A recent trick to winter flyfishing depends simply upon the weather. For instance, last winter there was hardly any snow—so little, in fact, that I’ve never seen a winter that dry in the central Rockies in my lifetime. I’d call it a drought. This year’s winter started with parallel results, but finally it began to snow, albeit a couple months later than usual. But once it got going, it snowed every few days—through December & January. By the middle of January, it seemed like the foremost trick to winter flyfishing was simply finding some open, un-frozen water to fish. We did have a dry spell at the end of January through mid-February, but the idea still amounted to finding fishable water.
Does fly selection make a difference? Maybe…research in recent years points out that black, blue, and fluorescents are the most visible colors in deep water; many winter anglers will testify to the effectiveness of patterns in these colors. Biologists do not exactly understand what trout see, but what I find truly interesting is that trout not only see color—they can identify some colors that are beyond human visualization. In particular, trout can sense shades of red and ultra violet that we cannot, and in lower light conditions. I used to think that blue was a nonsensical fly color, since I have not seen blue insects on the streams I fish, other than adult dragonflies/damselflies. However, scientists report that the fish’s capability to distinguish minute pigmentation differences is greatest within the blues.
A lot of experts say that trout seek deep water and become less active in the winter, which may explain (at least in part) why highly visible flies are effective. However, Levi, a buddy of mine who has been ice fishing for years says trout can actually feed aggressively; you just have to hit it at the right time. He also says Pam cooking spray helps de-ice rod guides, and advises to prepare for extreme weather. Cold winter weather might seem like common sense, but as I said—he’s been doing it for years, and hypothermia is a very real danger.
Winter flyfishing can be a great way to discover secrets about your favorite trout stream, and offers a change of pace from the tying bench. Flies tied in outlandish, unnatural colors might be the ticket to get strikes, and may shift your thinking about the appearance of your favorite patterns. Who knows, maybe someday research will show that fishing blue flies will reduce cabin fever!
When I look at a sculpin, I see a bottom dweller with a huge head, big pectoral fins, and a long, skinny body. I always wondered about an easy way to incorporate these characteristics into my sculpin imitations. One day, while looking at a pink Puff bonefish fly, I had my answer…
Use brass or lead eyes to get it near the bottom. Add a long body of bucktail or squirrel tail. Tie in some nice, round hackle tips for the fins. (Hen hackle works great!) Lastly, build up an oversize head with chenille. The pictures below should give you the general idea:
Brown is my “go to” color and the two brown patterns are tied using natural bucktail on #4 and #6 hooks – my “go to” sizes.
The version with the orange head is for high, dirty water. It is tied on a #2 hook with squirrel tail.
The green version gets dunked in spring creeks – or wherever there is an abundance of weeds. Olive bucktail covers its size 8 hook and bead chain eyes help swim it over submerged growth.
I usually cast Puffy sculpins slightly upstream and let them sink a bit; then I give them a bit of action with the rod tip as they drift downstream. I try to keep a tight line and don’t worry too much about drag. Occasionally, I fish them under an indicator like a nymph with a twitch here and there.
Baby tarpon react to a hook like their oversized parents; they try to put as much air as possible between themselves and the water. However, they are far more accommodating. When fishing for adults, a great day is 5 fish jumped and 1 landed. With babies, jumping 15 and landing 5 is definitely not out of the question. And the babies aren’t exactly puny – 5 to 10 pounds is a common size.
I am by no means a seasoned tarpon hunter, but over the last few years I’ve managed to visit some of the Yucatan’s premier baby tarpon fisheries. Although not definitive, my impressions might be helpful if a trip is germinating in your brain.
It should be noted that all my trips took place in July or August. Visiting the Yucatan in the heat of summer sounds a bit twisted but it’s actually prime time for baby tarpon.
The gear for baby tarpon is simple – an 8 or 9 weight rod, a floating line, and a reel with a smooth drag. Most baby tarpon will not take you into your backing. Some veteran baby tarpon fishermen recommend stripping them in without putting them on the reel. A decent fly selection would include baitfish patterns, poppers, and Seaducers – all on 1/0 or 2/0 hooks. A very functional leader looks like this: 5 feet of 50 lb mono for a butt section, 2 feet of 25 lb mono for the tippet, and 2 feet of 40 lb fluorocarbon as a shock tippet.
