Winter Fuel

Winter Fuel

Firewood and fly-fishing

  • By: John Gierach
I was walking up a stream near home wearing hip boots and carrying a fly rod when I ran into a hiker who asked, "Are there fish in here?" To be polite and because I guess it was an innocent enough question, I said, "Yes, there are some small trout," but it seemed like an odd thing to ask a guy who's obviously fishing. On the other hand, maybe I had the all too common look of someone who didn't know what the hell he was doing. You see that a lot these days.

A little farther on a guy walking his Australian shepherd asked a more astute question: "Are you catchingany or just getting out for the afternoon?" As it turned out, I was just getting out, but I hadn't even strung up the rod yet, so I said it was early and things could still go either way. He nodded in an understanding way that made me think this was a guy who either fished himself or at least had a family history of the condition.

People were out and talkative that day because this was the first stretch of good weather we'd had in seven weeks. It was early February and it had been sunny with daytime highs briefly into the low 50s for several days in a row, while for part of December and all of January temperatures hadn't risen above freezing and at one point after the second of two major blizzards, my neighbor measured the snow covering his meadow at 42 inches deep.

Snow is always welcome here in Colorado, but too much at once can be awful if you're a rancher with lost and starving cattle or if you've set up a permanent camp on the floor at Denver International Airport. But then I'm self-employed, a little reclusive and had nowhere in particular to go, so I enjoyed it. I also enjoyed telling complainers that when I was a kid in Minnesota we used to go to the beach in weather like this.

The only drawback was that I was running low on firewood. Most years I can get through a winter on three cords. This year I'd gone through five and had started on a sixth. In fact, that's why I was up at the stream in the first place. Off and on since the previous fall, the powers that be had been thinning the overgrown ponderosa pine forest in the area for fire protection, and since this is public land, they'd been hauling the logs out and dumping them along the road for anyone to take. There were no announcements and nothing resembling a schedule, just the word-of-mouth knowledge that at various unpredictable times there'd be large piles of free firewood lying by the side of the road. You just had to drive up there now and then to check.

Of course this stuff would often come out as logs too long and heavy to handle, so when you did go up to check you had to bring along a saw, gas, bar and chain oil and all the niggling little wrenches, screwdrivers and files it takes to keep an aging chain saw sharp and running. There was no coming back later at your convenience. It was the tail end of a long, cold winter, firewood was at a premium and people had gotten on to this.

But then since you're going to a trout stream anyway and since there may or may not be any cutting and hauling to do, you also throw in a fly rod and all the niggling doodads it takes to make that tool work. I mean, why waste a trip?

This little stream isn't especially rich and the fish aren't all that big or numerous, but it is fed by a small, bottom-draw dam that produces just enough of a tailwater effect to keep it open and, at least theoretically, fishable through the winter. The two-mile access road up to the dam is gated, but they keep it plowed, so even in deep snow you can walk along the stream without resorting to snowshoes. It's known locally as nothing to write home about, but like all streams that you'll hear described as mediocre, it will reward the fly fisher who has reasonable expectations and who gives it the time and effort it deserves.

So anyway, I drove up to the stream and there was no wood, so I hiked up to a pair of adjacent pools about a mile and a half upstream that, for reasons I've never figured out, are more likely to produce a winter midge hatch than anywhere else on this whole stretch. As it turned out, there were five or six small brown trout rising quietly in the lower of the two pools, loosely podded up on the far side of the slow main current. They were feeding on the tiniest pale midge flies imaginable: roughly the size and color of wheat chaff and not much more than beige specks on the water.

The short version is that I put in a careful half hour of casting and couldn't get a strike, even with the smallest flies and the lightest tippet I had. I never actually spooked the trout and even got a couple of half-interested looks, but eventually, one by one, they figured out something wasn't right and quietly went away. I could see the fish distinctly in the low, clear water and the biggest of them might have gone nine or 10 inches.

On the hike out I ran into my friend Todd Hosman and we stopped to compare notes. He was on his way to the pools I'd just come from and didn't seem all that disappointed to learn that I'd already fished them, especially when I said I'd gotten skunked and showed him the sparsely tied size 24 flies I'd been fishing on 7X tippet. He said he did OK up there the day before yesterday and showed me the size 32 emergers he'd been fishing on 8X.

When I took the box from him to look at the flies, Todd laughed and said he'd shown them to a mutual friend the other day who'd gotten the same disgusted scowl on his face.

I said, "I'm not scowling, I'm just trying to focus."

I also briefly wondered how much trouble a guy should go to in order to catch a few little trout, but then any fish becomes worth catching to the extent that you can't catch it, so the answer was obvious: Once you decide to try, you go to as much trouble as it takes.

