By Eric L. Kilburg

By late January the accumulation of snow on the park road at Backbone State Park was, without a doubt, impassible by car, even for a couple adventurous college boys (i.e. the road gate was locked closed). Temperatures in past days depressed our hopes of finding a pool yet unfrozen and that morning the trend continued. Sunlight spilled over the horizon giving the snow laden trees a much warmer glow as we stepped from the car.

We spread the Sportsman’s map on the hood and determined the shortest route to the stream, and the deep, trout-filled pools that haunted our minds, to be a mile hike down the trackless road that lay before us. We smiled at the thought of the journey ahead and began digging our fishing poles, cameras, and ham sandwiches from the back seat. After stuffing our backpacks with the basics of trout fishing gear and a couple extra sweatshirts, we left the car behind and set off past the park gate.

For two Wildlife students at Iowa State, the trek from car to stream was anything but direct. Fresh tracks in the snow, curious bird calls, and lookout points were cause for investigation. A skunk track was identified by the trail of his girth in the deep snow and later confirmed by our unnecessarily acute olfaction. We followed this character to the edge of a rocky bluff over-looking the valley below. Open water! On the valley bottom the tracks of a mouse that carelessly bounded across the snow surface warranted photographic documentation and no less than fifteen minutes of inspection.

The park came alive as sunlight flooded the west wall of the valley. Black-capped chickadees took to minding our business, paralleling our progress and barking “intruder” to all who would listen. Blue jays and red-bellied woodpeckers glided between the oaks. A constant procession of drumming commenced from the woodpeckers.

Further on we came to a grove of white pine trees, some over seventy feet tall and too wide to wrap our arms around. The place was perfectly still. Above us the treetops swayed in the morning breeze. Snow sifted down from the canopy. We whispered, instinctually, to avoid breaking the perfect peace the trees kept. Just around a bend in the road a young-of-the-year white-tail stood from his morning bed among the brambles; his dark brown coat distinct against the white background. He bounded silently away, stopping now and then to ponder our purpose. All in all we spent more than two hours in the park before we got around to wetting a line.

Compared to my winter trout fishing logbook with a mere two entries, Austin was a veteran, and as such, committed himself to helping me land the first fish. We walked the bank of the creek watching for the slender green silhouette of a rainbow trout. Growing up, Austin spent many a summer fishing the trout streams of Yellow River State Forest. His eyes were tuned well, and he quickly spotted our targets in a small, ordinary looking pool; one that I would have surveyed and quickly dismissed.

The pool had only a few, small trout, but as Austin put it, they were “catchable,” meaning they were not too spooked or engaged in matters that would prevent them from feeding. The rainbows bobbed in the stream; feeding and circling in the gurgling water. We watched a few minutes as we rehearsed our strategy.

As with any concerned professor, Austin reviewed the course notes one last time before the test: Cast upstream four to five feet. Manage the depth of the bait only. Let the hook drift naturally with the current. Follow the line downstream with the pole. Be patient and don’t get excited. If the trout takes the bait, let him have it a few moments to ensure a solid hook set.

Space for casting was limited, for a rookie at least. I crept into position, careful not to disturb the water. Unlike our summer fishing excursions walking barefoot through the warm river near Ames, casting flies to smallies, shooting the breeze, and even an afternoon nap on the sandbar, winter trout fishing, I learned, is all business. My greatest challenge, it would turn out, was learning to cast a half-ounce of bait without so much as a flick of the line.

After a few minutes of trial and error, snags and the occasional choice word, I had my hook suitably placed in the water column. The bait drifted slowly with the current. I held my breath as a small, dark trout left his post to investigate the bait. After a slight nibble he retreated, uninterested. “Ok, real up and try again,” Austin encouraged. “He will take it. Just keep trying.” I believed him. His statement, I recognized, had a confidence of the sort that comes only through experience, and I accepted it as absolute truth.

I tweaked my technique at the advising of my instructor and sent the bait downstream again. The little rainbow came a second time. Kneeling in a foot of snow, hands red and numb from the cold, our eyes were locked on that little trout as if it were the next state record. After a few tense moments, Austin whispered slowly, “Ok, he took it,” followed quickly by, “wait… wait… okay, take him!” I set the hook and the quiet stream exploded with action. I strained my eyes to follow the darting trout. My fishing rod bending from upstream to downstream, I pulled back setting the hook further. Austin reached for the net and tried to calmly guide me though both of us were bursting with smiles and excitement, and as he told me later, “You were giggling like a little girl.”

With the first trout of the day secure on the snowy bank, we celebrated with high-fives and laughter as we reviewed the catch. A couple deep breaths as the exchange of stories ended and then Austin grinned, “Okay, now it’s my turn.” He rigged his pole up with a small pink streamer; one that had brought him luck the past summer salmon fishing along the coast of Alaska. There he told me the fish often don’t bite, being more focused on spawning than feeding. “To catch a sockeye,” he said, “you have to drag the line across the salmon’s mouth to set the hook. The task seemed impossible, but it gave me confidence I was now learning from the best. After a couple perfectly placed casts and a calm, conscious retrieve, a second trout found its place on the stringer.

Working our way upstream, we came to a pool some nine or ten feet deep (plus or minus five as we really had no clue). We gazed into the water letting our eyes adjust to the darkness. The hole was filled with trout. Fifteen, twenty, maybe more, and there were some big ones. Again, the professor described the situation: “Cast further upstream to allow time for the bait to sink deeper. Try to land your line in that eddy current that will carry your hook farther out. Do you see how those two fish are chasing each other? You probably won’t be able to catch them.” I could tell he was kicking me out of the nest. He wanted me to catch them on my own. “I am going to try up around this bend,” he said, checking my confidence. “Ok,” I replied simply.

I set my tackle and pole in the snow, and surveyed the situation. As I stared into the pool trout after trout came into focus. I checked my setup one last time and lobbed the bait into the stream. My first few casts missed the eddy and drifted harmlessly in front of me. I glanced over at Austin to see if he was watching. Satisfied that he was soundly preoccupied I tried again. Finally, the hook drifted away from me. Though I couldn’t see the trout approach, I was sure, as my bait disappeared into the black that a monster had taken it. I waited, my pulse accelerating. I set the hook and felt the weight of the fish on the other end. The trout dove for the deep, but I worked him slowly, gradually back to the surface. Austin came running with the net.

Not the six-pound monster I imagined lurking in the darkness, but at sixteen inches it was the darkest and handsomest fish I ever caught. A trophy to be sure!

Three trout now on the stringer, Austin cast his line in along mine. We played the current, drifting our bait into the darkest depths of the stream. One by one we pulled them out: fifteen, sixteen, and if I remember right a seventeen-incher. And of course, being a fishing story, those are conservative estimates. We lost a couple (that is, I lost a couple), but for an hour the fish were biting often, the hooks were setting true, and there wasn’t a soul that could wipe the smiles from our faces.
We each caught our limit at that hole, and after a few moments for pictures, we cleaned our fish, and walked (or should I say strutted) back to the park gate, proudly rehearsing the story.