It was 3 degrees and snowing here in Montana as I wrote this a couple weeks back. Skiing season. Maybe ice fishing season. But a few days before writing it was nearly 50 degrees, and now it seems like the first lower elevation melt is really on. A couple of my lake fishing buddies have already texted me, excited for the upcoming Stillwater fishing season. I’ll admit that I am a bit excited too. I wrapped up a few (dozen) flies for my lake boxes. And now, through writing this, I’ve organized my thoughts in anticipation of ice out, which is coming a bit later than normal this year.
Throughout the mountain west ice out is a much anticipated event for many stillwater anglers. For those who do not live in cold climates or have never visited a frozen lake, ice out is the short period of time on a lake where conditions change from the ice capped, frozen surface of winter to the open water of spring, summer, and fall. From the time that the ice begins to peel away from the shore, until two weeks or so after the lake becomes completely ice free, there is often a fantastic window of opportunity for anglers to get out on the lake shore, beat the cabin fever of late winter, and find some great fishing. Anglers who don’t have the luxury of owning a boat really enjoy the ice out fishing, because the fish tend to concentrate near shore. Even when things don’t completely work out when fishing ice out, it’s fun to get out of the house, see some country, and maybe connect with the first open water fish of the new year.
Why is Ice Out a “Thing”?
I believe that ice out is a “thing”, because of the trout’s desire to find ideal conditions when it comes to water temperature, dissolved oxygen, light, and food or insect activity.
It’s well known that, when a lake is covered with ice and snow, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water is not continuously replenished by the action of wind and waves. Lack of light under the ice also reduces aquatic plants ability to produce oxygen. By winter’s end, when the ice begins to recede from the lake’s margins, the dissolved oxygen in the lake water under the ice may be at it’s lowest point for the entire year. As the ice leaves the margins of a lake though, the air and wind can hit the water again and reoxyegenate it.
Also, remember that water is less dense when it is frozen than it is when it is at 39 degrees F (4 degrees C). That’s why ice is on the top of the lake. It also means that the warmest portion of the water column is likely toward the bottom of the lake in winter. As the ice leaves the margins of a lake though, the sun can hit the water and warm it up locally.
The unique physical and chemical properties of liquid and solid H20 make ice out a “thing”.
So, long story short, at ice out, the increased temperature and dissolved oxygen in the water at the lake’s edge stimulate the ecosystem, get some chironomids and perhaps other trout food sources active, and create conditions more favorable to the trout than anywhere else in the lake.
Once the ice fully dissipates, the effects of wind and sun warm the lake, and mixing or turnover evens out water conditions over a much larger portion of the lake, you will find that the ice out bite dies. The fish spread out throughout a much larger portion of the lake at that point, making them harder to find, especially if fishing from shore. When that happens, either find another lake that is starting to ice out, or fish the rivers for a while, until other factors on the lake begin concentrating the fish again into summer feeding areas.
Where are the good places to fish at ice out?
Well, IN THE WATER! It’s a bad joke, but if you are really on top of things, or maybe just a bit over zealous and out at the lake a bit too early in the year, look for any open water you can find. Remember , though, that open water doesn’t guarantee the presence of fish. Some areas of a lake are always better than others.
A couple of days too early, but we fished it!
Think back to why ice out is a “thing”. Water temperature is a hugely important factor. Warmer water is better at ice out. So, inlets and outlets that alter lake temps are a good thing to look for. Warmer water may be entering a lake and helping thaw the ice. Warmer lake water from down deep (remember water is most dense at about 39 degrees F or 4 degrees C) getting pulled up and out the outlet stream if there is one. Also, ice free shallows with dark bottoms that soak up the heat of the sun, or drop-offs adjacent to said shallows are great places to find warmer water. These same shallows, if the bottom is soft or muddy, will also be the place where the first chironomids of the year emerge.
Another good spot to look for fish are submerged points that funnel fish into and along travel lanes, creating concentrations of fish and increasing your own odds of intercepting one with your fly. It’s no secret that similar places are great Stillwater spots the rest of the year as well.
