Five Reasons to Experience Winter Fly-Fishing

Why wait till spring to get back on the water? There are plenty of trout to be caught throughout the winter when conditions are right.

First, you need open water. You can fish tailwater rivers with flows, and ultimately temperatures, controlled by a dam; or fish streams that are fed by natural springs where temperatures are consistent through the year.

Plus, winter fishing is much more enjoyable when temperatures warm up above 20 or 25 degrees. You can still get out on colder days, but you then start dealing with chipping ice off of the guides on your fly rod and struggling with trying to keep your feet and hands warm.

Here are some reasons to give winter fly-fishing a try.

The Crowds

Winter is the best times of the year to have the river to yourself.  This gives you the ability to explore more water and cast to fish that are not spooked.  Last week I visited $3 Bridge, one of the most well used access sites on the Madison River, and I did not see another soul. I was able to move freely and fish every prime hole or run in solitude.

Sleeping In

The best times for winter fly-fishing are usually between 11AM-4PM; once water temperatures have increased.  This can be a nice change from the summer when the best fishing is typically either at the beginning or end of the day.  You can take advantage of the extra time in the morning by sleeping in, making a hearty breakfast, or tying flies for the day.

Fly Selection

Since there are few bugs hatching in winter it is much easier on the angler to answer the eternal fly-fishing question, “am I matching the hatch?”.  The most commonly hatching insect through the winter months are midges. Outside of that, most trout are filling their diet by feeding on items that pack the most bang for the buck (i.e. Stone Fly nymphs, worms, eggs).   Most of your standard nymph patterns will do the trick; Pat’s Rubber Legs, Prince Nymphs, Copper Johns, San Juan Worms, or Zebra Midges.  Typically, I end up rigging a large Pat’s Rubber Leg followed by a small San Juan Worm or Zebra Midge.

Reading Water

Reading water can be one of the most difficult things to learn in fly-fishing. Trout will hold, and feed, in different types of water throughout a river depending on hatches, water temperatures, oxygen levels or time of day. During winter months trout will tend to hold in very specific types of water. They are looking for spots where they can feed without expending much energy and where the water is warmest. This will force trout into congregating, and schooling, in the deepest and slowest holes and runs, that in most rivers are easily identifiable.


Dry Flies in January

Nothing shakes a case of cabin fever like landing a fish on a dry fly in the dead of winter. As mentioned earlier, the main insect hatching at this time of year is a midge. Even though they are a small meal, size 18-24 flies, trout will still actively feed on them through a solid midge hatch. Get a nice dead drift with a midge emerger pattern, or midge cluster imitation, towards a group of rising fish and you will definitely find some action.

That dry fly eat could be just enough to hold you over until the prolific spring and summer hatches.

Sun Setting on a Great Season

 

As the seasons change from Fall to Winter, I have recently had some days off and have spent these chilly afternoons watching new documentaries about a few famous 70’s rock bands: “The History of The Eagles” & “Lynyrd Skynyrd: If I Leave here Tomorrow.”  Since then I have been driving my wife crazy by constantly playing, and singing along to, both of these bands greatest hits.  As I sit here now singing along to my current favorite song, “Gimme Me Back My Bullets,” I have started to reflect on what has been a great fishing season.

The lyrics of Ronnie Van Zant ring in my head; “I keep on working, like a working man do.”  Thinking about my hours sitting in the rowers seat and my hands sore with calluses, but it also reminds me of the hard work put in by my clients through the summer.  Similarly to the stories of these great bands, some days of fly fishing are marked by struggle, frustration and hard times.   Fishing can be slow, conditions may be hard to deal with, and there are times where nothing seems to go right.  Just like Skynyrd and The Eagles got their big breaks and hit records, the same can happen on the river.  I have seen clients throughout the summer work through tough times, continue to practice casting techniques and presentation and finally get rewarded by the fishing gods.

Here are some of the “greatest hits” from this season.  I hope to see you on the water in 2019!

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Fish On!

I try not to go overboard with gratuitous grip n’ grin pictures, but I couldn’t help myself….

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Over the last couple of weeks fishing all around Montana has been excellent.  Being centrally based in Philipsburg, Montana I get the rare opportunity to explore & fish on a diverse selection of waters.  In the last month I have been lucky to guide on Rock Creek, Georgetown Lake, the Madison and Yellowstone Rivers.  Here are some of the highlights!

