Game Fish in Winter
The advantage to the hunter and angler of a good working knowledge of the habits and haunts of game and game fishes is generally conceded. The man who knows the life histories of the deer and grouse, the brook trout and the black bass, has little need of a guide, save in so far as a geographical knowledge of the country to be fished or hunted may be necessary, to show him where to look for trout or where not to look for grouse.
Given two hunters or anglers equally well outfitted in the matter of guns and tackle and equally good shots and casters, and the one who has taken pains in his tramps afield and along the streams to note carefully such habits of the quarry as may have a bearing on his sport will always make the better showing. There are, of course, artificially planted and preserved coverts and streams where the abundance and innocence of the game will make up for lack of skill with gun, rifle, or fly rod; in such cases knowledge of how and where to look for game and fish is not an imperative factor for success.
Where game and game fish exist in this superabundance, getting them is purely a matter of being a good shot or casting a straight line; even the poor shot and the awkward rod handler may obtain enough birds or trout to salve the wounds to his pride caused by repeated misses with the gun or the usual misfortunes of the novice or the confirmed bungler with the fly-rod.
There is a certain fish and game preserve controlled by a number of amiable but quite un-athletic gentlemen "from the City." Each year, just before the opening of the trout season, the superintendent of this preserve dumps into the stream which runs through it several hundred liver-fed, two-pound trout. A few days thereafter the amiable but quite un-athletic gentlemen "from the City" come up and "catch’em"—on worms. That is one sort of sport.
On the other hand, there is another trout stream not far distant, a hard-fished public stream, from which I am willing to wager that the not too strenuous gentlemen aforesaid could not take a half-dozen trout in a day's fishing—with worms or in any other way. Yet a friend of mine can usually show you fifteen or twenty good trout taken from this stream on flies almost any day. That is another sort of sport.
This is not saying that the amiable metropolitans are entirely lacking in the right spirit; the mere fact that they show a certain appreciation of what we mean when we say "trout fishing" is evidence of existence of the right idea. It is merely saying that sport of the right sort is a matter of skill plus experience and observation.
But knowledge of the open season habits of fish and game, while all that the sportsman absolutely must know, may well be supplemented with some familiarity with the life of game when the season is closed. The appeal of the wilderness and woodland in winter has been repeatedly described and may here be taken for granted; also, that the exercise of a long tramp along country roads, ice-bound streams, and through white forest lands is no bad thing should go without saying.
Winter observation of the habits of fish is a pretty difficult matter; as, indeed, is actual observation of stream life at any time. The things we know about trout and bass and other game fishes have been in great part gathered from observation of specimens in confinement in hatcheries and aquariums. By this is meant knowledge of the life of fishes apart from certain phases well known to any experienced angler. The trout stream in winter, banked with snow and, save in the rifts where the current is very broken and rapid, sealed with ice, offers little hint as to the life of its inhabitants.
That the trout brook of January after a fall of snow and in the sunshine is nearly, if not quite, as good to look at as the trout brook of June is small consolation to the man who wants to know about trout. And yet it would appear that the sportsman who follows down his favorite stream when that stream is nothing more than so much snow and ice learns something about trout; just what, it would be difficult to put into words, but the fact remains that the angler who has an all-the year-round acquaintance with his stream has a certain advantage over the man whose stream experience is limited to the spring and summer months.
The brook trout of the winter time is a very different fish from the brook trout of June. He is inactive, sluggish, and a bottom feeder. He does not go Into retirement to such an extent as does the bass, but, nevertheless, is far from active. The brook trout feed more or less, rather less than more, during the winter, and sometimes ice fishermen, trap-fishing for pickerel and perch on lakes inhabited by the speckled trout, catch them through the ice.
In the Berkshires there is a small lake known as Three Mile. Three Mile brook is the outlet of the little lake and has brook trout. Naturally there are trout in the lake. Some time ago some winter anglers fishing through the ice with the ordinary "types" or pickerel traps used for the purpose took fourteen brook trout averaging a pound. The story does not tell whether they put them back or not, but that they caught the trout I know to be a fact. I might add that one of the best known and most skillful fly-casters in Massachusetts has repeatedly fished Three Mile Pond for brook trout during the open season, with flies and everything else except dynamite, but without success— not a single trout. This is a fine situation to theorize about, if you are given to theories.
Opening day trout fishermen have the best luck bottom-fishing with bait, and they will tell you that the trout of April first or fifteenth, as the case may be, although they take bait very freely, are extremely sluggish when hooked and when landed are found generally to be in poor condition. It would seem, then, that the brook trout is a light feeder in winter rather from lack of opportunity than from inclination, for the conditions prevailing early in April are usually distinctly wintry.
I have taken brook trout on bait standing in snow up to my knees; also in the worst of a heavy snowstorm. Under the same conditions trout have been taken on flies. Brook trout in October or November are found at the headwaters of streams and up the small tributary brooks where they resort during the spawning season. After the spawning season and during the winter months there must be a general drifting back to the main stream, and in the main stream a movement downstream to the usually deeper waters below.
The brook trout migrations mentioned by the naturalists, that is, a general movement up-stream prior to the spawning season, followed by a retreat to lower waters thereafter, are, however, not to be taken too literally; it should not be understood that at any time either the upper or lower reaches of the stream are entirely trout deserted. As in the summer, trout may be found about the spring-holes, so also in winter they are found there. In the summer they seek the vicinity of the spring-holes because there the water is cooler, but in winter because, rather curiously, it is then the warmer. Spring water is slow to freeze. The usual winter habitat of the brook trout is in the deeper holes and long, deep reaches of still-water.
Formerly there was considerable controversy about the so-called hibernating of the black bass during the winter months, but it is now definitely known that, when the streams and lakes are frozen, the bass do, indeed, hibernate in much the same manner as certain fur-bearers. Hibernation, however, does not imply complete cessation of the forces of life but merely a dormant state which, under certain circumstances, may be temporarily interrupted. Thus the basses, both large- and small-mouthed, when the water reaches a low temperature, seek refuge in the interstices of rocks, in hollow, submerged logs, and places of like nature, sometimes even burrowing into the mud of the lake bottom, where they remain for long periods inactive and without feeding.
But if several days of unseasonably warm weather should come, melting the ice and raising the temperature of the water, the bass would again become active. Also it is fairly certain that individuals remain active all winter; that is, all the bass in any given lake are not inactive at any one time. Ice fishermen quite often during the winter report catching a single, sometimes two or three, black bass. On one occasion a friend of mine, fishing through the ice of a river cove, took eleven black bass, large-mouthed, the heaviest weighing two and a half pounds. This is the heaviest catch of black bass through the ice that has ever come to my notice. The winter bass seeks the deep waters of stream or lake, coming to the shallows when the water grows warm in the springtime.
The winter habits of pike, pickerel, and perch are much the same as in the warmer months, although they are not so frequently found in shallow water. These fishes feed all winter and are quite active at all times. Ice-fishing for pickerel and perch, although hardly in the same class with fly-fishing for trout, is good fun and widely practiced.
Camp, Samuel Granger. The Fine Art of Fishing. New York: Outing Pub., 1911. Print.
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