It’s now December here in MT. Well, everywhere really. But here, that means we’ve gone way past the tipping point between Autumn and winter conditions. Big game hunting season has ended, and the stillwaters are freezing over. We have many rivers that are open to year round fishing, though. So, that is what I’m starting to think about these days.
The real tricks to successful and enjoyable winter fishing for me can be easily summarized into three bullet points:
- Pick good times to go winter fishing.
- Find where the trout are and fish there.
- Slow down the presentation.
To me, picking good days means going out when the weather is less wintery. Warmer, sunnier, less windy. Simple. Not only am I happier when I’m not freezing my butt and fingers off, but the fish are typically more active when conditions allow for even a slight increase in water temps. I used to drift nymphs between the spaces in the drifting slush and ice, but now if you catch me doing that it’s probably because the weather report was really wrong.
Slowing down the presentation is another simple one. Nymphing, dead drift, right near the bottom rules the day. With streamers, the quick strips and run and gun of summer must be altered to accommodate to colder, less aggressive fish. A deep, slow strip, smooth steady swing with subtle additions of action, or even a dead drift usually wins in winter. Dries are certainly not the norm, and quickly searching with dries for eager fish isn’t a winter tactic. If you see fish rising, by all means, go dry, but otherwise, stick subsurface.
So that just leaves finding where the trout are. You’ve got your warm gear on. It’s a nice winter day. You have made it out to your favorite river. Your rod is rigged with some nice nymphs (or maybe you have a streamer rod and a nymph rod along). The first thing that many anglers do in this situation is float or walk to their favorite spring-summer-fall honey-hole, and start casting. The next thing that many anglers do in this situation is wonder why they aren’t catching any fish. In my experience, the issue isn’t the presentation as much as the fact that the fish just aren’t there. Fish hang out in different places in the winter. They hang out in the “Winter Water”.
What the heck does that mean? Well, each river is a little different in my experience, but, I’ve found that there are some similarities that stretch across the board. Because most anglers are familiar with where to find fish in summer, AKA “Summer Water”, I’ll refer to that as a point of comparison.
First, note that winter is colder than summer. Yeah. I know you are thinking, “Thanks, Master of the Obvious.” OK fine. But what does that mean? The air is colder. The water is colder. Sun arrives at a lower angle, for a shorter time each day. Cold water hold more dissolved oxygen than warm water. Also, remember that fish are cold blooded, and their energy and metabolic rate is directly tied to water temperature. Fish are more sluggish in very cold water, and they need to eat less food to maintain themselves. Water temps also relate to insect activity. Bug hatches are few and far between. Food sources may not only be reduced, but they may also change completely from summer.
So, if the fish are colder, more sluggish, need less food, and the food producing areas may have shifted from where they are in summer, it’s no surprise that the fish will be hanging out in different places than they do in summer. But where?
The quick riffles, pockets, and shallows that are highly oxygenated bug factories all summer long may still be producing some bugs, but not nearly as many. The cold water has the fish sluggish, and not interested in fighting that faster current, given the reduced food availability and metabolic need. Also, dissolved oxygen is likely not an issue in winter, so the fish can breathe easy about anywhere in the system. Lastly, at least when still or very slowly moving, the warmest water will actually be on the bottom in the dead of winter, thanks to water/ice’s unique density vs. temperature relationship. So, from the fish’s perspective, it’s easier and better to stay in water that is DEEPER and SLOWER than preferred in summer. On some rivers that means 5-10 ft deep or more, and dang near still water. On other rivers, the available winter water might only be 3 ft deep and moving at a walking speed pace. As a general tip, I’d say start with the slowest, darkest, deepest spots that you can find that are still fishable and then adjust accordingly until you find fish.
Does that mean riffles and other quicker water are pointless to fish in winter? No. Not all of them at least. I think that there are fish that will happily move into quicker water to feed in response to some sort of environmental conditions, sun warmed water, or a pulse of insect activity like a midge hatch. But, they probably won’t move a mile just for an hour of feeding. So, in my own mind, it seems like quicker water that is immediately adjacent to really good winter water is far better than quicker water which is surrounded by only more quick water.
The more you really get to thinking about water temperature, the more you may start exploring your own fisheries in a new way. Are there springs that run cold in summer but relatively warm in winter? Is there a dam that releases water from the bottom/middle/top? Are there other natural or human caused factors at play? It’s worth some thought and research at the very least.