Gareth Jones’ quote “Stillwaters are NOT still” applies at ice out as well. When only the edges of the lake are ice free, there may be currents in the lake from inlet streams, springs, or other factors. If you have ever ice fished, and dropped a bit of bait down the hole with no weight, you may have noticed that it doesn’t always sink straight down. Even under the ice, the water can be moving. Just after complete ice out, winds begins to really have an effect on the movement of water, and warming of the water begins to slowly initiate the currents that will eventually turn the lake over. A buddy of mine down in California (who fishes the high Sierra lakes passionately) once mentioned to me that at ice out it seems like either one side of the lake or the other is good, but not often both. This is a clever observation that I’d not thought of, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the movement of water and its effect on temperature and dissolved oxygen.
In my experience there are also definite ice-out “hot spots” for fishing that must have some secret (to me) combination of several factors that draw fish back year after year. If you are at a lake at ice out for the first time, and the spots you tried at first aren’t producing, it pays to be mobile, walk, look, cast, and explore. If you find one of those zones where it all is happening, make a note!
What about Flies and Presentation?
On stillwaters, summer is all about the bugs – Callibaetis, damselflies, caddis, tricos, scuds, chironomids, and more. At ice out, though, the insect activity hasn’t really gotten rolling yet. With the exception of some early season chironomids hatching (which you should absolutely be prepared for), ice out fish seem to be very opportunistic, looking to put on some pounds, and are willing to at least consider eating more general and larger attractor patterns. Buggers, leeches, baitfish patterns, and some of the other gaudy attractor type stuff seems to work best for me and my fishing partners. Experiment with colors on your home waters for sure, but never fear starting with standby stillwater colors like black, olive, and brown. If you have your own favorites, by all means give them a shot, too. We’ve also had luck with bright colors or natural colored patterns with bright trigger points like hot beads.
Olive BH Woolly Bugger… never a bad decision.
In terms of presentation, it seems like slower is usually better in the cold water. When casting and retrieving your flies on floating or sinking lines as the ice recedes, try hitting the very edge of the ice shelf and let it sink down for a bit before starting any retrieve. Often the fish will come out from beneath the ice and eat it on the fall. If they don’t eat it, and it sinks to the depth you want to target, work a slower retrieve with emphasis on the pauses. Be ready for a grab especially during the pause.
If the ice is still very close to shore, it can be effective to cast parallel to the ice shelf, and retrieve your fly back along the edge of the ice, just like you might do on a weed edge in summer.
Once the ice is well off shore, or gone completely, cover water by fanning casts and moving your feet, and working around visible submerged structure like drop offs and boulders. It maybe goes without saying, but if you actually see fish, cast to them! If access conditions permit, this may be the time to launch your boat or float tube for the first time and really cover some water.
Another effective ice out presentation method uses a floating fly line and strike indicator system to suspend your flies and allow for an extra slow presentation. You can do this with the typical chironomids and also balanced style leech patterns. Remember, this isn’t just basic bobber fishing. Adding motion in subtle ways to your indicator presentations is often a key to success.
Now, for the catch. Even in cold water conditions where you’d expect trout to be lethargic and prefer a slow presentation, I have seen instances where the trout may follow, but will not commit to eating anything but a FAST moving fly. If you have fish following your fly right to the rod tip, but not eating, or if things seem totally dead, change things up and move your fly in a different way. Especially if you have seen fish cruising the area and they aren’t eating your offerings. Speed it up, shorten the pause, make longer pulls, or shorter pulls, and experiment until you get some feedback! When it all comes together, it’s a beautiful thing…
The rainbow at the end of the pot of gold.
I’ve always had a bit of fascination with any living thing I encounter during my time afield. Growing up fishing and exploring around Yellowstone might do that to a person. Or maybe I just have an innate interest in other living creatures. In Yellowstone’s wilderness, fishing comes with the legitimate chance of encountering creatures as diverse as chipmunks, marmots, bison, grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, elk, and pronghorn – just to name a few mammals. While not every angling setting offers up the chance of a grizzly encounter, every place I have fished does have its own unique ecosystem to enjoy. And in my experience, every fishing spot is also home to at least a few species of birds.
