ICE-OUT WARM WATER FLY FISHING
I have had the wonderful opportunity to meet a few fly anglers from Canada and western U.S. states who have moved to central Iowa. They have been very experienced at fly-fishing cold streams and rivers for trout. Warm water fly-fishing is a new frontier for them. These anglers have been very excited by the variety of fish they could target in these warmer waters, such as crappies, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bluegills, and green sunfish. Those fish are the more common targets, but they have also been thrilled by encounters with catfish, as well as opportunities to chase white bass and even carp with fly-fishing gear.
Summer fishing was good, fall fishing was excellent, and then they were able to enjoy ice-fishing when the lakes and ponds froze over in winter. As winter waned, the excitement and anticipation of open-water fishing would build again in these transplanted anglers, and they would start asking questions about these warm water fish. When will bass start getting active? How soon after the ice melts will the bluegills start hitting flies? Which species get active first? Will the fish be shallow or deep before their spawning seasons?
These are all excellent questions, and some answers may be surprising.
In the northerly portion of the U.S., some guys LIVE for ice-fishing. For others, it is a way to keep fishing year-round, but they’d rather be fishing open water. Ice fishing provides some very interesting insight. I used to think our warm water fish became nearly comatose during the winter months, eating only when absolutely necessary, and otherwise not moving much. By using electronic “flasher” units such as Vexilar, and underwater video cameras such as AquaView while ice-fishing, one can see firsthand just how active these fish remain during the winter months even under the ice. Bass, bluegills, crappies, walleyes, yellow perch, northern pike and even channel catfish can be seen swimming around as if the cold water didn’t bother them at all. I’m guessing carp stay somewhat active, as I did catch one while ice-fishing once, and was ice-fishing with a friend when he hooked into one.
Not all fish will be so active, but most are. Flathead catfish, for example, have been videotaped during the winter gathered in groups and basically hibernating. They are unresponsive to any bait. Gars have been seen to be in groups slowly swimming around in circles, but also not striking lures or bait.
Muskies, pike, walleyes, and perch all spawn relatively soon after ice-out, so they are active and can be caught once the ice melts off the lakes. In fact, these are the fish most anglers target first following the ice-fishing season here. These species will usually be in shallow water for spawning, too, so can be reached fairly easily with fly-fishing gear even from shore.
Crappies, Largemouth Bass, and Bluegills may not spawn until 2-3 months after ice-out. But in general, within one week of the ice disappearing completely from a body of water, these fish can be caught on fly-fishing gear. In fact, in my experience the LARGER bass are more often caught on fly-gear during the first month after ice-out. They seem to “get active” quicker. After that, the smaller bass seem to kick it up a notch and it’s hard to get a fly-fishing pattern past them to reach the larger bass.
Remember the water IS still very cold following ice-out, so the fish aren’t likely to chase down a fast-moving presentation. Keep your retrieve S-L-O-W, but still moving, and you will catch fish. You can use a strike indicator to help you slow down even more, but this isn’t always necessary. Fish a bit deeper than you will later in the spring, say 3’-5’ deep. The shallows warm first, drawing the fish in, but the safety of deeper water will pull them just off-shore. If there is a drop-off near shore or near a shallow flat that tops off in 3’-5’ of water, which will be a key spot to fish.
Top waters can work if the water is fairly clear, but most of your fish will be caught on nymphs and streamers. Some patterns that have caught fish for me already this year (still within 1 month after ice-out), are #10 Craft Fur Clouser Deep Minnows, #10 and #12 Myakka Minnows, #12 Beadhead Prince Nymph, 1/80th oz and 1/100th oz micro jigs. In past years, the SHWAPF has done very well for me at this time of year. I use dark-colored chenille for the body, and various colors of Angel Hair flash for the tail/back/wing. Boa Yarn Leeches and Crappie Candy are two other excellent early-season patterns. These are just some suggestions to get you started; your local fish will tell you what they prefer.
So, if at the end of winter you are wondering how soon you can get out and start catching fish with your fly-gear, the answer is you can catch fish just as soon as the ice is gone! Best of luck to you.
--David “FishnDave” Merical