Skiing proves to be a good second choice
About 15 years ago, I was visiting my brother in Colorado in March and we spent the morning fly-fishing on a mountain stream in a snow squall. I caught a nice brown trout in about an hour and a half. A few years later, I fished with the same brother in the mountains of western North Carolina in February, and we had some good success. Also around the same two-year period, I was twice able to go fishing with a friend in New Mexico, once in November and once in March. On the November trip it was below freezing when we stared in the morning. It was only a little warmer in March. We caught some lovely trout on both occasions.
These trips left me wishing — and sometimes arguing in my biweekly columns — for more year-round fishing opportunities in Vermont. And, occasionally, we get what we wish. For a few years now, Vermont has left several rivers open for catch-and-release fishing year round. One of them, Otter Creek, flows right through Middlebury just a few hundred yards from my office. I can go fish there any time I want, right through the winter.
As it turns out, “any time I want” during the winter is quite infrequent. While it may be important to know that fishing opportunities exist if I need them, the truth is I’m not very motivated to stand in ice water in 15-degree air and cast a fly toward trout that aren’t likely to move more than a few inches to get it.
Now sometimes I feel a little guilty that I don’t go out fishing more in the winter. I excuse myself by pointing out that Vermont is much further north than North Carolina, New Mexico and Colorado. Winter is tougher here than it is where I caught trout in those states.
That same brother, who lives in Alaska now, gave me a subscription to the monthly “Alaska” magazine. A couple issues ago the magazine had an article on winter fishing on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage. Anglers will spend a whole day in 20-degree temperatures drifting a river in February or March to catch two or three 18-inch rainbow trout. So much for my excuse that Vermont is too far north.
I bumped into my friend Wes Butler recently. He is apparently more motivated than I am. Or perhaps just tougher. As if to highlight the painful truth revealed to me by the “Alaska” magazine, he told me he’d already caught a 22-inch brown trout this winter. I assume that means he’s also been fishing.
When I bumped into Wes, I was skiing at Middlebury College’s Snow Bowl with two of my sons, Thomas and Peter. I was an avid alpine skier growing up, and even raced competitively on my high school team. For reasons primarily spiritual, but also perhaps financial and academic as well, I gave up downhill skiing in college. I gave it up completely and went cold turkey, even to the point of selling my skis. I didn’t ski again for several years.
Now I ski on average about one day per year, mostly as something to enjoy with my sons. The temperature on this day of father-son skiing never got above 10 degrees on the mountain, and there was a raw north wind. I skied with a facemask. My cheeks got cold anyway. Probably even colder than they would have been if I’d been fishing (though my feet were certainly warmer.)
Still, despite the frosty air, I quickly remembered what I enjoyed about the sport. Ski areas are, by nature, in the mountains. I love mountains. I love the views from the top of a ski lift on a clear day. I love the rush of speed achieved without motors. I delight in just being outside, in the relative quiet of a side trail, feeling the texture of the snow as it slides beneath my feet, and seeing the stark beauty of leafless hardwoods in the winter.
This may also be why my day skiing at the Snow Bowl was so much more enjoyable than my previous ski excursion, which had been down to Pico where the crowds, lines, noise and circus atmosphere reminded me of what I didn’t miss about alpine skiing. It was like spending a day at a large shopping mall. Although our day at the Snow Bowl was during school vacation week, we never had to wait in lines. Several times when we were off the main trails, we were out of sight of other humans. Nothing but snow, trees, and mountains. It felt like an actual outdoor sport.
At the end of the day, I had to drive Thomas back to college up in Colchester. We went out to dinner in Burlington with his grandparents. They asked how our day was. I said it was great, and that we’d just spent the day fishing. Thomas and Peter gave me funny looks, and then they both started laughing at me. I corrected myself. Skiing, I said. We’d just spent the day skiing. Not fishing. Except I was still thinking about Wes’s 22-inch brown trout.
I think Vermont really needs some year round fishing opportunities.