Now, here’s a look at some baby tarpon destinations…
Tarpon Cay Lodge in San Felipe (Rio Lagartos) www.yucatanflyfishing.com
San Felipe, about 100 miles west of Cancun, is a sleepy, pleasant village where walking around gives your camera a taste of real Mexico.
The baby tarpon fishing starts after a 5 minute boat ride. It’s mostly blind casting the mangroves off points or in the rios, which are saltwater creeks. Oftentimes, rolling fish provide targets.
Once you’ve shaken the jitters when fishing to babies, San Felipe can give you the opportunity to come unglued in front of much larger fish. A boat ride of an hour or so will take you to a spot offshore where migratory adults up to 100 pounds hang out. This is sight casting to rolling fish over deep water.
Isla del Sabalo at Isla Arena www.yucatanflyfishing.com
If San Felipe is sleepy, then Isla Arena is comatose – in a good way. Even though you are only 100 km north of Campeche, it’s like the edge of the world.
The fishing is very similar to San Felipe with the addition of sight fishing on the flats in front of the mangroves. (N.B. Tarpon are much easier to see than a bonefish.) Some of the guides like to go WAY up the tiniest of creeks. Bring a mosquito repellant and don’t forget to duck under that mangrove branch! I found a Sage bass rod a great tool for such close quarters.
You will likely fly into Merida, which is an incredible colonial city. It’s like being in Europe, but the tarpon are much closer.
Paradise Lodge on the Costa Maya Coast www.tarponparadise.net
Between Chetumal Bay and Espiritu Santos Bay, Paradise Lodge has a breathtaking variety of fishing opportunity.
Baby tarpon are the backbone of this fishery; they hang out in cenote lakes, which are land-locked lagoons connected to the ocean via underground channels. Each day starts out with a truck ride as your boat is trailered to one of these lakes. Bring your casting arm – you’ll blind cast the mangroves like crazy. Nevertheless, you’ll probably see enough tarpon to keep your motivation in high gear. One of the lakes has a good population of both snook and barracuda.
During your stay at Paradise, you’ll probably drive south to sprawling Chetumal Bay to chase bonefish and permit. I caught my only permit in Chetumal Bay. I’d like to say I made a 70 foot cast to a tailing fish but I actually flipped a crab pattern about 30 feet into a HUGE mud. The permit that popped out was VERY small. At dinner that night, I downplayed my catch and was promptly chastised by the lodge owner. “A permit is a permit!” he insisted.
If baby tarpon are the backbone of the Paradise Lodge fishery, then Espiritu Santos Bay is the jewel. It’s a long, pre-dawn drive to the north. Punta Huerrero, an obscenely picturesque fishing village, guards the bay’s entrance. Once your skiff ventures into Espiritu Santos Bay, you’re not on the edge of the world, you’ve actually gone over it!
Very few people fish Espiritu Santos. Its flats are beautiful, wild and abundant, just like its bonefish. Chances are you’ll see permit, too. My guide even pointed out a few wily snook underneath the mangroves. I didn’t believe they were there until he chased them out with his push pole.
Isla Blanca by Cancun www.yucatanflyfishing.com
Cancun, as you probably know, is fueled by thousands of beach and bar-seeking tourists.
However, 30 minutes north of the sunscreen-slathered hordes lies Isla Blanca and its tremendous variety of fishing environments – hidden lagoons, picturesque bays, mangrove tunnels, small flats, large flats. Is your boat careening towards a solid wall of mangroves? Relax, the guide knows exactly where the opening to the other side is. Baby tarpon, a few bonefish, and smallish permit roam all over these waters. The permit, although small, are numerous.
If you want a break from fishing, and perhaps Cancun’s frantic pace, there are loads of guided excursions to Mayan ruins, traditional villages, and cenotes.
Isla Holbox is comfortably touristed but in a golf-carts-on-funky-sand-streets sort of way. It is about 60 miles northwest of Cancun; the last part of the journey is onboard a ferry.
Although Holbox is noted for big, migratory tarpon in the open ocean, the backcountry flats and channels in the lagoon behind it have excellent populations of babies. Tired of slinging 500 grain heads on a 12 weight? The babies chase poppers and streamers and put on a great show when connected to an 8 weight. I found sight-fishing for the babies to be excellent.
