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PBD Fish Reports

Winter Fly Fishing 

W​INTER FLY FISHING - A General Tutorial    Tim Wade

When the snow and cold weather arrives, in Wyoming this happens sometime in October or early November, a lot of anglers put away their fly fishing gear thinking the fly fishing is over until the following spring. The truth is, these anglers are missing out on 5 months of great fly fishing in Wyoming, as well as in Montana, Colorado, Utah and Idaho.

While the North Fork of the Shoshone and other rivers like that are considered to be free flowing, or free stone, and do slow down or freeze over during winter, there are places where winter flows are perfect for wading or floating and the water temperatures are definitely warm enough to generate hatches and all day fly fishing action. The angler just has to know where these places and rivers are located, best time to fish, best fly selection and of course, the right gear to keep one fishing and comfortable.

Rivers that have controlled water releases below dams are the places the angler must go during winter to find active, happy trout in the Rocky Mountain States. These rivers are also called tail waters because of the controlled flows. Usually, these rivers are rich with aquatic insects, crustaceans and minnows due to the time the water is stored behind a dam and the nutrient carrying capacity. Some bugs you might recognize are scuds, sowbugs, aquatic worms and leeches.

Winter dry fly hatches are generally tiny blue-winged olives (mayflies) and midges (non-biting relatives of the mosquito). These generally occur during the middle part of the day - 10 am to 3 pm - when the air and water temperatures reach their peak. Some of the best hatches are found right in Cody's back yard on the lower Shoshone River.

The thing to keep in mind when fly fishing during winter months is this: the best water conditions are found closer to the dam discharge area. As one goes further away from the tailwater releases, water temperatures do drop to the point, fishing is S-L-O-W. On the lower Shoshone River for instance, the dry fly action is good down to the Corbett Dam area,  or approximately 8 miles from Buffalo Bill Dam.

Rivers that have controlled releases are plentiful and pretty easily to drive to in a couple of hours or a day. Not counting our local river, the Shoshone, anglers can easily drive to the Bighorn River in Thermopolis, the North Platte which runs through Casper, the Bighorn  River in Ft. Smith, Montana, the Madison River in West Yellowstone/Ennis, Montana and the mighty Missouri near Wolf Creek or Craig, Montana.

That is a lot of water and all fish pretty much the same as our local river in regard to flies needed to be successful, access points and size of the trout. In order to save space and time, this column will detail the two rivers most fished by local Cody area anglers during the winter months. These would be the lower Shoshone and the Wind/Bighorn River near Thermopolis.

In order to be comfortable when fishing for an hour or all day in the winter months, serious thought must be given to wader selection, wading boots, gloves and hats to keep your body's thermostat regulated since temperatures fluctuate due to wind and cloud cover. Keeping the body's core warm is essential for a fun, comfortable day of winter fly fishing.

Most people forget hypothermia is a real and serious threat when air temps drop below 60 degrees. Even on a winter day when the sun is shining and it feels much warmer than 35, 40, or even 50 degrees, one can still suffer - or perish - from exposure. Once your body's core temperatures begin to drop, you have about 30 minutes to rectify the situation.

Chest high breathable waders - those with the Gore-tex membranes and five layers of micro-fiber and waterproofing construction (think Simms Fishng Products) are the only waders that seem to stand up to the extreme temperatures one can encounter on any given day during winter months. Fear no wind, cold, rain or snow in a pair of waders like these.

Under you waders, dressing properly begins with warm feet. A thin silk or propylene sock under a pair of thick Smart Wool or Alpaca socks will keep you warm, as long as your wading boots are not too tight to begin with! Legs should be covered with silk or synthetic underwear, followed by Simms Cold Weather pant (the best I've found to date!), or Polartec 200 fleece sweat pants over the top of the underwear.

Upper body warmth begins with a light layering long sleeve top. Again, silk or poly-pro are good options for pulling moisture away from your skin and keeping a layer of warm air close to the body. A heavy wool or fleece sweater would be the net layering piece to don. Both are breathable materials and also have great moisture wicking properties especially if you happen to get wet.

A Wind-stopper jacket or heavy-duty rain jacket can be added to block any additional cold air that might try to sneak through your clothing when casting or landing fish. It is also recommended to have a backup set of dry, warm clothing handy in your vehicle or boat, in case you do take an unexpected dip when the weather outside is frightful.

Cold weather masks used for downhill skiing helps keep frostbite off cheeks and noses should wind chill be an issue when fishing. A warm water proof hat or stocking cap will keep the top of your head warm. I have found a warm head and feet allow me to fish without gloves some days during the winter.

Of course, gloves are the ticket for those really cold days when the trout are rising to bwo's or midges and the air temps are well below freezing! I prefer the new Simms ExStream Wind Stopper gloves for cold weather fishing. I can flop open the foldover mitt on my gloves and use my warm fingers to re-tie leaders, tippets or remove a hook easily, then pullthe mitts back on to keep my fingers toasty until I need to use them again. Sweet.

Now that everyone has an idea of how to prepare for winter fly fishing conditions, it is time to discuss fly patterns, techniques and equipment to make the time pass quickly when fishing during the months of November through March, even April, here in Cody and the Rocky 

Fly selection for winter fly fishing is not all that difficult. There are some dry fly patterns that work very well when the trout are keying on midges or tiny blue-winged olives. Nymphs, or wet flies, and streamers will also be listed so you can be prepared for any situation when you go to your favorite tail water. Just fill one or two fly boxes with these suggested flies and you should walk away from a tailwater with a huge grin and a better attitude about life in general.

