Reprinted from The Mountain Mail‘s February 27, 2015 edition.
Earlier in the month, just getting back from a float down the Arkansas, I couldn’t help feeling like spring had settled into our valley. I missed the cold short days, standing in the water, alone, with snowflakes falling around me, waiting for a hatch.
Now that winter appears to have returned, I would like to share some winter fishing knowledge I’ve learned over the years.
Trout have two main needs: shelter to be safe from predators and food to sustain themselves. The likeliest place to find trout is in water that’s almost still, and the deep dark pools offer good protection.
Trout are cold blooded: Their internal temperature and metabolism reflect that of their environment. In the winter, they conserve their energy by hardly swimming.
Although trout don’t need to eat much, they still need some calories. In the Arkansas River, the predominant food available consists of midge larvae and pupae.
What does this mean to the angler? The warmer the water, the more likely the fish are to be feeding and to take our flies. The best places to target in the river are those deeper pools and larger eddies. But on sunny days, fish will also be in shallower pools with a sandy bottom. An example of this is just upstream of the F Street bridge. Watching multiple fish slowly finning in a shallow eddy is a real treat.
My favorite setup for winter fishing is a double nymph rig, using a standard 7.5-foot 5X leader with 4 feet of fluorocarbon tippet (it is nearly invisible in water).
The first fly should have some weight and a slim profile, to help it sink to the right depth. A No. 12 bead head Pheasant Tail, or a No. 16 bead head Zebra Midge works well.
To it attach 12 inches of 5X fluorocarbon tippet and then a smaller unweighted fly. Often that will be a size 18-20 midge imitation such as a Zebra midge, especially in red or black. I also use wet flies like the Stewart’s Spider or the Orange Asher, believing that their slim bodies with sparse hackle imitate a midge pupa. Midge larvae look like tiny little worms, showing a lot of red (hemoglobin), so patterns should incorporate red color.
All of my pheasant tails have red hot spots on their collars. Once water reaches 40 degrees, winter sun will stir the fish to move up to a slow-moving drift. Try a size 18 through 22 small dry fly in dun or olive colors.
The fish in sunny eddies likely feel very exposed and are spooky, so it’s important to keep a low profile and to cast well upstream of the fish. The flies need time to sink in the slow current, and they should just about hit the fish on the nose.
Often a dead drift is the best approach, but if you have no takes after a few good drifts, try adding a little twitch to animate the flies. I also rely on an indicator. The general rule is to set it to twice the depth of the water the fish are holding in, but I often set it to 4-6 feet and just cast a bit further upstream.
Winter fishing requires a fair amount of patience. Sometimes it seems that a trout has to see the fly drift by a few times before it decides to take it.
Tenkara rods, the long Japanese rods without a reel, are well suited for winter fishing. They are often 13-plus feet long and cast a light fluorocarbon line that stays off the water, helping with delicate casts and drifts.
Remember to dress warmly and take a thermos of coffee or hot chocolate. And it’s always worth checking our local fly shop’s fishing reports.
For information about Collegiate Peaks Anglers, a calendar of events and projects and a list of top 10 flies, visit www.collegiatepeaksanglersTU.org.