The fall hunting season was once the signal to put away fishing tackle for the year but not any more! More and more anglers are discovering the joy of winter fly fishing. While some will look on with mirth, wondering what insanity could possess a person to forsake warm environs in favor of a frigid world, others have reaped the rewards of meeting nature on her own terms. Beyond mere survival, there is a sense of euphoria that comes from being in and a part of nature and being able to enjoy the same. So dress for the occasion and then get out and enjoy some winter fly fishing!
When choosing a place to spend some time winter fly fishing, look for areas where water temperatures will be relatively warm. High elevation streams are poor choices because their water is very cold and the streams will be frozen completely over in most places.
Look for tailwater fisheries where the water coming from the reservoir or lake will have a relatively constant temperature all year round. The exception is spring creeks, which have constant stream temperatures.
Here are a few places that offer good fly fishing during the winter:
The Green River below Flaming Gorge Reservoir is a good choice when the weather is mild. Snowstorms can make travel difficult but the roads are kept open all year and the Utah side is salted to melt the slick spots. Wyoming does not salt their roads and they can be very slick.
The Green is fishable throughout the winter and some very good catches are possible if you fish for the trout in the right places. Many of the fish move to the deeper runs and pools where they feed on midges, scuds and small mayfly nymphs. Because the fish are concentrated, you can often fish one pool all day. Other fish are scattered in the drop-offs and depressions in faster water. Fish these with nymphs right on the bottom.
Cold water makes the fish sluggish and their strike zone will be small. This should suggest that you have to put the nymphs right on their nose to have much success. Properly dead-drifted nymphs will pick up a surprising number of fish even when the water temperature is down to 37 or 38 degrees Fahrenheit. Mid-day midge hatches often bring the trout to the surface in very slow water areas such as back eddies. Use long, light leaders, small midge cluster flies and emergers on droppers.
The Provo River below Deer Creek Reservoir is fishable all winter long. After the spawn, the brown trout move into the deeper runs where they can get out of fast current but still feed on nymphs and midge hatches.
I've seen trout feeding on the surface when air temperatures were 10 degrees below zero. Fish nymphs deep through the holes below riffles. Small chamois caddie, hares ears, golden stones and scuds are preferred patterns. Use a strike indicator because the hits are often very subtle.
The Weber River below the reservoirs and the Ogden River below Pineview Reservoir also produce well in the winter. Look for the deeper runs below a piece of fast water. Winter midge hatches occur mostly on the flat water at the tails of pools or slow current edges.
If you want to have a pleasant winter trip somewhere out of state, there are many good spots to try within a days drive.
The Madison River in Montana is open year-round below Yellowstone Park and has some great winter fly fishing from the Reynolds Pass Bridge down to the West Fork area. Amazingly, there is seldom a deep buildup of snow in this area. It can be bitter cold but there are thaw periods that are quite bearable. Use midges, stonefly nymphs, prince nymphs and caddie larva patterns.
Clear Lake in Idaho is a favorite of float tubers that get cabin fever and just have to get out. This privately owned lake is spring fed and never freezes over. The fish are plentiful and will hit most any fly, but small nymphs, small leeches and egg patterns seem to produce best. It costs about $8.50 a day for fishing privileges and there is lodging available in the nearby town of Buhl.
Pyramid Lake still produces some big native cutthroat trout from December through March. The fish come in close to shore during this time and wading fly fishers can do well. The local method is to wade out as far as possible, then drop a milk crate or kitchen ladder into the lake to stand on as you fish. If you float tube or boat fish, stay far away from the bank fishermen to avoid conflicts. 6 to 9 weight rods are the rule, with shooting heads or regular fast sinking fly lines, to get the flies down.
Fish wooly worms, wooly buggers and streamers right down on the bottom.
It's a mind game to fish the flies properly until one of the sporadic schools of fish come into range. Perseverance may well get you the biggest cutthroat trout of your life. The fish range from 3 to 14 pounds with even bigger fish possible.
To get to Pyramid Lake aim for Reno ( a good place to stay) then drive the 30 or so miles out to the lake. Remember to buy an Indian fishing permit because the lake is on an Indian reservation.
The Colorado River below Lake Powell is often the warmest spot to fish in this area. However, midwinter can be quite cold too, because the sun seldom hits the river even during the day because of the depth of the canyon and the low angle of the sun. Watch the weather report, pick the right weekend and you should be able to avoid the cold.
There is a one mile stretch of wadable water right around Lees Ferry but the rest of the 13 miles to the dam is accessible only by motorboat from Lees Ferry. 25 horsepower is considered a minimum to get up the river and you must be very careful about shallow bars and rocks.
Only three fly patterns are needed on the Colorado. Take scuds, egg flies and San Juan worms. Midges occasionally bring fish to the surface in the back eddies and streamers occasionally work along the dropoffs. If the water is too deep for fly fishing, attach a spinning reel with six pound monofilament to your fly rod and bounce the flies along the bottom with some split shot.
Lodging is available in Marble Canyon or Page, Arizona.
The San Juan River in New Mexico ranks with the Green River for producing great winter fishing action. From the dam on Navajo Reservoir down several miles, the San Juan is a great tailwater fishery, often producing many 1 to 5 pound fish to nymphers using San Juan worms, egg patterns, scuds, midge emergers and caddie. Dry fly action is spotty in the winter but streamers occasionally produce large fish. Lodging is available 10 miles down from the dam at Abe's Motel and Fly Shop (505)632-2194 or in the town of Aztec.
These and other places are great get-a-ways for winter fly fishermen. If a change is as good as a vacation then maybe a change to winter fly fishing is what you need to make it through the cold months in top form.
Speaking of top form, winter fishing also keeps you in shape for the spring fishing trips I know you're already thinking about.
Try winter fly fishing. I think that if you go prepared, you will have a great experience. Sure the ice may form in your guides and your fingers may get a little cold, but the warmth the trip will put into your heart and mind will be well worth the effort.