Another attraction at Holbox is the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks.
Nichupte Lagoon (Cancun) and Campeche
These are a couple places I have yet to visit. The former is the lagoon directly behind the Cancun hotel strip. The latter is a colonial city.
My girlfriend loves the look of a trout stream and flyfishing intrigues her. Although a talented half-marathoner, she freely admits her athletic ability does not extend to false casts and shooting line. She is busy with 4 teenage kids and has no desire to spend a lot of time lawn casting.
Enter the roll cast – a quick and easy way to get someone started in fly fishing. Think about it… If someone can roll cast 10 feet of line with a 9 foot rod and a 9 foot leader, their fishing range is 28 feet. I know I’ve caught a lot of fish within 28 feet.
Get your budding Lefty Kreh into a shallow run with a moderate current. Their rod should be rigged up with an indicator, split shot, and your favourite nymph. The split shot is important because it helps turn over the leader.
Have your student strip off about 6 to 10 feet of line and show them how to roll cast it upstream. (Make sure they forcefully push the rod tip in a horizontal line towards the target; many people rotate the rod around the elbow, moving it in a circular path.) As soon as the fly lands, they should get their hands in the proper stripping position. At this point, don’t worry about actively stripping line or mending. Just get their hands positioned correctly and have them follow the fly with the rod tip.
Once that is mastered, introduce stripping to control slack. With younger kids, it might be time to start some serious trout hunting. Generally, I would recommend a brief lesson on how to avoid drag by mending. Finally, teach feeding line as the fly goes downstream. This last step lengthens the drift and helps set up for the next roll cast. At all times, keep the length of line manageable, perhaps adding a few feet if the pupil can handle it.
Spend about 10 or 15 minutes on each step – first demonstrating and then having the student practice a few repetitions. After 30 to 45 minutes of instruction, it is definitely time to go fishing. Location is key. Someone shouldn’t wade onto a bonefish flat armed with only a roll cast. Or stalk sippers on a spring creek. A roll-casting specialist needs the proper water!
Small, bouncy streams hold many fish within the reach of a roll cast. But don’t overlook larger rivers. Places like the Elk River in B.C. and the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley have a lot of fish close to their bank.
My girlfriend’s first fish on a fly rod actually came from the St. Mary’s River in B.C. This is a large freestoner but the cutthroats love to hang out in the boulders in thigh deep water – 10 feet from the bank at most.
After some experience with an indicator rig, the new flyfisher can start roll casting dries and streamers, too. High-stick nymphing is another technique they can pick up quite easily. Before you know it, your new partner might not be outcasting you, but they will certainly be outfishing you! The cutthroat in the picture was the biggest we saw from Racehorse Creek, Alberta. I didn’t catch it…
Spring run-off in the west and heavy rain storms in the east cause rivers to rise quickly and often without warning, raising the cubic-feet-per-second by many times, on occasion resulting in water levels reaching that particular river’s flood stage, which is when a river is commonly considered “blown-out.” While many anglers consider fishing high water to be hopeless, in actuality this situation can grant you the opportunity to catch fish you might never have a crack at otherwise. Before reading the following tips, however, remember that fishing high water presents safety risks. Therefore, it’s a good idea to fish with a friend and to not only know your limits as a wader, but to understand how the high water will affect the river’s “wadeability.” For example, if you usually wade a certain spot up to your thighs in normal cfs (cubic feet per second) flows, don’t attempt to wade it in high flows, as the current there will likely be too forceful to safely stand in and cast from. The three tips below will help you turn the tables to your advantage during high water flows.
Up the diameter of your leader and tippet. When the water is high and off-colored, there is no need to fish 5x or 6x fluorocarbon in most rivers. A general rule of thumb is to downsize by at least 2x. So if you usually fish 6x, try up-sizing to 4x, or even 2x fluorocarbon if the river is dingy (some anglers I know use 12 pound test and higher, which you can often get away with). When the water isn’t clear, the trout can’t see your line well, so you should take advantage and use a heavier pound test, which will help you fight a fish out of a blown out river’s stronger than normal currents.