I have memories of birds while fishing going way back into my childhood, but thinking back on it now, there was a moment in my life where I recognized that I was truly fascinated with the feathered friends I encountered while angling. It was in May 2004 on the Rio Malleo in Argentina. Looking up from the river at a set of towering rock spires, I caught my first glimpse of an Andean condor riding the thermals. Even soaring hundreds of feet overhead I could see the telltale white collar, and I could tell that the thing was absolutely huge! It made me want to learn more about it. On that same trip I also saw my first crested caracara, chimango caracara, and an eagle even more robust than the golden eagles in Montana. All of these birds were similar to birds from back home, but not really. I was enthralled.
Fast forward a decade +/- and I found myself becoming more and more interested in the birds I was seeing during my time on the water. I was enjoying these unique creatures (the last living dinosaurs, in fact), and having fun learning more about them. Birding was enhancing my everyday routine as well as my angling adventures.
The legendary Bud Lilly often spoke of “The Total Experience”, when it came to finding joy through fishing. It’s not only catching fish that draws us to angling, it’s the love of the fish and the rivers. Enjoying our natural surroundings and unique geology, experiencing the local birds and wildlife, participating in unique cultures, and doing it all in chosen solitude or in the company of friends and loved ones, is what completes the angling experience and keeps our passion strong.
Birding has now become a favorite part of my own “Total Experience”. I’ve accumulated a small stack of bird books, and gotten pretty handy using the web to do more research. I’ve learned some of the key ways to identify similar species that I come across often, and even started to learn a few of the “songs” they sing.
What I’ve also found is that I now equate certain bird species with specific angling locations and situations, the same way I have done with insect hatches for many years. I’ll always equate streamer fishing in Argentina with those giant Andean condors soaring on the ever present Patagonia winds. Similarly, I equate winter fishing on my local home water, the Missouri River, with the flocks of bufflehead and common goldeneye that spend the chilly months diving for insects in the calm flats. I also think of the resident bald eagles that are always happy to make a meal of one of the aforementioned waterfowl.
When I’m fishing any one of the small brushy creeks around SW Montana in the late spring, I’m always entertained by the migratory songbirds that return each year to nest in the riparian areas and feast on emerging insects. Not even a bumbling angler stops them from singing. The holy grail of bird sightings in that time and place is a male western tanager in full breeding plumage. If you ever are lucky enough to see one, you’ll remember him for sure.
In the early summer on some of my favorite lakes, I enjoy seeing the blackbirds – both the red winged and, especially, the yellow headed varieties. Again, the males are the show stoppers, full of color set off by the contrast with their predominantly black bodies. They nest in the emergent wetland vegetation along the lake margins. What I really hope to see are small groups of yellow headed blackbirds patrolling the beaches right along the water’s edge. That almost surely means that the damsel nymphs are migrating ashore to hatch, and that I need to get my fly choice sorted and the line in the water.
A swooping frigate bird makes me think of baja, the dorado, tuna, or roosterfish that might be pushing the bait up the the surface, the salt air as the boat flies foward to investigate, and the margaritas we’ll have to celebrate another great day on the sea.
And, I’ll always equate an osprey nest on top of a telephone pole with a section of the Madison River where I spent so many summers camping and fishing with my family during my childhood. That bird always caught a few whitefish from the riffle behind camp while we were hoping for a trout to rise to our dry flies.
I could go on, the more I scour my memory banks, but I will end it here. Like the title said, fishing is, at least for me, for the birds as well as the fish. Thanks, as always, for reading. Your feedback is always enjoyable, and I hope that there are others out there who enjoy my words but remain unheard.