When matching the hatches during fall and winter months, or fishing with dry flies or flies designed to ride in the surface, it is best to get the size right. For instance, if size 18 or 20 blue winged olives are on the water, dig through your fly boxes and choose one of the selections recommended below. The trout will be slow to accept an imitation that is a size 12. Does this make sense? It is important to understand this rule when fly fishing during colder months.

Five dry flies work well on tailwater fisheries when the days are short and the nights are long. Those are: Parachute Adams, Sparkle Dun, Snowshoe Dun, Griffith's gnat and FDM midge. Olive, gray and occasionally, purple, are good color choices. Size should range from 16-24. Size 18 and 20 are used most often.

Light leaders and tippet will be needed to present a dry fly properly. Size 16-22 fly sizes are best fished using 4X-7X tippet. The best rule of thumb that can be given for choosing the right tippet size is to divide your hook size by 4. Size 16 is 4X, size 20 is 5X and so on. Should the fish refuse your dry fly, try dropping down a tippet size or two. Many times, doing so makes the difference between success and frustration.

There are times when the wind is blowing or the air temperatures are very cold. This slows down the ability for an emerging insect to climb out of its nymphal shuck and then fly off the water in search of a mate. When this occurs, the trout seem to prefer flies that are not floating high and dry, but those that are stuck in the surface film.

Fly fishers switch to what we call emergers, cripple or stillborn fly imitations. Recommended imitations are: Bow-tie midge, Para-sipper, Smoke jumper, Snowshoe cripple and Trifecta emerger. Best sizes to have in your fly box are 16-22, colors olive, black or gray.

Fishing dry flies and emergers also requires a treatment with a waterproofing agent on your fly. To keep it simple for readers, Loon Aquel is one of the better fly floatants, goes liquid at body temperature, costs less than $6 and lasts quite a while. Leader length should be 9-12 feet in length so the angler can get longer drifts and hide the fly line from the trout when casting and presenting your fly choices.

Wet flies are those designed to fish below the surface. These flies imitate the larval or nymph stage of aquatic insects. It is recommended that wet flies, better known as nymphs and soft hackles by fly enthusiasts, be weighted (usually with a metal bead) and non-weighted so the angler has water depth and speed covered.

Again, to keep your winter fly boxes simple, here are 5 wet flies that work well in winter on the lower Shoshone, Bighorn, North Platte and Missouri River tail waters. Pheasant tail, Gold-ribbed hares ear, Copper John, Zebra midge and Fire bead Sowbug. Sizes should be small; 14-22. These flies should be fished under a strike indicator (aka: bobber) with a drag free drift and generally 2-6 feet below the indicator.

Last but not least in your winter fly boxes are streamer flies. These are designed to imitate baitfish, baby trout and leeches. Streamers are generally weighted, much larger than dry or wet flies and are given action by the fly fisher.

The ubiquitous Wooly Bugger might be the best streamer to try when the trout are not enthused with our dry flies or nymphs. Best colors are black, purple, olive, dark brown or olive and black. Should the Wooly Bugger fail to perform as expected, Zonkers, Red Death, Double bunny, Clark's rat and Butte rat are reliable substitutes. Hook sizes should range from 2-10. Heavier leader, 1x-3X, will be required to turn over these larger flies.

Fly fishing equipment consists of a fly rod, fly reel and fly line. A good fly rod choice for fishing winter would be a 9 foot to 10 foot, five, six or seven weight. These rods also cast heavier flies like bead head indicator rigs and streamers much better when the wind speed hits 30 mph! Fly rods with line weights less than a 5 weight can be used, certainly, but 3 and 4 weight fly rods do seem to have more breakage issues during winter than heavier fly rods, which is why the recommendation is given.

Large or mid-arbor fly reels with a good disc drag is better at landing fish during winter months. Floating, weight forward fly line that matches your rod size is good for all purpose application with dry, nymph or streamer flies.Make sure to put at least 50 yards of backing behind the fly line in case you are lucky enough to hook the big Kahuna. Carrying an extra rod and fly reel set up with a sinking or sink-tip line is also recommended for winter fly fishing. By carrying two rods and reels, one can easily go back and forth between fishing a dry fly to casting a streamer using sinking or sink-tip fly lines.

Dry and wet flies should be used in conjunction with a floating fly line and non-sinking leader/tippet system. One can use a floating fly line when fishing with streamers, too, although there are times when the floating line can't get one's fly (streamer) to the bottom fast enough. When that occurs, anglers will need to have another reel set up with a sink-tip or full sink fly line. This is an angler decision since some cost is involved for an extra rod, reel, backing and specialty fly line.

However, it is a good investment when an angler wants to get down where the big trout like to hang out during winter months. A sink-tip fly line like the new Orvis Bank Shot with a 7 foot fast sink tip casts large or small streamers very well from shore or when fishing in a boat or raft. The floating line behind the quick sinking, weighted fly line "head" makes for faster pickups and fewer false casts to get your fly back in the water and in the zone.

Sink tip fly lines also allow for swinging soft hackle wet flies down and across the bottom should running them under a strike indicator not produce the desired results. Streamer leaders must be kept short when fishing sinking lines. Two to four feet of 0X-3X tippet is all that is generally required.

There is so much that can be thrown out on the table for discussion about fly fishing in the winter months. The content here and fly recommendations are general in nature but are consistently reliable with this qualifying statement: Every angler is responsible for learning how to cast, present your fly and land fish now that this information has been given to you.

Anglers are also responsible for taking care of and respecting the wild trout resources found in most of our Rocky Mountain tail waters. What is important is to use barbless hooks, land the trout quickly, keep them wet while handling, then kiss and release.

Tight lines and singing reels to you this winter! Top of Form

Tim Wade is the owner of North Fork Anglers,  Cody WY 82414 | (307) 527-7274