0-9718305-8-5
Size: 6x9"

A Winter's Tale contains nineteen essays concerning winter fly fishing in the Driftless Region of northeast Iowa. Various peripheral commentary includes books, fly fishing literature, reading in general, split-cane fly rods and the tying of trout flies, all of which go hand-in-hand with winter fly fishing at our house.

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In The Beginning

Perhaps somewhat unusually, I've always loved winter fly fishing. Although I don't go out as much in the winter as I do in more temperate seasons, I definitely get out more than once or twice. There are times when winter conditions are simply too brutal and unsafe to be out on the stream, and I usually try to work in a few of those days too just to keep me on my toes. You know how it is.

Normally if it's above twenty-two degrees I'm fairly comfortable. Years of practice have helped me figure out what to wear in various conditions. Generally speaking, I put on everything I can while still being able to move my arms and legs. It's not so bad as it sounds. Neoprene was an amazing invention for people like me.

When I was a kid growing up in northern Minnesota, we were expected to go out and play during the winter, just like we did in the other three seasons. Apparently I still like doing that.


Winter Comes Again

This Saturday morning in October, with a multitude of things that need to be done around the house, I'm having coffee in the morning instead, anticipating winter. It's been unusually cold for the past two weeks, and I should have got the storm windows on by now. I'm the only resident in town who actually still has storm windows, and about this time of year I go through the annual ritual of taking off the screens and putting on the storms. I suppose I could have them all converted to combination windows, but if I did that I wouldn't be able to afford the split-cane Dickerson 8615 I've been contemplating, which actually I can't afford regardless of what I do with the windows. I'm thinking hard about the two-piece 6wt option, having read that it would be the only cane rod I'll ever need. I don't know what I'd do with all the other cane rods I happen to have if that's the case, though I'm sure I could figure something out given enough time and coffee.


Before the Snows

The first trout I caught this October was an eleven-inch male brookie. It would be hard to imagine a more beautiful fish. Most brook trout do not get very big in northeast Iowa streams, but this fish was unusually plump and heavy for its length and was a delight to examine before letting it go. The inside of a male brookie's mouth darkens from charcoal gray to an almost black during the spawning season, a not unattractive though decidedly odd trait. The lower jaw begins to extend outward beyond the upper too, forming what's called a "kype." They actually get a bit mean looking come October, though it's hard to take a mean eleven-inch trout seriously. The brookie's kaleidescopic spots and markings are particularly vivid in the fall during spawning and seem a fitting match to the midwest's panoply of autumn colors in the trees.

My fish was born in the stream and not stocked, though there are stocked brookies elsewhere in northeast Iowa. Brookies are thought to be native to northeast Iowa, the southwestern-most section of the Driftless Region, and at least one stream is believed to hold an extant population of brook trout that survived our last glacial epoch some twelve-thousand years a go. In recent years eggs and milt from adult fish taken from this particular stream have been nurtured in the Decorah Hatchery to produce brookies that might thrive well on their own in other similar streams, carrying forth the old genetic line and its intrepid survival characteristics. Such is the hope at any rate.

Even the hatchery-raised brookies are stunningly colored and it's difficult to tell the difference between them and feral fish. Sometimes one notices wear marks on the trout's fins and tail, which are caused by constant rubbing on the hatchery vessel's concrete surface. At other times a good educated guess can be made by simply knowing the area's streams, especially which ones have not had brookies stocked in them for a period of years. The stream I happened to have been fishing has not been stocked at all for fifteen years or so. It's likely that a hundred and fifty years ago it was teeming with brook trout, and brook trout only.

Gazing upstream over the large slow pool dotted with rising trout, I knew it would be a tough bet to get one to strike on a dry fly. The afternoon sun was bright in the sky and most of the pool was rather shallow, both of which would work against me. There was a nice Blue Wing Olive hatch in progress, so in spite of the odds I fired my little #18 Threadwrap on 6X tippet upstream to a fish that was rising close to the bank, and that turned out to be my eleven-inch brookie. I was fishing a Bronson split-cane rod, which was a bit unusual in itself. I know there are a few of them out there, but mine is the only one of its brand I've ever seen. The old thing did a nice job with the brookie.

Many anglers believe that brook trout are "dumb," but I like to think of them simply as being more "eager" than rainbows or browns.




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