Old Man River Saves the Day: Winter Fly Fishing on Silver Creek

Golab, Curry, and I have been itching to get out for a while now, but have been struggling to find the time. With Grad school attempting to kill Golab and my back injury landing me in PT, its been hard to line up something that works for all three of us. Luckily we finally managed to find a day last weekend. Not wanting to overload my back, we decided a light day of fishing up near Show Low’s Silver Creek was just what the doctor ordered.

As we parked the Mighty Forester, we noticed it was cold.

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Really cold. Undeterred but heavily bundled, we pressed on.

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Things we’re obviously different from last time Golab and I were here. Holes that had previously held incredible numbers of fish we’re just…empty. I knew that the stream had an Ich infection last year, but didn’t think conditions would be this bad. We moved on to the next hole.

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It was more of the same: nothing, nothing, nothing. Not, a bite, not a nibble, not a fish to be seen in the warm clear water. Just cold wind. Things were growing desperate. Then another fisherman appeared. We’ll call him Old Man River.

OLD MAN RIVER: What are you guys doing?

ME: Fishing. 

OMR: *incredulously* Here? 

ME: …yeah. 

OMR: Why aren’t you up at the big hole?

ME: What big hole?

OMR: Good God, come with me. 

We hadn’t had as much as a nibble all day, so we tagged along. It wasn’t like we had anything to lose anyways. I decided to pick his brain as we walked:

ME: Any fly recommendations?

OMR: They seem to really like egg patterns. Do you have any?

ME: um…yeah…like tons and tons of egg patterns…so many egg patterns (I had exactly one egg pattern and it was ancient)

OMR: How about tippet?

ME: I usually fish 5x. 

OMR: *Chuckles* That’s not gonna work when I’m taking you. I’ll give you some 2. 

I was dubious. Old Man River kept talking about 30 inch fish, and I’d never even seen a fish that big anywhere short of the ocean. Sure, we’d seen lots of fish in the lower parts of the creek last year, some of them big, but no 30 inch monsters. As we approached the Big Hole, I heard the buzz of a fish taking out line under drag. As he came into view we watched as as fisherman about 100 feet ahead fighting something obviously big, eventually pulling out the largest trout I have ever seen.

OMR: *smiling* You’re gonna need a bigger net, kid. Now take some egg patterns and set them up below a bugger. 

ME: You know we really can’t thank you enough… 

OMR: Thank me by catching a big fish. 

As we set up, another fisherman pulled in an absolute monster. Peering into the river I saw big fish. Lots of big fish. I guess AZGFD’s special regulations for this area are working.

Talking to some of the other fisherman in the area, they said we had showed up just as the bite was calming down. After 30 min or so, I was starting to worry that the three of us were going to have a fish-less fishing trip to go with our deer-less deer hunt. At least that’s what I was worried about until I looked downstream to see Curry’s Tenkara Rod Co. Sawtooth completely doubled over. The fight was on.

Now, Tenkara Rod Co. says that the Sawtooth is designed for fish in the 6-18 inch range with bigger fish “doable.” As I grabbed the landing net and sprinted towards Curry, “doable” looked optimistic. He was fighting hard and smart, especially for a newbie, but his rod was completely bowed. Tenkara’s don’t have a reel, so when the fish went on a run, Curry had to run downstream with it. A few frantic minutes later, I managed to get my net in the water, just to find that Old Man River was right: the fish barely fit in it.

After a couple of tries I got enough of the fish in the net to get him out of the water. Curry’s first fish on the fly was a beast:

After we got the fish back in the water I gave Curry a high five. Downstream, Old Man River gave us a nod and a smile. At least we’d held up our end of the bargain.

After we got everything cleaned up, we fished for another 30 min or so before we got fed up with the cold. We would have all liked to catch monsters, seeing Curry’s success had lowered both the stakes and our resolve, and the car’s heater beckoned. Before we left, we stopped to thank Old Man River. He just smiled. I thought about asking him for a picture for the blog, but decided against it. He’d done enough nice things for one day. Soon, we were on our way back to the car.

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Learning to love the outdoors is a delicate balance of strife and success. Doing stuff outside, whether that be hiking, hunting, fishing, or (God forbid) mountain biking, is hard. You will be sore while hiking, cold while hunting, skunked while fishing, and battered while mountain biking. Without delving into the puesdo-philosophy that plagues outdoors writing, I think we can say unequivocally that this hardness is part of what begets value in the outdoors. Or, put more simply: catching fish is more fun because there is the threat of not catching fish.

But move to far down this path and even the toughest of us will cry uncle. Our ability to get ourselves out of bed for long pre-dawn car rides to trailheads unknown requires, at the very least, hope. It doesn’t take many skunked trips before the taste for success is overwhelmed by the fear of failure and the complicity of a warm bed.

This is especially true for newbies, who haven’t had time to feel the positives yet. I’ve written a lot about what we need to do to make the outdoors community a more open place (HERE and HERE for example). Suffice it to say that as the U.S. comes to look less and less like the stereotypical “Outdoorsman” our survival, as a community, is dependent on our ability to attract more, different people to the outdoors.

That’s where Old Man River comes in. On a random morning, on a random stream, he ran into three random fisherman who were not really having much fun. He pulled us aside, taught us a better way, opened his gear up to us, and as a result a new fisherman went for the ride of his life.  Curry, Golab, and I, for obvious reasons, aren’t the perfect case study in how to get a more diverse group people outside, but watching the day unfold I couldn’t help but think that there is a roadmap here. It’s simple: be kind.

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Thanks, Old Man River. We appreciate it.


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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.

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