(Note: This article previously appeared in High Country Angler Magazine)
As the wind howled and the snow flew the other night, I got to thinking about how before kids entered our lives, Kym and I would be preparing to head Down Under at this time of the year. Sitting up late at night, I would be tying flies that in a few days would be cast to summertime fish on the other side of the world. And that was what got me feeling all nostalgic and inspired to put together this little slideshow of past New Zealand adventures.
Of the many things I like about winter, one is the opportunity it gives to slow down and reflect on matters both critical and superfluous. Like, do real men fish in the snow or choose to keep their cojones warm by the fire? I thought about this the other day as I checked out an ad for a popular fly rod manufacturer. In the ad, a couple of guys, grim faced and manly, are floating a river in the grips of a blizzard. Icicles hanging from their various appendages, the underlying message is this: nothing gets in the way of a real man’s pursuit of fish, and real men fish with Brand X rods. Personally, as a guide I have seen way too much parking lot bravado on a cold snowy morning turn, after an hour on the river, into sniveling shivering pleas for mercy and the nurturing warmth of the great indoors to be too impressed with this sort of marketing.
But it does raise some interesting questions, both genetic and cultural. In my native New Zealand, your average fisherman would quietly back away, lock the door, make a mental note to be more discreet in their choice of friends, and toss another log on the fire if you showed up in the middle of a snow storm and suggested getting a line wet. This is in part because down there most rivers are closed to fishing over the winter months to allow the fish a modicum of peace and privacy as they wine, dine and procreate with each other. Thus, the likelihood of such an invitation is greatly reduced. Also, while we do get extremes of weather in New Zealand, for the most part things are a little more temperate than here in the mountains, so fishing in the rain is more of a reality that in snow and ice.
Here, it seems there are many fishermen who think nothing of braving the elements in search of a hook up or two. While I have guided plenty of times in snow, sleet and hail, I have at least been getting paid to do so, and usually question the sanity of the guy paying for the experience. Of course, venturing over to South Park for a trip to the Platte is often an exercise in rolling the dice with hypothermia no matter what the time of year. There is a case to be made for heading out in inclement weather if you have driven a thousand miles or so to get to the river, but surely for those of us that live in the mountains, there is no such pressure.
So what other predispositions set apart the North American fisherman from his southern counterpart? One is perhaps an over reliance on gear. One of the traits we Kiwis pride ourselves on is self reliance. Give us a piece of #8 fencing wire and a roll of duct tape, and we’ll build or fix anything. Give us a couple of flies, a spool of tippet, and a six weight, and we’re ready to go. Compare that to your average American fisherman, with a vest that weighs thirty five pounds, eight fly rods, fifteen reels, and of the twenty-six fly boxes in his possession, the one he ‘needs’ is back at home on the kitchen counter.
Another is the difference in need for a certain level of information to feel comfortable in their surroundings. This was perhaps first brought home to me after my first year of guiding here on the Arkansas, back then primarily as a whitewater guide. The comparison and innuendo between New Zealanders and sheep is well known. [ All I will say on the matter is this: don’t knock anything until you’ve tried it. ] Anyway, take a Kiwi on a river trip, and all you have to say to them is ” Put on a wetsuit, grab that lifejacket, pick up a paddle, and get in the van. We’re off.” There is a level of trust, for better or worse, that the person in charge knows what they are doing, and all will be revealed in good time. Say the same thing to an American, and you get the following response: “Which lifejacket? How many paddles did you say? Should I sit in the front of the van, or the back. Is there a bathroom in the van? How long is the ride? Can I bring a snack? Will there be a bathroom at the river? Should I go to the bathroom now? How many rocks are there in the river? Where’s your bathroom?”
So, as we move into winter, you probably won’t see me on the river too much, except for maybe on a blue bird day. I’ll probably be up at Monarch, or keeping the crown jewels safe and warm by the fire, dreaming of long summer days, clear water and big fish Down Under. But I do salute those hardy souls who choose to venture out on the river when all measures of common sense say to stay inside.