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Needing a Bite

It was too damn cold for anyone to be out here. Only crazy people went fishing on a day like this.

He was talking to himself on the drive to the water, one cold day in January with the wind blowing and the distinct possibility ice freezing in his guides. Sounds like the beginning of a story from Up North, or at least Out West… but no, this was Down South, deep in central Texas. Most people down here don’t venture very far from the central heating when it gets much below 40… when it does get that cold. But here it was, 28 degrees, and he was getting out of his vehicle at streamside, stringing up a 4wt. He had just come off a long hunting season of guiding hunters and doing a little hunting himself, and he was craving a pull on his line and some fish-slimed hands.

Most of the spots close by weren’t going to fish well, but there was a place he knew of where a couple springs welled up from the bottom of the riverbed, and fish would crowd into the warmer water those provided.

Taking a slow, deep breath, he blew a steady stream of ‘smoke’, watching it blast outwards and then dissipate in the almost non-existent breeze. It was one of those cold, quiet days where sound seems amplified… sharper, somehow.  He could hear the burble of water pushing past the concrete bridge pilings, and the sudden splashing and annoyed duck speech of mallards taking off. Listening for the quacking echo that never came. Who taught ducks to quack without echoing anyway…

Striding crunchily down the limestone graveled road, he noticed how drab everything seemed. One could see right through thickets that during the summer had been an impenetrable snarl of leaves – reminded him of the time he worked back through those thickets on a deer trail and had come upon a couple sunbathing nude. Whoops. He smiled in remembrance. Their faces had been a dramatic shade of red, whether from too much sun or too much fun he couldn’t say…

But now the branches were as naked as the sunbathers, the leaves a motley assortment of patchwork colors strewn across the ground in an ill-sewn quilt. As he neared the bridge, a great blue heron took fight with that awkward, noisy way they have that shatters the stillness. The bird glided to the next sandbar down and glowered back at the interloper disturbing the bird’s peaceful day.

Don’t worry old man, the fisherman thought. Soon enough you’ll have your river to yourself again. Cursory inspection of the cold, clear flow revealed not a flicker of fin, so the fisherman traipsed off the bridge and waded gently into the ankle deep water at the edge of the current. As he gradually meandered downstream, he had time to realize that his nose was really starting to complain about how cold it was outside and was demonstrating disapproval by creating more mucous than any one nose should ever need. Continued negotiations with the back of his wool glove ensued, and the fisherman wandered on.

The gloves reminded him of a time on a steelhead river where he had swung a fly across the current time after time after time, so many times, and then suddenly the brilliant flash of a take and the feel of lightning on the line… it had been cold then, too.

The gloves remembered.

Rounding the bend the fisherman came upon the entrance to the small backwater that held the springs.  Approaching slowly and quietly, he stooped low to avoid spooking fish.

Keeping a scraggly young bush between him and the green-clear water, he got his first glimpse – a carp, swimming slow patrol circuits along the opposite edge of the backwater.

The fisherman kept still and watched, knowing from hard-won experience that to barge in after the first fish one sees is a great way to catch no fish.

A sunfish drifted up into view, dimpling the surface like it was June. Catfish prowled the depths near an old, broken down branch resting on the bottom amongst a carpet of dead leaves.

Sniffling a bit, he scrubbed at his nose again and flexed fingers going stiff with cold. Resting on his knees behind the young shrub, the fisherman dug in his pocket to retrieve the small fly box nestled there. He glanced up at the dreary sky, gauging ambient light, and eyed the carp that was still making slow circuits. Probably not enough light to cast a line shadow, but best be careful.  Clicking open the simple box revealed a small bedraggled group of flies; he hadn’t tied in a couple months, but he had faith that a fish catcher was in the lineup.

Watching the carp again, he considered his options. Needed to sink about a foot pulling an 8lb leader, get the fish’s attention but not too much, cold water, overcast day…

His bare fingertips rested lightly on a beadhead zugbug. Weight, glimmer, silhouette, movement… yes.

The gloves slipped off his hands quickly, and the zug went on the leader with a dab of saliva and deft twists made difficult by numb fingers.

Grey wool against the tan and white river cobble of the gravel bar. A cardinal’s call from across the river. Stinging cold nipping at nose and ears. Great to be alive.

Scrunching the gloves back on awkwardly, he flexed his hands again and readied himself. Deep breath, gout of steam. Making sure the fish couldn’t see him, he flicked the newly-knotted fly into the main current of the river where it ran a couple feet to his right. Water haul here, he thought to himself. The line and leader floated lightly, making a tiny v-wake behind the skating fly. Making sure he had a clear casting lane, the angler waited, stoic. Downstream, the heron waited. Brothers of purpose.

The carp circled, meandering, and paused to nose among some leaves.

Now. The flyline accelerated in a smooth curl, arcing up over the rodtip, straightening and dropping to deliver the fly with a tiny plop between the lethargic fish and the bank. Sinking, so slowly... but now the fish raises in the water column and spots the interesting speck dropping to the leaves in front of its face. The fisherman watches the fish, the fish watches the fly.

Intensity.

The angler watched the fly drift to a stop on a rusty orange leaf. A tiny twitch of the line, and the fly breathed and quivered. The fish didn’t move… then almost imperceptibly, it leaned forward. The fisherman subconsciously leaned as well, although he was unaware he did so.

A subtle gill flare was the only clue, but the arm raised quickly and confidently, and the thrill of a tight line thrummed in the angler’s veins. The fight was almost inconsequential, but satisfying. The carp proved to be 4 or 5 pounds when brought near and the angler didn’t hesitate to strip his gloves and wet his hands in the cold water so he could raise and admire the golden-scaled visitor from a far-off land.

Back in the water, the fish pulled away into the depths with slow, steady cadence. The fisherman stood, shaking water and slime from his numb fingers, and slipped the gloves back on. He looked downstream, through the skeletons of winter-weary trees, and decided that was good enough. With another deep breath and gout of steam, he turned, and began to crunch back to the bridge.

His need for a bite had been quieted, and besides, it was too damn cold for anyone to be out here anyway. Only crazy people went fishing on a day like this.

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