I might have left it at that except for the firewood. It was free, I needed it and it was next to impossible to buy any. All the commercial cutters I knew were telling the same story: They had plenty of wood on the ground, but the snow had kept them from getting it out, and once they did get it out, it would still need to be unloaded, bucked, split, reloaded and delivered, starting with the long-standing back orders. The upshot was it could take the better part of a month to get a cord of wood even if the thaw held, which it wouldn't.

But then on the way out that day I ran into the local ranger putting along on his ATV. (His name is Dennis, but everyone calls him "Ranger Rick.") He knew I'd scarfed up a bunch of this wood the previous fall, so he told me that with the snow clearing off they'd be bringing out what he described as "shit loads" of wood over the next week or so.

A few days later I was back up at the creek with a freshly oiled and sharpened chain saw, plus a spool of 8X tippet and half a dozen size 28 dry flies. Instead of tying on actual size 32 hooks, I'd used an old trick from the days before hooks that small became available. That is, I tied what amounted to size 32 flies on the forward half of size 28 hook shanks in what a salmon tier would call a "low water" style. I hadn't tied flies that small in quite a few years, but I found it was still no harder for me than separating paper coffee filters, which is difficult, but not impossible. It's mostly a matter of attitude. My old friend and fly guru A.K. Best once told me that tying a size 28 fly was just like tying a size 16, except it was smaller. That didn't turn out to be precisely true, but it was instructive in a Zen sort of way.

In the simplest terms of being able to catch fish you couldn't catch before, I think the advent of tiny fly-tying hooks and the extra-fine tippets you need to fish them are the single most important developments in fly tackle in my lifetime, with no exceptions. Once the hooks became widely available, small flies naturally became a specialty for some, but remained a curiosity for others. (To this day, few commercial tiers tie flies smaller than a size 22 because they don't sell.) There's also been some legitimate controversy over extremely small flies. In the 1970s, about the time Arnold Gingrich introduced the idea of the "20/20 Club"-where the idea was to hook and land a 20-inch trout on what was then considered to be a near-microscopic size 20 fly-British fishing writers Brian Clarke and John Goddard described the American penchant for catching fish on tackle too light to adequately land them as an "unsporting affectation."

It's true that in most situations you can land a 10-inch trout with authority on a size 28 fly and 8X tippet (assuming you can hook it in the first place) but not so much as the fish get bigger, and it finally becomes a pointless exercise to release an 18- or 20-inch trout that you've already played to death. Like most of the fly fishers I know, this became something I'd think about whenever it came up, although for the most part, I usually just fell back on the old admonition that you should either land 'em or lose 'em, but don't screw around with 'em. After all, when you're fishing the smallest possible flies on the lightest available tippets, you're on the kind of extreme edge where you can't reasonably expect a high success rate.

As it turned out, there was the promised shit load of wood dumped by the road that day and I cut and loaded as much as my pickup would hold-which is about two-thirds of a cord. Then I put a rod together and walked up to the pools. Either there wasn't much of a hatch that day or I'd come in right at the end of it. Whichever it was, there were only a few scattered rises on the lower pool, but I did manage to get one strike, which I missed.

Of course the smaller the hook you use, the harder it is to hook and hold a fish, but when things get this delicate, even a buggered strike is a victory. If nothing else, it tells you your fly was small enough and at least that one cast and drift were adequate.

So this became the routine for the next week and a half. I didn't always find a fresh load of wood and rising trout on the same day, but as luck would have it, I always found one or the other.

I also usually found Todd. He'd gotten pretty interested in this hatch, too, if only because there wasn't much else happening close to home in February. Some days he'd get there first and beat me to the pools. Other days I'd beat him. One day I passed him quietly as he was fishing a pool lower down the stream. (Someone watching might have assumed that I snuck by behind him in order to get to the pools upstream first, but the story I'm sticking to is that he seemed deeply involved and I didn't want to bother him.) Yet another day we ran into each other at the access road gate, hiked up to the pools together and shared the water. On the walk in I mentioned that I liked the bottom pool best. He said he preferred the top one and so that's how we split them up. If he was being gracious-as I suspect-it was a pretty smooth maneuver.

By the time the weather turned cold and it started to snow again, I'd put in five cords of firewood and caught a handful of trout. (On my best afternoon, I hooked five and landed three.) Most of my lost fish just came off, but the one big one-maybe 14 or 15 inches-bent open the size 28 hook when I put the wood to him to try to keep him out of a sweeper.

Fine tippet is much stronger than it used to be: Not that long ago, the best 7X you could get had a breaking strength of eight ounces; today 8X tests out at around a pound and a half. But the metallurgy of hook making hasn't entirely caught up, so where you once would have broken off the fly, you now bend open the hook-with the same result, that the big fish gets away. This is what we call "progress."