Today I would like to talk about something that is near and dear to my heart. Winter fishing! My favorite time of the year as an angler is the upcoming winter months. These are the times when most Utahans trade the fly rods for ski’s or a board. This leaves the trout waters of Utah a little less crowded.
The name of the game totally changes in the wintertime however. This is the time of year where tiny flies and light tippets are the name of the game. It is pretty much the norm to throw bugs ranging from size 22-28 with tippet in the 6 or 7x range here in Utah from now until springtime.
This is the time of year that I find myself fishing one of my favorite rods in my quiver. I am talking about the Scott G2 884-4. This is one of my go to rods during this time of year because of its slower action. In the winter I have found that most casts need to be highly accurate at shorter distances. By my definition shorter casts are in the ballpark of 15 to 30 feet, definitely distance where a fast action rod just won’t cut it. The more moderate action of the G2 allows the angler to feel the rod load precisely in that area thus making that cast to those picky rising fish much easier.
The nice thing about the G2 is that power is not compromised on this rod whatsoever. Sure I feel that this particular rod excels when fishing smaller dries however the 884 G2 can do it all from big dries to light nymphing and swinging soft hackles. The greatest thing about this rod is when you catch a fish you know it. I for one can tell each headshake and movement of the fish when playing them. The light and soft tip of the rod also leaves me to know that my tippet will be just fine in the heat of the moment when the fish is on.
What rounds this rod out to be one of my favorites in my quiver is what I would like to call the “Scott Touch”. The first thing that I feel sets Scott Rods apart from most other manufacturers is the unsanded and unfinished blank. Some may not like this aspect of the rod because the status quo for rods these days has become wild colors like Lava Red for example, however I find the minimalist design and finish to be quite refreshing. One look can tell you that this rod was made by rod builders with a true passion for the sport that I feel is capped off by the hand signed rod description that you find on each G2 series rod.
Don’t take my word for it though. Come on down to the shop and give one of these rods a cast or two or you can check them out by clicking HERE.
Over the past two years, it’s been fun to see the increasing interest in fly fishing the spring creeks of the Driftless region of the Midwest. Those of us who live here and regularly fish this area have known of its natural beauty and incredible angling for years, but as the allure of small stream fishing has taken off around the country, media has helped uncover this rich fishery in the agricultural Midwest.
The Driftless region is an area of land that encompasses Southeast Minnesota, Northeast Iowa, Southwest Wisconsin, and Northwest Illinois. It’s named for an area of land that millions of years ago, avoided a glacial drift, flattening the surrounding landscapes into fertile cropland that is stereotypically thought of when you think of the area. The result is a pocket of land that geologists refer to as karst topography- land that is characterized by sinkholes, towering limestone bluffs, ridges, deep valleys, caves, and coldwater springs. The region is a stark contrast to the area that surrounds it, the landscape changing abruptly as one travels into the area from the flat farmland to the rolling hills then deep bluffs as you near the Mississippi River valley. Historically a farming region, the area has given way to a host of “locally-grown” tourism options, recreational opportunities, cultural and art events, organic farms, wineries and microbreweries, and unique businesses. The cold water springs, numbering easily in the thousands throughout the region, feed streams that maintain temperatures in the low 50s, supporting a healthy environment for trout, making it a year-round destination trip for those who love fishing spring creeks.
Throughout most of the Driftless region, 3 major species (brook, brown, and rainbow) of trout are to be found. Iowa has over 50 streams in the Driftless region that sustain trout and many other “put and grow” streams where stream-raised fish grow and mature. This makes for a variety of fishing options dependent on location, physical ability, and skill level. Many of these streams rely on a stocking program with the hard work of the DNR, with an increasing number of them sustaining wild populations of trout. Groups like Trout Unlimited and other conservation organizations work to increase public awareness of these fisheries, help with project workdays, and promote conservation education. The result is world-class fishing in our own backyard. It’s been said that skill-wise, if you can effectively fish spring creeks, you can effectively trout fish anywhere using techniques that allow the angler to break-down water, cast to difficult areas, and get a fly to where a fish is feeding on the surface or below.
