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Where'd all the fish go? December fly fishing tactics

It was a cold winter's day. The color had all but left the forest, replaced by a frigid icy blanket of white on top of the dull shades of green from sky-scraping evergreens. The Gallatin River ran low, cold, and clear winding through a seemingly endless canyon. As I made my way up the highway that parallels the river, I passed many of my usual summertime favorite fishing spots. While these fishing spots have served me well in the past, they weren't quite what I was looking for on a cold December day. I made my way further up the canyon. My eyes bouncing back and forth from the road to the shimmering water trying to find just the right spot. After only a few minutes I found the features I had been looking for. Armed with nothing but my great grandpa's bamboo fly rod and a few boxes of flies, I threw on my waders and made my way down the snow-covered slope to the water's edge. I stopped to examine the river to look for the best place to throw my first cast. Not far up-stream was a steep and fast riffle crashing over large boulders and into a steep rock wall. Just below this short section of white-water, the river began to slow down and give way to a deeper slower section of water. This deep section is what caught my eye. What would often be overlooked by anglers in the summer months is exactly what I was looking for in December. After only a few minutes scanning the surface of the water I noticed a slight disturbance just beneath the surface. Then I noticed another, and another. Before I knew it rainbow trout were rising all over this slow section of water. I inspected the surface closely to see hundreds if not thousands of tiny midges skittering across the water. What may seem like a small insignificant insect was getting these trout into a feeding frenzy. I thoroughly examined my fly box and found a size 18 Grifiths Gnat, often used to imitate a cluster of midges on the water. While tying the fly onto the end of my 6x fluorocarbon leader I watched the surface to pick out the fish I wanted to target. Beneath the surface, on the edge of a large rocky shelf, sat a small boulder about the size of a tire. I noticed a fish rising repeatedly to the surface and then sinking back behind this rock. A flash of gold caught my eye each time he rose to the surface. I knew this is the one I wanted to go for. With a fully rigged bamboo rod in hand, I got just enough line out to complete the cast. The boulder holding the fish was fairly close, so I only needed about 30 feet or so for a good drift. After a few false casts to whip off any excess dry fly floatant, I laid the fly down about 6 feet above the rock. As it approached the boulder, I watched the fish rise from below. He seemed to be studying the surface as if he was trying to decide if my fly was the real deal or not. The trout inched ever closer before breaking the surface inches from my fly to grab a nearby midge cluster. But I knew it wasn't over. Quickly, I recast to the same spot a few feet above the rock. Again, the fly inched ever closer. The trout again rose from his rocky dwelling to examine the surface. He had to be looking at my fly. Slowly but surely the trout made its way to my fly and softly sipped it off the surface. Giving him a fraction of a second to turn back down, I set the hook and... fish on! After a short lethargic fight, I netted a beautiful brown trout, an uncommon sight to see in the canyon section of the Gallatin. I caught a few more rainbows out of that hole before the rising stopped and I continued my way down the Gallatin without much luck. All-in-all it was a great day to be on the water.

So, what is there to learn from this? First, let's focus on the defining features of the water that I chose to fish. Many of you may be familiar with the term "reading water". This refers to inspecting the surface of the water for likely spots that would hold fish. Often times the textbook features described are short riffles, small pools beneath riffles, seams on the edge of fast water, the head and tail outs of boulders, etc. The important thing to note about winter-time fishing though, is that trout and all other species of fish are cold blooded. This means as the water temps drop so does fish activity. With their energy low because of the cold temperatures, the fish often leave many of the "textbook" features like faster seams, riffles, and the head of boulders because they don't have the energy to expend on "treading water," or keeping their place in the current. This means that the trout will be found in very deep and slow sections of water. The food selection in these sections can be low, but because the metabolism of the fish has slowed down significantly, they do not need to eat as much to maintain their weight. So how exactly do you define a likely holding spot for trout in the winter months? As stated above you'll want to look for slow water. The deep, slow, and long sections often hold the highest concentrations of fish, so that's generally the best place to start. However, you can still find fish in fast current as long as there are pockets of slow water in these sections. Examples of this would include large boulders with slack water behind them, or large back eddies on the side of the river. The bottom line is that you need to look for slow water. If you wouldn't want to be there, the fish probably won't either.

What about fly selection? What are some good winter fly patterns? Fly selection can vary largely based on the body of water you are fishing, but there are a few general winter patterns that work best. I was lucky enough to experience a large midge hatch on this day I went to the Gallatin. While you may not always get enough midges to entice trout to the surface to feed on any given day, midges are a staple food source for trout in the winter months. If you inspect the snow or the water line on nearly any freestone or tailwater river or spring creek you will almost always see tiny size 20-24 bugs that look like mosquitos or gnats. That's a midge, and that's a good place to start. Aside from midges, depending on how cold it gets in your area, you may see some hatches of small mayflies such as blue winged olives. While much harder to come by, these hatches of mayflies will often result in fish coming to the surface to feed. However, more often than not the name of the game in wintertime is nymph rigs. When fishing a nymph rig, I like to stick with two flies on the line, any more than that is actually illegal in many states and any less could mean a lost opportunity. Fly selection for nymphs can be much broader than if you were fishing a dry fly hatch. For the most part, if the insect exists in the river, it could make a good fly selection. A bug doesn't have to be hatching to get swept up off of a rock. My staple winter-time nymph rig consists of a large stonefly pattern of some sort, a size 8 Pat's Rubber Legs or other stonefly imitation is always a good option, and a small dropper fly, usually a size 18 or 20 zebra midge to start. If your fly selection isn't enticing any bites, you can change it up to a heap of other flies, size 16 or 18 pheasant tails, hare's ears, prince nymphs, and other mayfly, caddis, or midge imitations can all be good options. If all else fails, trout seem to like the colors pink and purple when the temperatures drop, I couldn't tell you why, just that it works.

While wintertime fishing can often be challenging and cold. It's often times rewarding and fruitful. You probably won't catch quite as many fish in the cold months as you will in the warm ones, and you may be fighting frost-bitten fingers or frozen lines and rod guides. But fishing in the winter can be productive and a great way to get outside and enjoy the blanket of snow alongside the sound of the river. They say any day on the river is a good one and I couldn't agree more. Good luck out there.

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1 Comment

Jared-your descriptions are so vivid and make you want to get out and go fishing! You have some very helpful suggestions and ideas. Thanks for sharing this. I think you should expand by writing for fly fishing magazines -so well done! Happy Fishing!

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