Lastly, don’t be disheartened if you don’t catch a fish from a really likely looking spot, or a spot that you know is a good winter spot based on prior experience. The fish don’t need to eat as much to maintain themselves in the cold, so winter feeding windows can be dreadfully short. Today’s feeding window might be 2 hours from now. Or maybe you missed it. Or maybe there isn’t one today. It pays to fish as many good spots, slowly and thoroughly, that you can in an outing in hopes that your location, presentation, and the fish activity overlap at least a little bit. How do you ever really figure out if a spot is good in the winter? Fish it a bunch of times, along with the other likely looking spots, and over time, the pattern will emerge. The knowledge is there for those who put in the time.
Take care, fish on, and stay warm,
This post includes no fishing tips, fantastic stories, or casting secrets, but the topic, should you choose to participate, may greatly influence your angling and the angling of many others for the better. This post is a call to encourage everyone out there to get involved and participate in the regulatory or political element of your local fisheries management. Consider making “GET INVOLVED” one of your new angling mantras.
In Montana, and other states in the US, our fish and wildlife management agencies are continually adjusting regulations in order to, ideally, best protect fish and wildlife populations while also providing opportunities for the public to fish and hunt. We have access to so much public land and water here in the western US. It’s fantastic, and hopefully we can keep it that way. We all care about our fisheries, but are we all doing enough to consider ourselves stewards of the resource? As members of the public, we are all co-owners of our public lands and waters. We have the right, and perhaps the duty, to be involved in the process and decisions which influence management of public land and water and the creatures which call those places home. Our level of involvement, and our choices we make in both election and non-election years, can have a huge impact on fishing, hunting, and other outdoor recreation in the future.
Voting for representatives who reflect your own values is, of course, the first step, and should be relatively easy to accomplish for everyone here in the US. Getting involved in other management processes occurring in non-election times here in Montana is relatively easy as well, and I assume it is similar in other places. Our agencies all have protocols and processes in place which allow for public input and commentary on issues both simple and complex. As such, it is surprising to me how few sportsman are informed and actually get involved. Being involved starts with being aware. Keep an eye out for news of proposed regulation changes and public hearings. Watch the newspaper, social media, or other information sources. Get on agency email lists. Pay attention.
The next part requires more effort. Do your homework. Research the issues. Formulate questions and opinions. Discuss the issues with your friends and angling companions. Then, you need to SHOW UP and participate. That may mean writing emails or letters to fish and game agencies or your government representatives at the local, state, or federal level. It may mean missing that big football game (round or oblong ball version) on TV so you can attend a public hearing. It may mean missing out on a day afield or on the water. It may mean making your friends and fishing buddies aware of the issues and encouraging them to get involved as well. Setting an example takes time and energy, but ultimately I believe it is worthwhile.
Through involvement, you will meet plenty of good and interesting people with both similar and differing opinions to your own. It’s important to listen and try to understand all the views involved and all the user groups concerned with the issues. I think that through this involvement you will learn a lot about people as well as the process of local rule making. You might also make some great friends and contacts who invite you to enjoy some great angling that you never knew about. Most importantly, by getting involved, you will have your voice and opinions heard and included in the overall decision making process – something that is important, relevant, and ultimately very satisfying.
Take Care and Fish On,
Saturday, October 13, 2018 from 8 – 10 pm
Join us at the fly shop for an evening of fly tying, fish stories, and fun with custom fly tier and all around great guy, Matt Ebbers.
You might not recognize the name, but if you spend much time on Instagram, you probably recognize his flies, tying and photography style, and @ebbsforce1 handle. Matt Ebbers is, among other things, a skillful custom fly tyer and fishy dude. We struck up a relationship with him a while back and are excited to have him at the shop for a fun evening of fly tying, hanging out, and more. Living outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, Matt considers the waters of the Driftless Region of Wisconsin and Minnesota his “Home Waters”. He also fishes out west a few times a year.
Matt has been tying flies for 27 years, starting when he was 14. If you have some basic math skills, you also now know his age and can make guesses about whether he has much gray hair or not. Interestingly, he started tying flies before he started fly fishing. Matt is deservedly a Loon Outdoors ambassador, and a member of the pro staffs for Fly Fish Food and Firehole Outdoors. Several of his patterns are also being commercially tied and sold through Fulling Mill.
In his words, “I like the creative parts of fly tying. I enjoy tying flies that not only catch fish but also look good. I am always thinking about flies! My background in photography helps with photographing flies for social media. I have a wife and 2 young boys keeping me busy when not tying flies or fishing.”