Target the banks and secondary currents. When the water is up, the main current is often too strong for the trout to lie in. As a result, they tend to push toward the banks, where the flow isn’t as strong and the water isn’t as deep. Here, they can comfortably face upstream or circulate through the current and pick off food items. Trout often seek refuge in eddies as well, which is another spot to try. In large rivers, try targeting back channels or river braids when the water is up. You’ll be amazed at how many fish will stack in what looks to be just a small riffle along the flooded bank. If the eddy is suitable, you may even see trout facing downstream in the current, waiting for the eddy current to wash food up to them from below. If this is the case, you want to get a high-stick drift in the current, so your flies will be sucked down by the eddy and circulated back upstream.
Give them the Good Stuff. When the water rises, the proverbial trout buffet opens for business. All kinds of goodies are washed into the water for the trout to eat, not to mention the various hatches that a rise in water will sometimes set off. High water is a classic time to fish a big, nasty-looking streamer (such as a double bunny or sculpzilla), but it is also time to fish heavily weighted nymphs (such as stoneflies and prince nymphs), as well as San Juan worms in a wide array of colors—just think of all the worms and grubs the high water dislodges from the banks and river bottom. For nymphing, be sure to put on a lot of split shot (so much that your cast may look kind of clumsy even) and move your indicator high up on your leader to adjust for the high water. Then try to find an eddy or a smaller offshoot of the main current and fish away. When you see that indicator twitch, give a firm hook-set to the downstream side, then hold tight…big trout are notorious for eating when the water is high and off-color.
Do you ever have days at the vice where you just sit and think… ” What can I come up with that’s new, cool, catches fish, and will put a new spin on my flies?” This thought is what makes fly tying the backbone of this technical sport. That day where you’re sitting at your vice wondering… “What can I come up with? What is that one thing that no one else has?”. You’re sitting letting the wheels in your brain turn as you think of what you should put on a hook whether its big or small, light or dark, even if it is going to be nothing but flash or no flash at all. The creative minds that people have for fly tying is what makes this art form so great. There is no end to the flies that will be created on this planet. Though this article is not about how to tie a new fly, but a tip on making your flies totally different from what they are. I’m talking about blending your feathers. That’s right… Making your feathers to the color combinations that you want them to be without trying to dye every little bit of the feather. Taking anywhere from 2-4 different colored feathers and blending them together to turn them into a multi-colored feather blend.
The one thing that I have learned by doing this is that it makes some of the best streamers. The option of having a fly that is different from everything else just by having a different color scheme. I have had days of fishing where it did not matter what I put in front of the fishes face they would not hit it. Then I would switch to the blended flies and I would hook something. It’s that little bit of color change that can make a big difference when your throwing streamers. For example on a day were I have had no luck with an olive fly I will throw an Olive/Dark Olive/Chartreuse blend. That little change can be the key.
How to make a Blended Feather. First take your marabou feather and clip the tip and butt so you have the main base of the feather. Do this for how ever many feathers your going to put in your blend. Second take a piece of wire long enough so that when you fold it in half it has a loop at the front and enough tail to put in your vice. size BR or MED is best color to match if you want to. A rotary vice is needed. Third put the butt end of the feathers with the wire in your vice. Fourth take a tool or something that you can put in the loop then spin your vice. Every 5-7 turns pull the tips out so that its not all bunched up and spins evenly. You can also do this with hackle feathers to make wings or for wrapping bodies on woolly buggers.
This is a great thing for Steelhead flies and just big swing flies that have a lot of color. I also do these for Clousers a lot. I have my basic colors then my blends. My favorite Clouser blends for salt water are.
2: Olive/Dark Olive/Chartreuse
3: White/Gray with Peacock hurl.
Those three Examples great color blends, but remember with this your blends are endless for what colors you want to put in them. One tip: Do not go over four feathers. They get hard to spin.
Remember the things you can do with your vice are endless. The vice is a tool that you have that enables you to take an idea that is floating in your mind down on a hook. Always try your ideas even though some might be a bit out there, you never know if it can be the next hot fly on the market.
A few years ago I saw a foam wing salmon fly nymph pattern that was killer looking and very popular on the Yellowstone River in Montana. The fly was called “Real Black Stone” if I remember, but I never found the pattern available commercially and never saw a recipe or a tutorial. The fly was more complicated with eyes, individually cut wing case segments, knotted rubber legs, and all black dubbing of some sort. This is my version, but I added the tan dubbing, and brown rib for better contrast and realism, and simplified the pattern by deleting the eyes, the knotted legs, and forming the wing case out of one piece of foam instead of several pieces.
