By Jeff Little
As he leaned forward, eyes trained on bright yellow braided line angling into deep still water, an icicle grew longer with each drop of river water that gathered at the edge of the paddle's drip ring. As his elbow settled onto the right leg of his dry suit, the sound of ice crinkling joined in harmony with the sound of a gentle current vibrating nearby dead brown reeds. Winter, and the bites are few and far between.
Having just spent a day on the water with a friend fishing in sub-40-degree water, I had a revelation about what makes a good winter angler: focus. My buddy Jed boated a dozen smallmouth, and I fished hard for one. We hit the same spots, in many cases Jed picked off fish that I just missed.
Everyone has been there. A buddy throws the same baits to the same spots in the same way and catches while you strike out. But clearly your friend is doing something different. What that something is, that’s what eludes and frustrates.
Jed and I anchored up next to one another in such a way that we could both work different parts of the same pool while we talked. For the most part I talked. He listened.
Work hadn't gone well the prior week, my kids had been fighting more than usual and my lead pot for pouring jig heads wasn't shooting well. There were bigger issues than those, but that's what I talked about with my friend.
Some good things had occurred since I spoke to Jed last, but somehow I was focused on the frustrations in my life. I was not focused on the task at hand: paying careful attention to the angle of the line where it met the water.
I wasn't picking up on the difference between my tube tumbling into the next river bottom pebble and a smallmouth carefully mouthing then ejecting the soft plastic.
In the midst of recognizing that Jed was outpacing me at a rate of 10 fish to one, I also realized that other poor fishing performances in the past coincided with times of turmoil in my life. If my life is going well, I fish well. If my life hits some bumps, I tend not to feel the bumps at the end of my line.
Doubling down my efforts of mental concentration, I cast a suspending jerkbait into a foam eddy behind a brush pile. After a 30 second pause, I noticed my line slowly drawing tight. I leaned in the direction of the eddy, quickly reeled a tiny bit of slack in the line, and set the hook as hard as I could.
The jerkbait and the leaf that had drifted into it came rocketing toward my head. My focus may have been off that day, but at least with three sets of treble hooks coming at me fast, my reflexes were just fine. I ducked and the tail treble snagged the back of my knit cap in the location that my cheek had been in a moment before.
I left the water grateful for having caught one good smallmouth, and even more grateful for a friend who listens. But I need to get some things sorted out. Otherwise, it's going to be a long winter.