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Fishing in January not for the faint of heart

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginians have to be pretty hardcore to fish in January.

The month named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions, usually lives up to its name; it starts off cold and nasty and becomes even colder and nastier as it wears along.

For anglers, cold weather is seldom a good thing.

The kind of cold West Virginia gets in January often freezes the surface of streams and ponds, but seldom thickly enough to allow for ice fishing. Frequent snows make auto travel treacherous and foot travel downright hazardous.

Cold weather saps anglers' energy. Cold fingers make knot tying frustrating at best, maddening at worst. Cold noses, ears and feet make anglers wish they were home, sitting in an easy chair by the fireplace, drinking hot coffee or something a little stronger.

But there are those who can't resist the masochistic inclination to wade thigh-deep through ice water, hoping all the while they might catch a fish or two. I know this because I'm one of those weirdos.

I've gone fishing in January more times than I'd like to admit. Many of those outings have long since disappeared into the mist of faded memories, but a few still come readily to mind.

I remember wading almost up to my waist in an ice-rimmed Nicholas County trout stream and standing there, probably for 15 minutes or more, making cast after cast to try to get just the right drift through a particularly difficult-to-reach spot.

When I finally gave up and decided to move on, my legs wouldn't move. The cold had rendered them numb and immobile. Only after I reached down into the water and pushed at the backs of my knees was I able to unlock my legs and hobble stiffly toward shore.

Another time, I drove from the Kanawha Valley to another Nicholas County stream despite 6 inches of snow on the roads. I thought I was in for a banner day after my first two casts with a gold-plated spinner yielded a matched pair of wild 14-inch brown trout, but a warm wind blew in and started melting the snow. The fish abruptly stopped biting, and what started as a promising outing turned into a long, slushy slog back home.

On another early January day, my employer at the time asked me to drive to Covington, Va., to see a client. The meeting wrapped up by late morning, so on the way back home I decided to try my luck on a well-known Monroe County stream.

With a small Pheasant Tail Nymph and a large Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear knotted to my leader, I flipped the first cast of the new year into a favorite run and watched the end of the floating fly line as the two nymphs drifted deep along the bottom.

In one of those Zen-like moments that happen occasionally to nymph fishermen, I set the hook without even knowing why. The rod bent sharply, and a few minutes later I brought a heavy-bodied 17-inch brown trout to net.

Not all days were as successful; I remember one time when a friend and I drove to an obscure little Greenbrier County creek, waded 8-inch-deep snow all day and caught zip, zero, nada.

Another time, on a snow-free January day 30 miles farther south, an icy wind blew so fiercely I couldn't cast into it. I turned and fished downstream, but the trout were having none of it. Six hours of fishing, and not even a nibble to show for it.

That's the way it goes with January fishing. Some days the weather cooperates but the fishing stinks. Some days the weather isn't fit for man or beast, but the fish bite like crazy.

The fun, I suppose, lies in simply being hardcore enough to venture out there.


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