OPENING DAY. The term has many meanings, invokes a wide variety of emotions, and can be used to describe the initiation of a wide variety of events.
The phrase is very common in sports and can signal the first time a baseball team takes the field or a day that deer hunting finally begins. Like everything in my life, the term has its greatest significance as it relates to fishing, and when I hear “opening day,” immediate action is required.
Recently, most rivers and streams in New Hampshire have opened to fishing, and the morning of Jan. 1 will always find me waist-deep in cold, moving water.
Last week was no exception.
My friends and family have learned that I am a lousy participant in New Year’s Eve parties as I indulge very little and go to bed early. This restraint leaves me prepared to enjoy opening day and focused enough to face the challenges of the difficult conditions.
Unlike most opening days, I usually enjoy this one by myself, with no other anglers in sight. There are not many busy sections of a January river and, as such, I can always fish the best spots. What makes a location desirable is much different from a summer adventure and I typically look for spots that are not frozen or hidden by snow.
Once access is gained, I try to find water conditions that are preferred by those fish existing in calm water with an easy food source. In near-freezing water, trout and salmon move with the same energy of my grandfather walking up the stairs: Each movement is calculated and very little energy is used beyond what is necessary.
As such, fish will be less likely to chase after food. My fly needs to almost bump them in the nose to be considered for a meal.
Identifying a fish’s food source is one of the keys to successful angling. In a way, this should be easier in winter because the menu is significantly smaller. Those insects that exist in mud and rock are buried, inactive and unlikely to emerge. Their lifecycle has them dormant in winter and hungry fish must look elsewhere.
The most constant food source for predator fish in winter is other fish. Those fly patterns that resemble small, susceptible minnows often work the best. Subtle, non-flashy colors that are fished in ways that suggest the bait is stunned, injured or left bewildered by the cold can be effective.
In many ways, winter habitat is greatly reduced. While fish could be anywhere in the summer, winter offers very few places for refuge. This means fish might be schooled up, and locations to target can be easier to choose. When I catch a fish in a specific spot, I will continue to fish it because other fish are likely to be caught.
In warmer months, I often fish rivers and streams in the morning or at dusk. My winter approach is the exact opposite and I try to target those short periods where the sun is highest and the air temperature is the warmest. This slight bump in conditions often urge fish to temporarily emerge from semi-hibernation and feed.
When people see me standing in a river surrounded by snow and ice, I am sure that my sanity is questioned and met with headshakes. In fact, January provides one of my favorite opening days in New Hampshire. The challenges can be met with success or failure but are always exciting.