I got to the put-in earlier than I needed to. Christmas brought with it a blast of arctic air that nearly had the river on its knees. Snow had accumulated in the high elevations, and the wacky weather—highs of 55 alternated with highs of 20—was pumping 33-degree snowmelt into the already cold water of the upper New River.
I took the temperature at the access to make sure I didn’t need to pull an audible and go further north looking for warmer water. My thermometer showed just a few degrees above freezing—warm enough. Especially since I wanted to be on the first spot in less than an hour, and the river looked perfect—green, clear, calm—ripe for a plundering of its toothy critters.
Rods rigged, shuttle run, we hopped in the raft, thinking we’d be alone on the frigid river under a leaden sky. No sooner had that thought paced through my mind did a truck with a jet-equipped Jon boat come rattling down the gravel to the access and slide to a halt. Its owner was moving quickly, likely knowing that we’d want to position on a nearby winter hole, too.
Fortunately, I was already dipping the oars in the water to move away from the ramp. I found deep enough water, threw the trolling motor into action, and moved towards our first spot.
Fish a river enough, and you’ll start to notice interesting things. Like how exactly specific current seams and eddies behave at different volumes and velocities of flow. The first slack water spot I had my sights set on was set up just perfectly. Any more water, and the slack wouldn’t be slack, but swirling, with water pushing around a protruding point and into the target water. Any less, and the river’s lower level would have had the water pulling out of the eddy and sliding downriver with the rest of the flow.
Frigid water temps make this kind of water particularly valuable. No fish—particularly the biggest fish in the system—are keen of fighting current to maintain position when their body temperature is resting just above freezing. They want absolutely nothing to do with it. Prey species are in the same boat, and their activity drops to near nonexistence as a result. But the musky still have to eat, at least occasionally, and with fewer food options active, a well-presented fly is the easiest meal around.
I was running this scenario through in my mind as I positioned the boat and dropped anchor. I clipped on my favorite fly—tied with natural materials for maximum “movement without movement” and neutral buoyancy.
I slung 15 feet of sinking line, leader, and fly opposite the target, and then two-hand lobbed a 40-foot cast overhead, landing the fly as tight to the bank as I dared. Rod tip jammed in the water, I counted the line down five seconds, and then stripped hard. In the dead slack water, I could almost feel the fly jackknife and hang with zero drag or swing. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three—strip. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four.
I stripped hard again into something mushy, and followed it up with a second and third hard strip, and the mushy mass maintained tension and began moving towards the boat. Then its head shook. I buried the rod tip in the water and stripped to double the rod over until the fish came to the surface, and then began the sword fight to keep the pressure of the hook angled into the fish as it gator-rolled and head-shook beside and underneath the boat.
Seconds later, a lethargic, frigid-water, 41-inch musky was in the bag, and the party began.
*Originally published in The Rural Virginian