First of Many

For diehard anglers, catching the first fish of the year is always a highly anticipated event – sometimes even a stressful one. It’s funny how, in an attempt to affirm our commitment to a sport that brings us so much enjoyment and contentment, we can drive ourselves nutty in the process. It’s as if we waited just one more day to hit the water, we wouldn’t catch a fish all year. I’ve even seen the select few overly-obsessive anglers forgo watching the ball drop with friends and family to catch a fish in the wee hours of the New Year.

Then there’s the “First fish of the year!” post on Instagram, Facebook, Fishbrain – anywhere really, as long as people see just how diehard you are to be fishing in the wintery weather of the first few days of the year. Pictures of palm-size brook trout and micro panfish which would seldom see the light of day any other time are quickly uploaded to the Internet in the race to post the first fish of the year. Does anybody really care about that four-inch trout that you caught at 6:12 AM on January first? Likely not. But does it make you feel better about yourself as an angler if you managed to catch and post that fish so early? Hell yeah it does!

So why do I harsh on all the anglers who care enough about fishing to spend the first days of the year doing it? Because I’m just as guilty, no matter how silly it is. Some people use the first days of the year to set intentions, consciously making an effort to be the best versions of themselves in the coming year. I figure I’m doing the same when I go fishing, just in a more physical sense; the way I see it, I’m setting intentions to be the best version of my wader-clad, rod-in-hand self in the coming year.

With the first fish setting the tone for the next 12 months, I knew I had to make it a special one. So like any other crazy person, I drove an hour to fish for five-to-six-inch fish that would make a 12-inch stocker look like a giant. Now, these weren’t just any five-to-six-inch fish; they were wild trout living in some of the most pristine small streams I’ve encountered in Massachusetts.

One of many plunge pools on the stream.

The day began at a stream that drops rapidly in elevation through the section I fish, creating deep plunge pools. I started by tight-lining a Walt’s Worm through likely looking holes. Well, tight-lining is relative since I was using my standard 9-foot 5-weight, having left my specialized tight-lining rod at home. The heavy fly line created sag in the system and the sensitivity of the tip left much to be desired, but hey, at least I was fishing.

The first few pockets proved fruitless, but coming upon the first of a series of plunge pools, I was hopeful. Almost instantly the Walt’s began producing hits, but I was having trouble keeping the fish on. Moving upstream, I continued to have the same issue. Hoping the soft, semi-realistic material might keep the fish on for a bit longer, I switched to *gasp* a squirmy worm. I’ll admit, I’ve never sunk so low while fishing small streams, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Squirmy didn’t work right away. Still, I stuck with it, and was soon rewarded. Coming to the tail-out of a deep pool, I chucked the worm in the pocket behind a small underwater rock. Through the clear water, I watched as three or four trout raced to take a bite of the fly. Before I knew it I was hooked up, and soon admiring my first fish of the year.

The colors on the fish in this stream vary greatly throughout the year. In the spring, their flanks are hued by turquoise and lavender. By summer, it becomes more of a copper. In the fall, their bellies light up with the fiery orange of pre-spawn. But in the cold, infertile waters of winter, their sides were much darker, with their cheeks taking on a slight rosy shade. Their fins burn bright red, rimmed by midnight black and stark white. No matter their size (and this fish was no giant), brook trout like these are absolutely stunning, true pieces of natural art.

My first fish of the year, a stunning brook trout.

After holding the fish in the water with my bare hands, I quickly felt the familiar burning sensation of frozen digits. Though the air temps were in the upper-30’s and low-40’s, the water couldn’t have been much more than 36 degrees with the recent snowmelt. Furthermore, with the sun quickly dipping below an impressively tall ridge (by 2:30 I was basically fishing by twilight), I may as well have been ice fishing on a frigid mid-winter day. Thankfully I came prepared with hand warmers in my wader pocket, where I shamelessly shoved my hands for the next few minutes.

The brookies loved the squirmy!

When my fingers were sufficiently thawed, I continued working my way upstream. Some pockets held numerous fish, while others seemed entirely lifeless. Somewhat surprisingly, the tail-outs of the pools proved more productive than the deep pools themselves. By the time I caught my fourth or fifth fish, the tail on the Squirmy was completely gone, turning the fly into little more than a pink-bodied bullet. Nonetheless, the trout continued to chow with relentless vigor.

Eventually the sun dipped so low below the hills I worried I’d be hiking back to the car in the dark. I was overjoyed with the nine or ten small trout I had managed to fool, but wasn’t finished yet. Before calling it a day, I decided to hit one final spot in hopes of diversifying my “creel” with a wild brown trout.

In 15 minutes of fishing, I wasn’t able to find any browns, but was able to add one more brookie to the day’s count. As I peeled off my waders in the hastily fading light, I reflected on the outstanding year of fishing I was leaving behind. Though it was a busy year, I managed to squeeze in plenty of time on some of my favorite lakes, rivers, and estuaries, and even managed to catch a few fish along the way. I explored new places, made new friends, and discovered new flies and tactics. Yet with the passing of years comes more opportunities to make fresh fishing memories. These may have been my first few fish of the year, but here’s to many more in 2023!

6 thoughts on “First of Many

  1. Hey Spencer….came across your site. Wet flies look nice. In fact they all look nice. Never tried a Squirmy worm. Going to have to place an order soon. Will be in touch. Tx. Bob

    Like

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