Southwest Virginia, Upper East Tennessee, and Western North Carolina have lots of small creeks that are usually more fishable in winter. In winter the water levels may be higher than the summer or fall, there’s no foliage and less brush to block access to the water, and the creeks are no longer clogged with the fallen leaves. It’s a great time of year to hit these creeks, especially during breaks of mild weather.
You’re not likely to catch lunkers in these waters, but the trout are more likely to be wild and more beautiful than the stockers in the rivers and lakes. They may also be willing to hit dry flies even when there’s no hatch coming off the water. These small creek trout don’t have the luxury of waiting for a full-blown hatch. They’re often stuck within the confines of small pools; this requires them to be particularly opportunistic feeders; and insects on the surface are opportunities to them regardless of season.
There is something especially rewarding about the adventure of hiking where few fishermen have been, where the trout may not have seen men or their fishing gear for a long time before you, and where you have a genuine belief that you are exploring the natural world.
In the Eastern United States, there are not many places that instill these feelings anymore. It has been this way for almost a century:
Most of the truly secret streams were small. The larger streams had names, a public sort of character, commercial importance, perhaps. They were accessible: if they held trout it became known and they were visited regularly throughout the open season. Without restocking they became at last depleted of fish.
But the little back-country feeder brooks were nameless, and inaccessible save by long tramping over the ridges and upland meadows which lay deep beyond the infrequent roads. In such remote rills, known only to ourselves and our most intimate partners, the brook trout swam and lurked to meet his chilly destinies much as he had in the first days of the world. Some of these streams are still where they used to be. . . .
Howard T. Walden, II, Upstream & Down, at 171-72 (First Edition 1938).
In Upstream & Down, Mr. Walden explained that in the East, except for in the “remote semi-wilderness counties,” most small streams were under increasing pressure from development and anglers in the early Twentieth Century. He lamented “the loss of the virgin stream of olden time.”
These days, even in the “remote semi-wilderness counties” of the East (acknowledging that the definition of Eastern “remote semi-wilderness” is probably different today than in the 1930s), there are very few, if any, “nameless” small streams. Nonetheless, the essence of what Mr. Walden wrote back in the 1930s is still true: Remote small streams are still the most likely places to find unspoiled trout waters.
In the reality of our increased population and the informational resources of modern times, there is not just a geographical dimension to being adventurous in the outdoors—whether fishing for trout, or otherwise (hiking, backpacking, etc.). There is also a seasonal dimension. Most fishermen hang up their rods and reels come late fall, and many do not take the sport up again until the traditional opening days of April. Thus the ardent angler is far more likely to have a solitary and adventurous experience in winter than in spring, summer, or fall. This is not to say that small creek fishing is not rewarding in the fairer seasons, just to point out the undeniable fact that it is more likely to hold an excitement that comes from undisturbed exploration in the wintertime.
So I will continue to fly fish in wintertime, even if I catch less trout during this season. For while catching trout is the “point of the whole exercise” (as fellow small stream enthusiast and Trout Underground author Tom Chandler has stated), it is not the sole—or perhaps even driving—reason that we engage in this sport.
P.S. — I will write more about Upstream & Down, a fascinating book, and Mr. Walden’s thoughts about trout fishing in subsequent articles.