Fly Fishing, Low & Slow: 5 Winter Fundamentals

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Low and slow winter fly fishing isn’t some sort of revelation.

Based on the river and the conditions, one could theoretically fish any kind of fly in the winter. Yet virtually everywhere, dragging streamers slowly across the riverbed produces. It isn’t fast and furious fly fishing, but it is consistent and effective. This is especially true if you are targeting larger, predatory trout.

There is more to it than just tying on a big fly and casting. Even if you find the best spots, there are some steps you can take to increase your odds of getting your fly where it needs to be. Again, the following five tips aren’t new or surprising. But cold weather and sluggish fish aren’t conducive to anglers sticking to the fundamentals.

Here are five things to stick to as you are streamer fishing in the winter:

Fly: Hook-Point Up

While winter stream bottoms aren’t covered in aquatic vegetation and the same kind of muck you’ll find other times of the year, there are still plenty of rocks and limbs that can snag your fly. Using a jig hook or simply a streamer tied hook-point up will reduce your frustration. You’ll still get stuck. You’ll still lose flies. But you’ll get stuck less and lose fewer flies. And less frustration is very good in the winter.

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A Few Minutes About Musky On Fly With Blane Chocklett

When the southern mountain trout fishing slows to a crawl in the dead of winter, I hunt grouse. Now my attention has turned to fishing for musky.

The two species are different. One’s a mountain bird, the other a toothy fish, but the two have one thing in common: They are formidable quarry.

Since I used to live in Virginia, I turned to TFO advisor Blane Chocklett. The Roanoke-area resident is one of the country’s premier experts on musky.

We talked for a few minutes by phone on a dreary winter day and cobbled together the following tips for musky on fly.

BE REALISTIC
Musky are called the fish of 10,000 casts. Hyperbole? Perhaps. Nevertheless, expect to be on the water all day without a lot of action. If a fish follows your fly, that’s a good day. If it eats, that’s even better and if you hook one, you’ve had a great day. And if you land one, it’s time to cross another item off your bucket list.

It’s not unlike southern grouse hunting where one can walk for miles without a peep. If you flush a grouse, that’s good. If you get a shot, that’s even better. If you actually bag one, that’s something to boast about over a beer for season after season.

My ex-wife used to ask me if grouse were extinct. Spouses of musky fishermen probably ask the same question.

“On your own and not knowing where the fish are it’s a huge undertaking,” Chocklett said. “But, it’s not impossible. Going out with me, we pretty much get fish every day, but I’ve been doing it my whole life, too.”

STAY THE COURSE
Musky will challenge you mentally and physically. Not only will you have to cast until your arm falls off, you have to be disciplined enough to follow the fly to the boat. When the doldrums strike, invariably that’s when a musky will make its move.

Let’s say you’re on your game and hook a big fish. Prepare for a street fight. Musky generally don’t run. They prefer to brawl in a closet. Your biceps will burn, but listen to your guide. Teamwork, at this juncture, is crucial.

“You have to go into it knowing that you’re going to work hard for it,” Chocklett said. “People that get into it enjoy that challenge and they know that when they do connect, that it will be one of the biggest fish they’ve ever seen. It’s mind over matter and knowing that you’re in an uphill battle all day. It’s not easy, but when you have your mind set for that, it’s not that bad.”

THE CASTING
This ain’t trout fishing. It’s more akin to tarpon fishing. Big rods, big flies with heavy sinking lines. In tarpon fishing, you have to cast far with accuracy. The same is true with musky fishing — with one distinct difference. With tarpon, the name of the game is sight fishing, which means a handful of casts during the course of a day. With musky, you blind cast toward probable spots all day. The key is to make as many casts as you can without excessive false casts. The more efficient the better.

“Most people do struggle,” Chocklett said. “But we’ve made the process easier with TFO and Scientific Anglers, with the rods and the lines. We’ve made it a whole lot easier than it used to be. It comes down from everything, from materials being used and the (water) shedding capability. It’s easier now than it’s ever been.”

The retrieve can vary, but long, slow strips with a few pauses never hurts. Watch the fly all the way to the boat. A figure-8 move or a sweep of the rod can sometimes entice a strike.