Fishing spring creeks during spring in Iowa means some interesting water conditions and new opportunities. Like waters in other places, snow melt, run-off, and rains mean varying water levels and clarity. This can be a challenge sometimes, but carrying streamers, bwo patterns, hendricksons, adams, and some attractor nymphs is almost always the answer. Streamer fishing almost anytime the water is off-color can bring up big fish, and the flashes of yellow or silver through the cloudy water is nothing short of exciting. Easier walking and wading without the lush grasses that make casting and negotiating streams in the summer a little more difficult makes up for the uncertainty of weather in the spring.
Summer and fall are one the best times of the year to fish due to a variety of different hatches and bugs on the water. Caddis are a staple of trout diet here throughout the summer, but as the season rolls along, terrestrials like beetles, ants, crickets, and hoppers offer some of the most exciting fishing of the year. These are sometimes simple patterns but offered in the right environment and time can mean explosive takes and beautiful fish. A personal favorite is a foam cricket pattern skittered across pocket water on some of our wooded streams. A dark seam of water comes alive when a brown trout keys in on a well-drifted terrestrial. Even mouse patterns, a fly that swept the fly fishing world after the epic fly fishing film Eastern Rises was released, fished at dusk in late summer can produce some hungry brown trout. Be warned: big fish on quiet water in near darkness is not for the faint of heart when a fish decides to eat.
Because the streams remain a constant temperature and flow, fly fishing the Driftless (in states that permit it) is possible and fruitful through the winter. Granted, telling folks that you are going fishing on an 18 degree day with windchill takes some explaining and maybe some convincing. However, fishing the streams in the winter has been some of our most productive time on the water, with brilliantly colored, eager to eat fish. During this time, nymph fishing is the way to go, with small midge nymphs and attractor patterns. When the sun pops out and temperatures warm to the 20s and 30s, some risers can be taken on small dry patterns with accurate casts and light leaders. Even on a bad day, and we’ve all had them, winter fishing with the cold and breaking ice out of the guides if for nothing else makes you appreciate the warmer weather that is inevitably ahead.
What makes fishing these places in the Driftless special isn’t always the fishing, but the scenery and sometimes journey to get there. The local charm of out-of-the-way restaurants, casting beneath towering bluffs, watching the fog roll off a cool stream or through a valley during a humid day in summer, or fishing under the watchful eye of a Holstein cow adds to the experience as much as catching fish
After some skiing at Red Lodge, Montana over the holidays, we stopped in at the Bighorn River, which is not too far south of Billings. A couple years ago, we heard rumors of great Christmas fishing and wanted to check it out. It was January 2, the sun was shining, and the air temperature was about 39 degrees – almost tropical! I was bundled up but it really did feel like a warm spring day. (Perhaps because I’m from Manitoba?)
The Bighorn River is a “bottom-draw” tailwater that never freezes up. We walked and waded and drifted tiny nymphs and split shot through a lot of promising water. Although we didn’t get anything, it just felt great to be fishing. Around 4 PM the light was getting low. I noticed some good-sized wakes moving up through a very skinny riffle in a side channel. I switched to an unweighted egg pattern, about a foot below a small indicator, and cast just upstream of the riffle. The water was maybe 8 inches deep… Fish on!
Hello, brown trout! As darkness fell and the temperature dropped, I was on my knees, about 25 feet from the wakes pushing through the riffle. After every second cast, I dipped my rod in the water to unthaw the guides. A bad case of “rising fish” jitters made sure that my line got tangled way too often. Nevertheless, two more browns honored me. The last fish had to be stripped in ’cause my reel was completely frozen. But I was feeling completely toasty.
The next day, before leaving, we could see the redds in the gravel above the riffle. The fish were spawning but aggressive. The Bighorn is about 1200 km away from my home. Cost of gas: $250. Sight-fishing in open water on Jan. 2: priceless….
(The Bighorn Fly and Tackle Shop, located right by the river and also in Billings, was a great source of info.)
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!