What a winter we just experienced; a winter that won’t quit even now as our calendars inform us spring has officially arrived. If memory serves me correctly, December got nasty cold as was the case in January, with each month drier than normal. Both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Weather Channel reported that while winter temperatures over most of the globe were above average, the northeast experienced near record cold weather.
It was so cold we fired up our wood pellet stove before Thanksgiving, something we’ve never done before, while our garage heater turned on constantly. It was so cold newspaper articles reported on frozen pipes and busy plumbers who were booked solid. It was so cold that the ground froze, pot holes blossomed in our roadways, and anchor ice formed in local streams. For anglers, and wild trout, anchor ice is not good. It can kill the aquatic insects trout feed on; it can also impair last autumn’s year-class of brown and brook trout fry.
But winter teased us; it played with our psyche with a total disregard for our mental wellbeing. February was one of the warmest Februaries ever. We even had a couple 70 degree days followed by March madness. Once again it got cold, and the snow — more snow might have fallen in a few March weeks than all of the rest of winter. This has been the winter that won’t go away; but anglers, take hope. Opening day of another trout season is upon us, an annual rite of passage, and time to put winter behind us no matter what the weather might be.
Now a crusty ole angler I’ve enjoyed many opening days, over a half-a-century’s worth and counting. Plus, some years I’d fished two or three opening days for trout seasons in nearby states. The day truly marks a new beginning and an expression of hope. As Dr. Paul Quinnett, a noted psychologist and angling author, wrote in his book Pavlov’s Trout, “Fishing is hope experienced…Catching a fish is hope affirmed.”
Opening day is not without time honored traditions. I, for one, have a special opening day hat. A hat purchased long ago in Rafalowsky’s Men’s Store, a hat similar to one worn by legendary Catskill angler Sparse Grey Hackle. And then every opening day morning, before I leave for the day’s adventure, my wife makes me a hearty French toast breakfast plus packs a couple fried-egg sandwiches to go along with my hot thermos of decaf coffee. As I depart for the outing, I inform my bride where I’m heading, but she takes a strict oath not to divulge me whereabouts to anyone else. As my Navy uncle used to say, “Loose lips sink ships,” and who wants to be standing next to another angler, in icy cold water, attempting to seduce their first New York state trout of the new season. Thus most years I wander the Catskills solo on the first day, but some years are special when I get to fish with a son and maybe a grandson. On those occasions catching a trout is secondary; it’s much more satisfying to spend special moments with family members.
Yes, I’ve participated in over 50 years of opening days, and they are all different. Most of the time this day is not even close to being a good day to fish. Many times I’ve had ice clogged the guides of my cane fly rod, or broke through ice along the creek’s edge. However, after this last winter, I’m really looking forward to the 2018 trout season. Still I cannot help but think back to a New Jersey opening day in ’69, and the summer of love. On that day I came of age, a hard core dyed-in-the-wool flyfisher who forever swore off worm dunking and use of other baits. That opening day is as fresh in my mind now as when it happened half-a-century ago.
On opener of 1969 my now brother-in-law, Grover Koch, and I fished the Big Flat Brook River in northwestern New Jersey together. He fished bait while I took a different path and used nymphs, an unweighted Cooper Bug I created, as I renounced worms and salmon eggs forever, from that day forward. The stream was over-crowded, as Jersey streams often tend to be on opening days; but we were happy to take part in this annual ritual.
I remember split shots plunking, bobbers bobbing, anglers hooting and howling, and hooked trout splashing and flopping on the bank, being caught all around me. I had all I could do just to get a decent drift through this piscatorial mess of slap-happy humanity. Eventually things settled down as most other anglers limited out and left the water, and eventually I caught and released two small hatchery rainbows. I was content with my catch and proud that I stayed the course not succumbing to the urge of bait fishing.
As I surveyed my surroundings there resting on the bank, watching me was Grover. At first I felt a bit sorry for him since he was no longer fishing, but I quickly asked him how he did, to which he responded, “OK, I caught, and released, twenty-three trout! How did you do?” At that moment in time I knew my fly-fishing experiences could only improve. And, simultaneously a hard core fly-fishing purist was born within me, something that I never regret, my coming of age.
Ed Ostapczuk is a noted local angler, author of Ramblings of a Charmed Circle Flyfisher, with another book in the works and will be honored as a Catskill Legend by the Catskill Fly Fishing Center & Museum on April 7.