Take Care and Fish On,
As you probably know, a solar eclipse was visible across the entire United States on August 21st. The band of “totality” became a tourist destination as amateur astronomers, photographer, and thousands of interested citizens flocked to those zones to experience something truly unique. The buzz was exciting to say the least.
In the Tetons they got totality. In West Yellowstone, we experienced 99% coverage. In Helena, we experienced about 93% coverage. I took a break from work to observe it from my backyard. Several things came to mind during the eclipse. First, our sun is truly bright and powerful. Even 93% blocked, there were deep shadows everywhere. It got noticeably cooler. The birds stopped singing for 20 minutes on either side of the peak.
Having seen photos, and heard first had accounts from those who were within the band of totality for the eclipse, I now wish I had made the 3 hour trip south into Idaho to witness it for myself.
What does this have to do with fly fishing? Well, in the aftermath of the eclipse, folks are wondering what to do with their used “eclipse glasses” that allowed them to stare at the sun safely. My answer to that question was to use the lens material at the fly tying bench.
Nothing fancy here, but the lens reflectivity and color reminded me of the color of chironomids in their early stage of emergence, down deep, before they fully inflate with air. It’s a similar color to the anti-static bags that many have used in the past. So, I whipped up a few using the following recipe:
- Hook: Daiichi 1120 scud hook, #10-14
- Bead: Red glass with silver lining, from the craft store
- Body: Thin strip of eclipse glasses lens
- Rib(s): Ultra wire, small, one red and one black
- Thread: UTC 70, black
That’s it! The Total Eclipse Chironomid. Looking forward to testing them out soon, if the Callibaetis ever thin out.
A while back I wrote a post about Callibaetis and Chironomids where the punch line was that my buddy and I wanted the fish to be eating Callibaetis but they were really on chironomids. Well that was then, and this is now…
Callibaetis and damselflies have been dominating the trout’s menu on my local stillwaters recently, so of course they are also the insects that my mind has been feasting on. In particular, the morning Callibaetis emergences have provided my friends and me with some really fun fishing opportunities. The great thing about being into a great hatch over the span of a couple of weeks is that you really get to dial things in and experiment with what works and what doesn’t work as well. So with that in mind, here are a few thoughts that I’ve been having as it refers to the nymphal stage of Callibaetis in particular.
It’s fairly easy to tell where the best Callibaetis action is going to happen on a lake. These insects LOVE the weedbeds. What’s really cool is that trout will often move into very shallow water to feed on the nymphs before the main hatch starts. But when they go shallow, those big trout get really spooky compared to when they are out on deeper weed flats or off the drop-offs. If you can find the travel lanes that fish use through the weedy halls of their world, you have probably hit the jackpot.
There are A LOT of commercially available Callibaetis nymph imitations out there. I’m not really interested in going into which specific ones to use here. What I can say is that there are a couple of important elements to fly selection that I have found to be rather important.
First, and most important, is size. Match the size of the most prevalent size of nymphs you can see in the water. That’s usually a 14 or 16 around here. Sometimes a 12 will do in the early season, but that may be because the fish aren’t quite as dialed in at that point, rather than because the bugs are actually bigger.
Second in my order of importance (and I think the most overlooked element) is fly profile. Mayflies in general and Callibaetis in particular are thin insects. In fact, there aren’t many fat insect in the water aside from maybe dragonfly nymphs and giant water beetles. So, those obese, poorly proportioned PT nymphs that you scored for $0.89 each in the sale bin of your local hardware store probably aren’t the best choice of patterns. Slim and sparse is what you need. In fact, some of the most effective Callibaetis nymph patterns that I’ve seen look not only anemic, but also downright absurd in their simplicity and material choice.
Third in my order of importance is color. The usual grayish-tan standard usually does just fine. On a couple of occasions, it seemed like color was more important than usual, so if you spend a bunch of time fishing or travelling to fish stillwaters that have Callibaetis hatches, you may want to carry other tones, including grayish-olive, brownish-tanish-gray, and rusty-tanish-grayish-olive. Got it?
