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Five tips to help make your next winter fly fishing excursion a success by m. miller
It was a chilly December day and I had been working on this heavily feeding rainbow for at least thirty minutes and was just about to call it quits when the brute turned on my fly and ran hard upstream. The rainbow fought with little pomp and almost as quickly as the fight had started I was slipping this nice 20 inch fish back in to the river to live another day.
It took several seasons of trial and error to actually start having consistent success on the river during the colder months of the year, but by doing five simple things when fishing in the winter, I really started to pick up my catch rate and so can you.
The author with a nice Cheesman Canyon bow. Photo A. Sivess.
Dress appropriately I can’t even recount how many trips to the river have not been as pleasurable as they should have been due to my being ill-prepared for all the conditions Colorado can throw at you. Winter fishing can mean dealing with the sun, cold, wind, snow and even sleet sometimes in one day. Nothing beats a good layering system and good pair of wool socks, if you keep yourself comfortable your day on the river can be great even if you don't hook up with a fish.
Fish only to actively feeding trout How many times have you come across this scene? A guy is fishing a nice hole with fish plastered to the bottom not moving an inch, except maybe to move out of the way of his two fly set-up and split shot moving down river. To increase the amount of hook ups you have on a winter day learn to spot actively feeding trout and fish only to those fish that show some sign of activity. A successful day of winter fishing can mean covering lots of water, but at least it keeps you warmer than standing thigh deep in water trying to catch a fish that just won’t bite.
Go small Tailwater fishing in Colorado can be extremely technical during the summer, let alone during the low flow times of winter. So how small can small mean? As the season turns colder fish start keying in on midges that border on the ridiculous side of small and this time of year the difference between sizes can mean hooking up or not. This means fishing with flies in the #22-#28 range, but nothing beats hooking up with a big fish on a fly that can hardly be seen by the naked eye. Though many anglers might drop the size of tippet with the fly, but I have become a firm believer that a trout will take a properly presented fly regardless of the size of the tippet. Keeping your tippet size larger also helps you quickly net your catch and release it and you’ll end up breaking off less fish. I usually never use anything smaller than 5x tippet, though there are times when the size of the fly being used requires a lighter tippet. I have found that my angling skills have increased the less I rely on my tippet size and the more I worked on my presentation.
Drop the split shot It took some time to convince me but I am now a firm believer that using the weight of bead head nymphs instead of split shot has increased not only my catch rate, but also the size of the fish I have been catching as well. Using split shot also affects the drift of your fly, making exact presentations sometimes difficult and using a fly to determine depth helps assuage this issue. The size of the bead head you use should be determined by the depth at which you choose to fish so choose heavier beads like tungsten to get flies deep or lighter beads when the fish are higher in the water column. Using something that looks more natural and doesn’t make your fly drift oddly will help keep the fish in the feeding lane.
Learn to stalk your prey Wintertime angling means low flows and a skittish quarry,so you must learn to stalk the stream to help keep you out of sight of the trout you plan to fish to. Though highly pressured trout on some of Colorado’s river s will take a fly with you standing thigh deep in a riffle next to them, this isn’t always the best approach during the winter. Trout will feed wherever the food source tends to be, in winter this often means shallower areas where the water tends to warm quicker than the body of the river. As approaching the river take a low profile while keeping yourself in position to see the water which you intend to fish, remember that if you can see the fishes eyes there is a good chance he will see you, keeping a lower profile helps to keep you out of his line of site while still giving you an optical advantage. Most professional anglers I speak with always state that their biggest catches are usually with less than 20 feet of line out on the water, meaning that most have been extremely close to their quarry when hook ups occur. Stalking works for animals, it should stand to reason that it would work for the angler as well.
There are several factors that will make or break a day of winter fishing but, with the right gear and technique, fishing in the colder seasons can provide some of the best angling opportunities of the year. So as the cold sets in and the snow keeps flying I hope you will try to hit the water this winter and see what everybody else on the river this time of year is so jazzed about.
wtotf staffer Sawan Nail has volunteered for several CFR retreats here in Colorado.
CFR helps those dealing with breast cancer cope, it can even help the volunteers by Sawan Nail
I hadn’t been thinking about my mom that morning, but as anyone who has lost a love one can tell you, sometimes thoughts of them can just creep up on you. A song or a smell or a random encounter can send you into the grieving process even years after they’re gone. I had lost my mother to breast cancer five years prior. It was a difficult time for me, and the grief demons still haunted me sometimes, and actually, they still do on occasion.