Notes; if you are worried about the foam adding to much buoyancy, don’t. The added lead more than makes up for the foam. If you are still worried, add more lead, if you are still worried add a 3.2 mm tungsten bead behind antennae, if you are still worried use .5 mm foam for wing case instead of 1mm, and if you are still worried use thin skin and forget about the foam altogether.
Hook; TMC 200R #6 Thread; 6/0 or 140 Denier Tan and Black Tail; Black Goose Biots Abdomen; Tan Micro Chenille, Waspi Antron dubbing Chestnut Rib; Small Brown Holo Tinsel Thorax; Light Tan Waspi Sow Scud dubbing Wing Case; 1mm Black Foam Rear Legs; Black Flexi Floss Front Legs; extra-small Black Round rubber Antennae; extra-small Black Round rubber Weight; .025 lead wire
Step 1; tie on antennae, form a small head and whip finish if you are tying several flies or continue to step 2
Step 2; tie on lead wire down one side of hook shank, and leave a gap near the hook eye. If you want a heavier fly tie on an additional length of lead wire on the opposite side too.
Step 3; twist off extra lead and wrap thread several times to secure
Step 4; tie a long length of micro chenille on top of hook, this forms the anal gills and adds bulk to the fly
Step 5; tie on a long length of brown holo tinsel
Step 6; wrap chenille fwd and trim at the point of the gap. Note; wrap one wrap of chenille behind rib, so the rib doesn’t slip off the chenille and loosen. This is basic fly tying technique but a lot of tiers still miss this important step.
Step 7; tie in goose biots for the tail, stop the thread about 1/8 inch fwd of the end of the chenille to form the anal gills
Step 8; apply, chestnut Antron dubbing evenly and sparsely to thread
Step 9; dub fwd covering the tan chenille, stop dubbing at about ½ the hook shank length
Step 10; wrap the tinsel fwd about 6-8 turns and tie off
Step 11; tie in rear legs so that they angle back, trim to desired length. I leave them long for more movement
Step 12; whip finish black thread, and go have a drink, you’re about half done
Step 13; start your tan thread
Step 14; dub a sparse amount of tan dubbing to the end of the chenille
Step 14a; prepare a 1/4 inch strip of 1mm black foam at least 2 inches long and cut a small notch in one end. I use a small Chernobyl cutter
Step 15; tie in notched end of foam wing case, the apex of the notch should be at the transition point of the tan and brown dubbing
Step 16; tie in middle legs with flexi floss, angle almost straight out
Step 17; dub around legs with additional tan dubbing and whip finish
Step 18; start your black thread again, fold foam wing case back, loop forward and tie off at the end of your tan dubbing
Step 19; begin tying down foam fwd toward hook eye
Step 19a; advance thread to just behind hook eye
Step 20; tie in front legs (round rubber) and angle slightly fwd
Step 21; fill in the gap, and around the front legs with chestnut Antron dubbing
Step 22; fold foam wing case back and secure with a few wraps of thread
Step 23; add a small amount of chestnut Antron dubbing to cover thread wraps and whip finish. Trim off excess foam in a semi-circle shape. Trim all legs and antennae to desired length.
Here in the east, it’s been a mild winter, which has given anglers even more opportunities for cold-weather fishing. At the beginning of the month, I got a couple of days off from guiding for trout and working the shop here at Curtis Wright Outfitters in Asheville, NC and headed down to Charleston, SC, to chase some winter redfish on the fly. Through a mutual guide friend, I got put in touch with Scott Davis of the Low Country Fly Shop in Mount Pleasant (just over the Ravenal Bridge from Charleston). My fishing buddy Pat and I met up with Scott for drinks to come up with a game plan and the following morning at dawn the adventure into the coastal flats of the South Carolina coast began.
Unlike during the warmer months of the year, the redfish, also known as spot-tails, red drum, and channel bass, don’t venture as far into the spartina grass of the flats, where they commonly “tail” in the summer as they spread out from one another and root around for fiddler crabs and shrimp. Instead, they tend to group together in schools ranging in size from about fifty fish to hundreds at a time and, like a giant vacuum cleaner, work over the oyster bars and flats for shrimp, mullet, and whatever else they can find. For this reason, winter fishing can be both incredibly productive or incredibly frustrating; if you can find a school and keep up with it, you’ll have shots at lots of fish, but if you can’t find the school (this where having a great guide like Scott helps) you simply won’t have anything to cast at and you’ll return home smelling like a skunk.