This is a pretty big deal when fish are locked in on the Callibaetis nymphs. At least as important as fly size and profile. Maybe more important. Callibaetis nymphs are good swimmers, but they are also still tiny bugs, so that retrieve you use when fishing Clousers for striped bass needs to be left at the dock. It seems to me like they wiggle forward in short bursts that can be imitated by a series of 3-4 inch pulls, or some quick hand twists. But then, the nymphs almost always seem to stop for a bit to take a break before heading back on their way. So, a nice pause after a series of strips can be the ticket. I’ll do that most of the time, matching my flyline to the water depth – floating line and long leader in the super shallows, slow intermediate when I need a hair more depth. Fast intermediate lines seem too sinky for most of my work as I find myself hitting the weeds too soon on every cast. If you are finding fish down deeper than say 8-10 ft you may want one to cut down on your countdown time.
I’ve also heard that Callibaetis nymphs will swim up to the surface and back down to the weeds a few times before finally committing to hatching from the surface. So, a rising retrieve followed by a sink seems logical as well. I need to fool around with this more. Maybe an indicator and floating line or a short sink tip will do the trick.
Lastly, I’ve had a lot of fish eat a nymph suspended below a Callibaetis dry fly. Heave it and leave it. It works well.
Alright! I’ve got myself fired up to fish now. So, hopefully when you are reading this, I’ll be out on the lake. If you’ve got any thoughts to add, I’d love to hear them. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Take Care and Fish On,
PS – Like my last post, this one is running double duty both here and at Sexyloops.com
By now you’d think I could not be fooled. You’d think that I’d know better after so many seasons fishing stillwaters. But I still fall into the trap nearly every time. And it happened again just the other day.
My fishing partner and I arrived at the lake around mid-morning and found the surface glass calm, save for the boils, swirls, and gulps of more than a few rising trout. Nothing like the sight of that to motivate you to rig and launch the boat in record time! A quick survey of the scene revealed plenty of adult chironomids flying over the bushes, and chironomid shucks on the water. There were also a very heathy number of Callibaetis mayfly emergers and adults all over the surface, drifting helplessly like speckled sailboats.
Now, the Callibaetis is the sexiest mayfly of all in my opinion. Its striking mottled wings, good (highly visible) size, bankers hatch hours, and ability to bring quality trout to the surface on stillwaters are what make it so appealing. In the western US, it is by far the most important stillwater mayfly.
And so, when I see a bunch of Callibaetis mayflies on the surface, and I see trout feeding aggressively near the surface, I tend to scramble for my flybox and start deciding which of the numerous Callibaetis imitations that I should tie on. Often, seeing what I have explained above does in fact mean the trout are eating Callibaetis. But not when there is an invisible, underwater blizzard of chironomid pupae.
The trap was set. And we fell for it. After 20 or 30 minutes of fishing among numerous (extremely numerous, actually) feeding fish, using multiple Callibaetis tactics (slow intermediate and nymph, floating line and nymphs, dry fly and emerger on top, dry fly with emerging nymph dropper, etc), we only had a couple of hookups to show for our effort. I knew we had been duped by the chironomids yet again. Small, a bit ugly, and decidedly un-sexy insects – their abundance was essentially overwhelming the beautiful Callibaetis in the eyes of the trout. And still, another 20 minutes went by before I switched to chironomid pupa tactics. Each cast that wasn’t intercepted by a trout was punctuated by a comment along the lines of, “they must be on the chironomids”. I didn’t want to believe that the trout would ignore all those beautiful mayflies.
But they did just that. The rest of this story is fairly boring. We finally switched to chironomid tactics, dialed in the pattern and depths, and caught fish after fish until we had to get back to town. Fooled, but not totally foiled, we still had a great time, shared some good laughs, and reminded ourselves of the Callibaetis and chironomid trap. Maybe we will actually remember it next time, or at least acknowledge it as we are tying on our Callibaetis imitations.
Take Care and Fish On,
PS – Today’s post is also appearing at Sexyloops.com