The quarter moon is shining brightly over a foot of new snow. The
temperature is headed towards zero and I'm thinking of fly fishing.
Perhaps you might think that I have gotten frostbite of the brain or cabin
fever has closed in on me.
Actually I am perfectly sane and my brain is not smitten by frost, it's
just the days have started to get longer and soon the afternoon sun
will reach into my favorite canyon stream and start to warm gradually.
Pools will lose their ice mantle and the water will begin to warm ever so
With the warming water, the trout develop an appetite. While a trout
won't feed voraciously, it will take a nymph if it drifts by close to the
fish. I have found that trout don't feed as often when the water is cold,
but they do feed and with patience and persistence, I can have a successful
day of fly fishing on most mild days from late January through March.
In Wyoming, there are many trout streams that offer very good winter
fishing. I find that canyon streams which have south or west exposures are
probably the best. These streams will have areas that have plenty of
sunlight. The backwaters of the pools might warm up three to five degrees
above the overnight water temperature. Whenever the trout can warm up a
bit over 39 degrees, Fahrenheit, you can bet that the fish will be feeding.
The canyon streams that I enjoy fishing are primarily in the Bighorn
Mountains of north central Wyoming. These streams are well aerated and
have a very diverse aquatic insect population, but, most importantly to me,
they have a wealth of stoneflies and big mayflies.
Instead of having to fish with small nymphs as I do most of the year on
the Bighorn River, I can use large sizes, 8s and 10s. Fairly simple
stonefly patterns work well for me: rat-faced Krumms, Montana nymphs, brown
stonefly nymphs, and gold-ribbed hare's ears all work well for me.
My winter fishing tackle isn't too fancy, a 9 foot, six weight medium
action rod; a weight forward, floating fly line; and a 7 1/2 foot, 3 or 4 X
leader. If my fly line is floating well, I might not even bother with a
strike indicator because the trout usually take the big nymphs with gusto.
The line will move four to six inches so I can usually see that. However,
on days when I'm feeling insecure, I'll go back to using a small peg bobber
so that I don't miss any strikes.
I usually treat my fly line liberally with a paste flotant, Mucilin, so
that the fly line will float well and will be less likely to get sucked
under by complex currents that are so common in canyon streams.
Since I weight my nymphs with lead wire when I tie them, I usually don't
bother to put any shot on the leader. If I am not connecting to any fish
in a deep pool, I will start adding shot, a BB at a time to get the nymph
down to the fish. Remember, in nymph fishing, if you are in doubt, add
I usually try to pick a day when the temperature is going to be above
freezing and the higher above freezing, the better for me. There are many
February days in Sheridan, Wyoming, my home, that the temperature reaches
into the mid forties to lower fifties. They are ideal ones for me to go
fishing. I don't like to contend with ice in the guides and battling
Though I fish on fairly nice days, the water is still going to be cold. I
have a pair of Simms Exstream neoprene waders that are extra thick and have
felt boots as liners. I have been very comfortable in these boots under
some pretty miserable conditions.
I always wear capeline long underwear, fleece pants, a wool shirt, light
weight nylon socks with wick-type heavier socks. I usually add a sweater
and a good wind breaker jacket (Simms' Dry Jacket sure fills the bill).
Fingerless wool gloves round out my wardrobe.
Of course, it always helps to have a brimmed hat and good, polarized
Those of you who know me are aware that I am not an early riser, so winter
nymph fishing suits me just fine. There is no sense in getting to the
stream at the crack of dawn or first light for it will be too cold to fish
and the trout won't be feeding anyway. I enjoy sleeping in and getting to
the stream when it's around 11:00 a.m. and then fishing until it cools down
around 3:00 p.m. The middle of the day will have the warmest water
temperatures and the trout will be moving around and feeding. (If I'm
lucky I might stumble into a midge hatch, but that's another story).
When I nymph fish in the wintertime, I try to think slow. I try to
visualize the trout in 40 degree water and how lethargic they must be.
This visualization enables me to slow down and become very thorough.
I concentrate on the pools and slow, deep runs. I know from experience
that the trout will not be in the fast water--they just don't have the umph
to stay in that type of water when the water temperature is low. I
mentally grid the pool and try to cover the pool by first casting upstream
toward the head on one side the of the creek. I let the nymph dead drift
back down to me as I carefully watch the line or strike indicator. I try
to make my next cast the same distance upstream and maybe four five inches
further into the stream.
By gradually working my casts and drifts across the pool, I will
eventually present my nymph to nearly every trout in the pool. Like my
guide buddy, Dan Stein, says, "somedays you have to force feed them." In
other words, when the water is cold the trout aren't going to move much so
that nymph practically has to bump them on the nose for them to take.
If it is a particularly warm day, and the water temperature comes up into
to the low to mid forties, I have seen the trout really put on the feed
bag. On this type of day it is not unusual for the trout to move three
feet or more to get a big stonefly nymph.
Fishing nymphs in many western streams will often bring you whitefish. My
what a bonus that can be! I feel that any fish on the line is a heck of a
lot better than no fish at all so I enjoy the action that whitefish can
bring. I also enjoy the added variety to my diet. You see, I am one of
those persons that enjoys eating smoked whitefish.
Preparing whitefish to smoke is relatively easy. Simply clean them as you
would a trout, that is cut ahead of the gills, and slit from the anus to
near the gills. Put your middle finger in the slit ahead of the gills, and
holding onto the head with the other hand, gently break off the gills and
eviscerate the fish. Run your thumb along the backbone to eliminate the
dark matter, and rinse the fish out.
Soak the whitefish in a brine that has four cups of pickling salt and two
cups of sugar per gallon of water. Soak them for 24 hours. Dry the fish
off with paper towels and place in your smoker for 8 to 12 hours. I add
some hickory or apple chips to give a good flavor.
Meanwhile, back at the stream. If you take your time you will have plenty
of fishing action in a half dozen pools. Try to keep use what cover that
is availabe because the stream will be gin clear and those warm sunny days
will make tend to make the fish spooky.
Remember that fishing is supposed to be fun and enjoyable. This is your
first outing of the year, and if you're like me, you'll make mistakes
casting, get hung up on the backcast, or lose some flies to snags in the
stream. So what? You're outside and fishing. Even a frustrating day of
fishing is a lot better than sitting around at the job.
By the way, if it is your first fishing trip of the year, make sure to buy
a current fishing license! Don't start of your season with an encounter
with your game warden.
Good luck and tight lines.