Catching Some Winter Fish in Shenandoah National Park

IMG_4423MLooking back now, back over the long winter, past the worst of the weather, past the longing for warmer climes, past the bazillion flies I tied, past the trip to the Bahamas and the ten pound grouper I landed and the single bonefish I hooked and lost on our unguided not-a-fishing-trip trip… Past all that to a day on a small stream in Shenandoah National Park in early February. The forecast said temps of forty-something, which was a warm-up but still a cold and stone gray day. Snow was on the ground. The hike down from Skyline Drive was a slog. The water was cold, dry flies didn’t work, and so I did something I had never done before in the park, something that made this trip a first for me. I turned to the dark side.

I tied on a freaking nymph. And damn if that nymph didn’t work like magic.

I’ve nymphed before, and it’s worked before, but I’ve never tried nymphing for brook trout in SNP. I did catch a brook trout on a nymph once. It was on a stream in one of the state game lands in Pennsylvania two and a half years ago, and the nymph was the venerable pink weenie. I had parked right next to the stream and walked to the water about thirty feet from the car. Pitched a short cast upstream on a tight line held high, drifted it through the likeliest seam right next to my feet, and repeated this unsavory practice two more times. That third cast got me the biggest brook trout I had ever caught to that point. It was a beautiful twelve inch male. I could almost hear his disdain as he wriggled and tried to spit the tungsten-headed, pink chenille abomination with the name I can never quite bring myself to utter to certain family members. The shame welled up inside of me. A nymph. The pink weenie. Both fish and I thought it was in poor taste, and borderline cheating.

Still, I was so happy.

But that was it. Literally EVERY other time I’ve fished for brook trout, it was, is, and — damn it — will be with dry flies! So if nymphs dredge up some nice fish pretty regularly, why do I shun nymphing? Well, because dry fly fishing is the best thing ever. And because nymphing, frankly, kinda sucks.

So maybe I’ve become unprincipled. This was now the second time I’ve nymphed for brook trout, and only because I was desperate. An hour drive and an hour hike each way, and when you’re standing on the edge of a stream in that beautiful park and nothing’s working, you do things you’re not proud to do.

The fish were in deeper pools mostly. I had stalked up to these spots and figured stealth was still in order despite the depths at which many seemed to be holding. In many pools, the fish were acting very territorially. In fact, it was that aggressiveness that made this whole shameful business of nymphing work great. I saw at least fifteen trout holding near the bottom of one pool, and my first cast drifted the bead head, rubber leg monster right to one of them. He snatched it without hesitation. The cool thing about it was that it was pure sight fishing. I guided the fly right to their noses when the current allowed. Others came from a few feet away to follow and ultimately eat it. Several of these brookies I caught more than once, and it was at that point that I realized this was getting unsportsmanlike and I moved on upstream to the next spot I could find, nymph still fully secured to the tippet. It went like that all afternoon.

Well, it’s springtime now. Thank God this nymphing stuff is over for a while.

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