This is a great chance to pick his brain about some of the subtleties of fly tying like keeping a clean look while achieving great buggieness, using modern materials from the likes of Firehole Outdoors and Loon Outdoors in conjunction with classic materials from Whiting Farms and more. I know that we are interested in getting a few tips on fly photography as well.
We are planning to run some or all of the event as a live stream on @bigskyanglers, so stay tuned for more on that, and give us and @ebbsforce1 a follow if you don’t already.
- Originator: Ivan Miller
- Hook(s): TMC 5262 or equivalent, #4 (2 of them)
- Thread: Danville Flymaster Plus Size A, black
- Eyes: Medium Dumbell Eyes, Red, Lead or Non-lead
- Articulation: 25 pound monofilament, and 2 to 3 plastic beads
- Tail 1: Marabou, black barred olive; Saddle hackle tips, black; Flashabou, rainbow
- Body 1: Lite-Brite, rainbow
- Wing 1: Marabou, black barred olive
- Tail, Body, and Wing 2: Same as 1
- Hackle Collar: Schlappen or webby saddle hackle, black
If you have spent time in West Yellowstone over the past 20 years, there is a chance you have either run into or at least heard of Ivan Miller. Among other things, Miller is one of the fishiest streamer anglers that any of us have known. He puts in the time, and also has a knack for fly design and presentation that just triggers the big grab from over sized brown trout. This pattern is one of Ivan’s (and our entire shop staff’s) go-to streamers in both spring and fall. It fishes best with an aggressive presentation that includes manipulation of the fly using both the rod and stripping the line. Incorporating abrupt, but pronounced pauses brings out the extra wiggle from this articulated beast, and seems to also trigger the hardest strikes. We are lucky to have these in our bins for visiting anglers, and we also stock all the tying materials for those interested in spinning up their own Dirty Dumpsters in this and other color combos!
My good friend Brian Chou visited Montana recently, and we were able to find time to get out on a small stream for a bit of fishing and goofing around. We took turns working our way up the small stream, one person fishing, the other taking photos, shooting short videos, and heckling (not necessarily in that order).
The video clip below, which now lives on the BSA Vimeo Page, struck me as something that could really show folks the versatility of Spey principles when applied to fishing with single hand rods.
First of all, the situation is far from what most would consider normal Spey fishing. Clearly absent are the big river, 2-handed rod, salmon or steelhead flies, and down-and-across approach. Instead, we have a small creek, a 7’10’ single handed rod, two dry flies, and an upstream approach. Yet, this cast and presentation met the situation perfectly due to the tight quarters and little-to-no backcast space.
If I had to name or describe this presentation, it would be as follows: Upstream directed, cross-body Poke, with a slight aerial mend.
As far as what that means and how this cast actually works, let me try and walk you through it in words. Next time you are out on the water, fool around a bit with these concepts and see how they might work into your own angling.
At the start of the clip, the flies are drifting downstream in the bubble line towards the bush on the left side of the screen, which is essentially straight across the creek from my position. I had to get the flies out of there before they snagged in the branches, but if I had simply picked them up into an overhead cast, they would have ended up high in the willows behind me, on the right side of the screen. I needed a way to make a significant change of direction, from across stream, to back upstream.
So, I basically just dragged them out into the middle of the creek along the surface of the water (0:06 – 0:15). That move felt analogous to the initial drag and anchor placement move in a Spey cast called the Perry Poke, or just Poke for short. Follow this link for a demonstration of the Poke with a 2-handed rod by Trevor Covich.
I recognized that the Poke would work in this situation, so I just kept it going, and dumped the line forward, in the direction I wanted to make the next cast (0:15 – 0:20). That simple move achieved the change of direction I needed. From that point, executing the remainder of the Spey cast required sweeping the line back into a D-loop (0:20 – 0:26), allowing the leader to align in the direction I wanted to cast, and making the forward delivery (0:26 – 0:34).
Subconsciously, perhaps, as the loop was unrolling, I added a very slight aerialized reach mend to the right, to adjust for a current anomaly that I probably noticed during the prior drift.
After all of that, no fish ate my fly in that pool. So it goes!
Take Care and Fish On,
PS – This fishing was done using a T&T Lotic 7’10” 5wt rod and matching WF-5-F Airflo Streamer Float flyline. Neither of these pieces of gear are made specifically for Spey Casting, but together they work beautifully to deliver the flies.