Evolving as an Angler

Recently I have been reflecting on how the sport of fly-fishing changes as we evolve as anglers. In the beginning all I wanted to do was catch one fish on a fly rod. After getting a few trout to the net I was concerned with numbers; catching as many fish as possible using any technique and fly pattern. Next I started hunting for big fish. Joining crowds of anglers fishing areas known for migratory large trout. Since becoming a guide I have realized that scenery, setting and company are more important than size of trout or numbers. Which still holds true for any day on the water.

Good Friends on a Beautiful River

Over the last year I have concentrated on perfecting techniques and have dedicated more time to fishing streamers. After getting over the hardest step of committing to streamer fishing, I have started to learn the nuances of streamer presentation and the thrill of an aggressive take on a large fly.

Streamer Eating Brown Trout

Following this last winter, after dedicating more time to fly tying, I have taken pride in catching fish on my own patterns. Inventing, or fine tuning, a fly pattern helps pass time through a cold winter, but once you start catching fish on that fly it is extremely rewarding.

The “McKinnie” Zonker

This evolution process is one of the big reasons that I am passionate about fly-fishing. It is an ongoing cycle and there is no final destination to the journey. This evolution can happen on any given day of fishing, just hoping for one fish to make the day; or it can happen when targeting new species, or discovering new locations.

My first Northern Pike on a fly from a recent trip

As my wife and I are expecting our first child in the coming weeks I have been reflecting on this idea of evolution and change. In a way fly-fishing brought our family together. Pursuing the sport prompted my move to Montana where I eventually met my beautiful bride. On one of our first dates we went fishing on the Gallatin River in the dead of winter. Now, with fly-fishing as my career, we have started our little family. I can’t wait to watch my daughter grow and eventually introduce her to the sport that I love.

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.

Cures for Cabin Fever

Near the end of January a phenomenon hits many Montana residents known as “Cabin Fever.”  Google defines cabin fever as: irritability, listlessness, and similar symptoms resulting from long confinement or isolation indoors during the winter.  These symptoms began to settle in last week following recent weeks of sub-zero temperatures.   Thankfully we had a break in the brutal cold and I took advantage by seeking out open water on Rock Creek and booking a Forest Service Cabin getaway for my wife and I.

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As I headed towards Rock Creek last Wednesday, conditions seemed to be perfect for a productive afternoon on the water.  Temperatures were hovering in the mid 40’s, the sun was trying to peak through the partly cloudy skies and I had a new supply of hand tied flies to demo.  As I reached the creek I was discouraged to see that most of the ice from our sub-zero cold snap still choked the banks of the river.  After driving downstream and discovering that the ice situation just got worse, I settled on the most open water that I could find and began stomping through the snow towards the partially open water.  With water temperatures hovering around freezing, the fish weren’t exactly in a feeding frenzy.  After dodging a few glaciers coming down stream, I did find a hole with a few cutthroat that sampled my homemade San Juan Worm.

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On Thursday afternoon we packed up the truck, loaded up the dog, and headed to the Moose Lake cabin just a few minutes outside of Philipsburg.  Forest Service Cabins have become one of our favorite winter getaways because of their wood burning stoves, peaceful settings and lack of cell phone coverage.  When we reached the Moose Lake cabin I was determined to rally the truck down the quarter-mile snow packed road to get to the cabin.  With the warm temperatures, my hefty Toyota Tundra quickly sunk into the slushy snowpack and we were stuck.   Given the consistency of the snow, my tires were unable to gain traction.  Using some “redneck” ingenuity,  I shoved my floor mats under the front tires and eventually got the truck back on solid ground.  Following the embarrassment and excitement of getting stuck, we finally packed all of our gear into the cozy cabin and we settled in with hot toddy’s and good books.  Our relaxing evening was highlighted by a hearty dinner cooked over the wood stove, a good bottle of wine and schooling my wife in Texas Hold’em.

With this vacation from cabin fever, I can now return to the fly tying vise and patiently await the coming spring , or better yet, the next winter adventure.

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Winter Tips: January 6, 2017

After enduring multiple days of sub zero temperatures in Montana, its hard to not dream about warm summer days and casting dry flies to rising trout.  Recently I have focused my attention on the tying vise and restocking on the essential patterns, but you can also spend some time surfing the internet and improving your skills.  Here is some of the good stuff I have found in the last couple of days.

Setting up a Two Fly Rig  With two flies you can imitate multiple insects, different stages of the hatch, or they can help to get the fishes attention.

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Learn to Tie Flies  Basics are easy to learn and once you know them you can improvise your own patterns.

Never to early to think about improving casting  Learning the double haul can make you a more versatile angler; opening up more areas of the river and different types of water.

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