GEAR YOU NEED
Count on a medium action 12-weight rod with a relatively light, serviceable reel. TFO’s Esox paired with a Power reel are good choices. A balanced rod makes casting easier. You will need a line with a sinking tip to maintain sufficient depth. Leaders are short, which helps with throwing big flies. Four feet of 30 or 40-pound flouro with 18 inches or so of wire tippet from Scientific Anglers suffices.

As for flies, Chocklett’s Game Changer in 2/0-6/0 is a good choice. The bigger the better. A 4-inch fly is small by musky standards. Ten to 12 inches is more the norm.

Fish where the water gets dirty

The confluence of waters of varying clarity can be fishing hot spots

by Chris Hunt

Several years back, on a float trip in northern Utah where the murky currents of the aptly named Red Creek dump into the Green River, I had an epic day of fly fishing.

A summer squall had moved across the steppe country the day before, and Red Creek was brimming. The Green, cold and clear in its A section below Flaming Gorge Dam, collided with the muddy flows of the tributary and created a visible line between clean and dirty water that meandered downstream for a half a mile.

For hours, we tossed double-nymph rigs right up against the clean-dirty interface, and for hours, we caught beefy Green River browns and rainbows. We were in the right place at the right time, to be sure, but these clean-dirty collisions aren’t at all uncommon—they happen on most western rivers with incoming tributaries, and the meetings of these two waters create something of a buffet line for waiting trout. And you ought to be there, offering up the prime-rib slices for the gluttonous fish.

A few years later, on Chile’s Lago Yelcho, I had a similar experience. The lake, cold and green and bursting with trophy browns and rainbows, the progeny of fish planted more than a century ago, also sees an influx of glacial rivers that deliver important nutrients from the Andean high country into the lake.

Our guide, Adrian, motored us right up next to the line where the blue-gray glacial tint met the green water of the lake, and two of us spent an afternoon stripping streamers through a trouty gauntlet.

The fishing algebra for this equation is pretty simple. The line between clean and dirty water is, after all, “structure.” It provides cover from potential predators, but it also delivers food to the bigger body of water in the form of everything from larval insects to worms, leeches and small fish. Tributaries to larger bodies of water are replenishing sources of nutrients, too, meaning they not only deliver food in its kinetic form, but also contribute to a river or lake’s food-producing potential. In Yelcho’s case, the glacial streams charge the lake with nutrients that feed the lake’s famous dragonflies, which, in nymphal form, are about an inch long and cruise over the lakes ample weed beds.

And, these big larvae can also be found where the clean and dirty water meet—just like trout, they lie in wait for smaller critters to come to them. Not coincidentally, this also also puts these bugs, which can be reasonably imitated with a size 6 olive Woolly Bugger, within reach of hungry browns and tail-walking rainbows.

Of course, it helps, too, to know the water you’re fishing, and what might be coming down these smaller creeks when they’re bursting with rainwater or even high-country snowmelt. In the case with Utah’s Red Creek, the flies of choice were San Juan Worms trailed by an attractor nymph, like a Prince. Where Idaho’s Fall Creek tumbles over a set of iconic waterfalls into the South Fork of the Snake, the murkier (and geothermally influenced) waters of Fall Creek deliver insects like water boatmen and bigger hunks of protein, like small leeches. In the fall, when the creek runs lower and cleaner, it creates a massive foam mat that traps small Blue-winged Olives and provides an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord for the South Fork’s opportunistic trout.

The point is, these intersections of waters, where one is generally clean, and the other is generally dirty, offer trout just about everything they need to thrive—security, food and oxygen. And anglers, regardless of the time of year or the weather, ought to consider these confluences to be must-fish zones.

After all, if that’s where the fish are going to be. You might as well be there, too.

Trouts Fly Tying – Tying the WD-40

One of our go-to patterns when Marie and I were plying some of Wyoming’s finest tailwaters.

Mark Engler’s midge emerger the WD-40 is a must have in your wintertime fly box. While originally designed to mimic an emerging midge, it does a killer job when fish are keyed in on blue-winged olive nymphs, as well. Trouts Guide Josh Diller dropped by the Trouts Frisco location on a snowy January day to throw this video together.

MATERIALS
Hook: Umpqua U201 size 16 – 24
Thread: Olive UTC 70 Denier
Tail & Wing Case: Mallard Flank
Dubbing: Olive Dub
Adhesive: Hareline Hard as Hull Head Cement

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