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Author: Frank Ross
Last weekend I was pheasant hunting and today I'm thinking that I need to find something to do when the bird and deer seasons play out and those balmy 40 degree days start to pop up like birds flushing from the pucker brush.
Outside it's cold, in fact very cold for the end of October, but I'm still thinking about fishing because I know that there will be warm days ahead. There will be a number of days this winter when you walk outside and realize the temp is up 10 degrees above normal.
I've never been fly-fishing in the middle of winter, and that alone seems to me to be enough of a reason to go. More importantly, I know guys who go throughout the winter and come back with pictures of really big fish so that cinched the deal for me. I'm going! All I need to know is the how and where. I've got the when figured out.
Planning is the key to success, no matter what you're doing, so I wandered down to the office of another fishing nut that is recognized as THE expert in fly-fishing at Cabela's. Monte Malzahn has laid his line out all over the world and fortunately for my purpose, he's dedicated (crazy) enough about fishing to go in the winter.
Monte, I began, "I'm thinking about going trout fishing this winter." He smiled briefly, then his expression changed to one of total acceptance, as if I would be crazy not to. He started reeling off information acquired through many years of devotion to delicate presentations. Just looking at Monte's boyish face, it's hard to consider that he's done anything for any length of time, but he's one of those guys that have been blessed with a deceptively youthful appearance. Actually, he's got a son who's almost as old as he looks. That issue aside, Monte knows his stuff, so I started taking notes and probing for more detail.
Most people who haven't been fly-fishing in the winter aren't aware that spring isn't the only time that life emerges. According to Monte, all it takes is a rise in temperature and an overcast day to produce abundant hatches, but the key is timing. "We're talking about a matter of hours, not an all day thing. If you can stay on the water long enough, during the warmer days, you will experience a hatch and the bite will be very active until it's over. Like most things in life, timing is everything.
"First of all, there are two different phases when dry flies are fairly good. The midge hatch and blue winged olives, or baetis are the most prevalent cycles during winter. Blue-winged olives and baetis are one in the same, but people call them by different names. When you get a warm period and temperatures rise a little, on an overcast day, you'll get a good hatch. Typically, in the early months of winter you'll have blue winged olives (commonly called BWO's) emerging. You'll need small flies, in the 22, 24 and 26 sizes. They've got to be small and they've got to be close in size to what the fish are feeding on. During the winter size is very important," he cautioned.
"The midge hatches come during the warm days in mid to late winter. All in all, you'll find that 90% of your success will come on nymphs."
"Look for winter holding pools. You won't find fish in the fast water where they have to expend a lot of energy. During the winter, fish will lay behind a rock, in an eddy, where they can wait for something to come by close enough that they can eat it without moving too much. Target pocket waters, out of the major flow and work every area over inch by inch. This is not a time to make a few casts and move on. You need to dissect an area methodically, and cover every possible place where trout might be waiting. Work an area systematically from all the different zones because they're not going to move. You've got to put it right in front of them or they simply won't take it. No fish is going to spend much energy chasing down a bug the size of a grass seed."
Matching the hatch isn't just a timeworn cliché.
"To be honest, I don't think color is that important during the winter. Grays, reds and blacks seem to work best, but I've caught good fish on other colors. If you keep your patterns identical to the hatch you can't go wrong."
"Winter fishing is a perfect time for a midge larva pattern under an indicator. I prefer to use a yarn indicator. The bite is very delicate, and you're not going to get a bite and an immediate, hard run. It's more like a nibble and sit situation. The other important thing to remember is deep. Select a pattern such as the Copper John or a midge pupa pattern with a bead head. You want patterns that don't use a lot of material, that sink fast and get down to where the fish are holding," he said.
"Tailwater fishing is probably the most consistent during the winter. The water is coming out of the dam from a constant depth and the flow doesn't vary much throughout the entire winter, so fish seek those areas where warmer water carries a food supply right past their hiding places. The San Juan, Green River and the Big Horn are pretty consistent in winter months, but the one thing you've got to keep in mind is ice flows.
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