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Upper Madison Rainbow

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Big Browns Love Big Dry Flies

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Nothing Wrong with a Whitefish

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7 Year Old Fooling a Cuttie with a Dry Fly

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Brown Town on a Size #18 Dry Fly

Salmonfly Frenzy

Set, set!  There it is!  Fish on!  Bam!  Oh yeah!  Fish off!  Son of a #&*$@!

These are the echoes that fill the air through the canyons of Rock Creek as the annual emergence of the famous Salmonflies cause both trout and anglers alike to go into a frenzy.

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The trout have endured the long winter and the spring run-off, and they are now feeding on the buffet of stoneflies that have just started to hatch.  Just imagine someone tempting you with a t-bone steak or large pizza after you have gone hungry for weeks.  It is really hard for trout to resist the well placed dry fly during this hatch.

For anglers, this mythical hatch is really the first time all season when you can fish big dry flies.  We have survived months of watching the bobber, or twitching the streamer, and the thought of drifting a fluffy foam bug raises the blood pressure and the adrenaline gets pumping.

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This combination of ferocious takes and excited anglers can make for some of the most memorable and thrilling fishing of the summer.  You can have the opportunity to land dozens of fish, but in my experience, you typically miss more than you get to the net.  I have the bad habit of seeing the fish coming for the fly, getting anxious, setting the hook early, and pulling the fly out of their mouth before they eat.  Sometimes the fish aren’t really eating your bug.  Either they are slapping at it, rolling over it, or just trying to stun the bug as it floats by.  Other fish you set the hook and connect with, but because of the timing of the hook set, it comes un-buttoned.  Regardless of getting the fish to the net or not, it is hard to beat being able to see hungry Brown and Cutthroat Trout chasing down a big dry fly.

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Even though this hatch can be epic, you still need to be aware of some other factors that can effect your success in a stonefly hatch.

High Water

Receding river flows and water temperatures increasing trigger these big bugs into hatching.  The water levels may be dropping, but the flows are still very high and fast.  The high water makes wade fishing very difficult and non-advisable in some areas.  Fish are typically held really close to the banks hanging out under bushes and trees and these spots can sometimes be impossible to fish by foot.  Even if you are floating, you still need to be cautious of the swift flows and downed trees that have accumulated through the run-off.  Either way, being safe on the river is more important than catching fish.

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Crowds

Rumors of salmonflies travel very quickly.  Especially, in this day of social media the word of stoneflies crawling around can attract anglers from hundreds of miles away.  For some, this can detract from the serenity and peace of the outdoors, but there is plenty of river for everyone to enjoy.  We are all out there to have fun and it can be enjoyable as long as we are all courteous.  Share the river, share the road, and share the boat ramps.

Finally, the window for this hatch can be very limited.  Depending on the season, the salmonfly hatch can last anywhere from a couple of days up to a week or two.  This is when the phrase “should have been here yesterday,” can definitely ring true.

This is the time, get to the creek now before the salmonfly frenzy is over!

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Cleaning Up the Clark Fork

As an avid outdoorsman, and Outfitter, I believe it is important to take care of the resources that we enjoy everyday.  Last week I was lucky to be a volunteer in the 2nd annual Clark Fork River Clean Up sponsored by The Ranch at Rock Creek, the Clark Fork Coalition and Trout Unlimited.

The participation and turnout was great to see.  There were over 10 boats and 25 volunteers that helped with the event.

 

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Shoreline lunch to help refuel from the hard work

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We floated, and cleaned, an 11 mile stretch of the upper Clark Fork downstream from Drummond.  The health of this section of water has steadily been on the rebound since the removal of the Milltown dam in 2008.  Even though the upper Clark Fork does not see as much recreation as the lower river through Missoula, it is still important habitat for fish and wildlife.

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Between stops to pick up trash and debris, I managed to find a little time to fish.  This beautiful brown trout served as a reminder of why we need to work to protect and clean our rivers.

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Walleye on the Fly

Fish On!!

While floating the Missouri River you often hear this phrase echoing from boat to boat.  Most of the time the excited angler has hooked into one of the healthy Rainbow or Brown Trout that inhabit the river.

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Sometimes you can be lucky enough to hook one of the other, more rare, species that call the might Mo home.

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On this beautiful February day fellow guide, Josh Berry, hooked into this feisty Walleye while stripping a streamer off the bank.  This was a first for both us!  Josh’s first Walleye on the fly and the first fish of that species that either of us has seen come from his generous river.

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