So there I was going about my usual duties in the fly shop when in walks Dana Rikimura. Dana is one of the coordinators for Casting for Recovery here in Colorado. I had heard of the program where guides volunteer to teach women recovering from breast cancer how to fly fish, but never researched it or knew how to get involved. Dana was asking for gear donations for an up-coming retreat, and I immediately started asking how I could get involved. I told her briefly that I had lost my mother to the disease and was interested in volunteering. She got my email address and told me someone would be in touch. True to her word, it wasn’t long before a woman named Kris Tita contacted me and asked if I would like to be a “river helper” at a future retreat. A “river helper” is basically a guide for the day. I emailed back and told her my whole story, she was moved by it and invited me to the very next retreat they were having. It was to be located at the famous North Fork Ranch just outside of Bailey Colorado.
I was excited and nervous at the same time. I had done some guiding before, not a lot, but some. I knew the program was full of volunteer “professional” guides. I wanted whomever I guided to have a memorable experience and in my naïve state I was convinced that meant catching fish. Would I be able to get someone on fish? Or, would I fumble through everything while everyone else did? The morning of the retreat I awoke nervous that I wouldn’t “stack-up” against the other guides, but as I drove into the mountains I had an epiphany. This day was not about me. It was about the women who had decided to try something different in an attempt to experience life in its entire God-given splendor. I was just a medium through which that could be accomplished. So, I decided to just allow God to work through me and hopefully together we could give someone a splendid day.
I arrived at The North Fork Ranch early on the day of the retreat. It is located on the north fork of the South Platte River. They own about a mile or so of river where they have stocked some big fish, mostly Rainbows, and have done some river improvements to maximize trout habitat. Kris and Dana were there to instruct us on the procedures for the day and assign us our ladies. The hosts at the ranch provided coffee and breakfast for us. The ladies had been there all weekend and the guides only come in for the last day of the retreat to help out. Group pictures are taken and then everyone spreads out on the river to start fishing.
That first day I was assigned Maggie. Or maybe, she was assigned me. Either way, we were to be partners for the day. She was an elderly woman who had never fly-fished before and I remember asking her that morning what her value was for the day. Was she dead set on catching a fish or was the over-all experience what mattered? She responded like the gentle woman she was and said she wanted to have fun, maybe learn a little, and if catching a trout was somehow managed in the process, so much the better.
I had walked the river when I arrived that morning in order to scope out where the fish would be and look for easy places to stand, cast, and hopefully net a fish. We walked to a spot on the river where I had seen a couple of fish in the morning. We talked and introduced ourselves and shared our stories a little. I rigged her rod for her and explained what I was doing and why I had chosen the flies I had. We were going to be nymphing (using flies that drift in the current under the waters surface) that day and I put on a big fuzzy indicator so that we could detect strikes. We began with an easy short-line cast into a promising looking area. She struggled at first, but after a quick demonstration she was placing those flies exactly where I asked her to. I’m not sure how many drifts through that pool she made, but it wasn’t long before WHAM her indicator disappears into the icy depths of the river. In my excitement I practically screeched “lift, lift, lift!” The next thing I know, a beautiful rainbow trout comes leaping out of the water in front of us. Now, I have seen many a trout clear the water in my days but I can’t ever remember being more excited about it. I have a still photo in my memory of that fish glistening in the sun tethered to a little old lady who could have been my grandmother. She fought the fish well and followed my instructions perfectly, and before we knew it, I had sixteen inches of beautiful, spotted, pure muscle in the net. I looked up at her and saw an expression of pure joy on her face. I’m sure that it mirrored mine.
When someone catches a fish on one of these retreats it lights up the river with congratulations and excitement. The other women up and down the river hoop and holler and scream things like “way to go”. Someone invariably comes running over with a camera to get a snapshot of the moment and there is an overall feeling of genuine joy. We took a quick photo and returned the fish to the cold, clear water from whence it came. We caught a few more fish that day, but nothing sticks in my mind like that first one.
I had a quiet moment in my own head where I thanked God for providing us with a fish to catch, and then another one where I thought of my Mom. A few days before she passed away she asked me to make her a promise. I was expecting something dramatic. But, what she said was “promise me you’ll never stop fishing, it brings you so much joy”. I told her not to worry, I was sure it was a promise I could keep. Part of that experience for me now is the joy I receive in teaching others.
I have since done six Casting for Recovery retreats. Every time it brings something a little different. Each woman has her own story and her own personality; her own challenges and her own demons to conquer. But each and every time we catch fish together it brings a sense of accomplishment and an appreciation for the beauty in life. The spring retreat is around the corner and I can’t wait to offer my time, skills and heart to the day. To donate to CFR or for more information about the Casting for Recovery program, please visit their website