Lucky for Pat and me, we were on the boat of a truly expert guide and the sight-fishing conditions the first morning we went out were postcard perfect: sunny skies and glassy water. Within twenty minutes Scott had us poling toward a school of about a hundred fish on a two foot deep flat, and as the sun began to rise so did the snouts and tails of the fish, which is not a common sight in the dead of winter. As far as tackle goes, we were slinging sinking shrimp flies and diving mullet patterns on our eight weights loaded with Rio’s Redfish Line. The fish weren’t all that selective; the name of the game was anticipating the path of the school and then casting your fly on the right trajectory (like with bonefish) and working the fly enough to catch their attention, but not so much to spook them. Most of the time, we retrieved the fly the way you would work a big streamer for trophy trout, but occasionally we’d slow it down to give the fish an extra few seconds to see it if the school changed direction at the last-minute. From the get-go, the action was heart-pounding, with several especially nice fish boated and several more lost. An added bonus was the fantastic scenery, numerous porpoise sightings, and the simple fact that we didn’t see any other boats. The best part, though, was knowing that we got to do it all over again the next day. If you ever get a chance to fish for this hardy species on the fly, I highly recommend you go for it. When these bull-headed fighters take a run into your backing there’s no slowing them down…
If I had to think about the one style of nymph that’s caught more large fish than any other it would have to be… Well, being completely honest it’s technically not a “nymph”, it’s an annelid. Yes the mighty worm! From the simple San Juan to the heavily weighted pig sticker they simply get munched and by fish. I can’t think of a better time to fish worms than late winter through runoff. Since that time is coming up it’s always a good idea to have a few different worm patterns in a handful of colors, sizes and weights. Considering how easy they are to tie there really isn’t a good reason to not have a decent assortment in the corner of a box somewhere. This is one of my go to flies when I want something light and on the smaller side. It holds up extremely well and is very fast to tie with cheap materials. Good luck and happy worm dunking.
There was a time when I’d throw nothing more than a wader bag, a couple of rods, a hat and some peanut butter into the back seat and head for the trout streams. There was never any research or planning – not in my pre-trip rituals or in the actual fishing. I’d walk the river, casting at random to whatever looked “fishy.” I caught some trout, but I always suspected I was missing more than I was catching. If I went after bass, it was the same thing. Grab the rods and a tacklebox and drive to the lake. Cast everywhere. Try baits at random. It was less than productive unless they were really biting.
Then, I got a wild idea one day to “fine tune” things a bit. I subscribed to a few fishing magazines, did some research online, actually tried to learn more – even though I already knew it all, or at least thought I did. Instead of throwing a streamer all over the river, I’d sit and stop a while. I’d watch the water. I’d watch the birds. I’d turn over some rocks in search of nymphs or crawfish or whatever I could find.
In my spare time I’d read about “high sticking” and dry fly tactics. I poured over articles about fly fishing for bass and bluegills. I thought about each part of the fly fishing system and how I could improve both my understanding of the gear and the fish. I stopped using 6 lb test mono for a leader and paid more attention to articles on leaders, tippets and what’s needed to “turn over” a #12 hopper pattern. I spent time concentrating on understanding how and why fish feed, where they feed, and on what.
I was no longer just a guy going fly fishing! I was someone who was beginning to learn the in’s and out’s of the game. It wasn’t necessary of course – I could go on just floundering around out there while having loads of fun, but it was clear from the early stages of my fine tuning that concentrating on more than just the basics was paying off. I started to pick up fish more often, and the size of the fish seemed to be getting larger on average. In addition to that aspect of it, I found myself enjoying a deeper immersion in the sport.
The thing about fly fishing is that there’s always so much to learn, no matter how long you’ve been at it. And if you’ll put forth the effort to “fine tune” your learning, it will also fine tune your approach. Your cast, your ability to read the water, your fly choices even your appreciation of the great outdoors. Catching fish is fun. Catching more fish is more fun!