When I first started fly fishing, my self-imposed “season” began shortly after runoff and ended just before first snow. These four months or so, I believed, was the only time a trout would eat a fly. It was just too damned cold otherwise.
I remember a day one January, however, when a fellow who worked in a fly shop asked me where I had been fishing lately (a throw-away line asked to every customer I now realize). My response was uttered with a tone that must have suggested he was crazy – “Uh, I don’t ice fish. Who fly fishes in winter?” Of course, I now know that some of the most productive fishing can come between Thanksgiving and Easter, a time when most fishermen have hung up their waders to tie flies or are hunkered down inside some hut staring down at a hole in the ice. Winter fishing can be the most rewarding of all seasons for the fly-fisherman, but it is not for those weak of will and lacking commitment.
We are fortunate in Colorado that we have dams. Okay, let me restate that. In a perfect world where water was not such a valuable resource to overpopulated western states, there would be no dams at all and water would flow wild and free along with the fish who swim in their waters. But that genie is not going back in the bottle. Dams are here to stay, especially here in our booming state. In the end, though, the tailwaters created by these dams have created an interesting set of conditions that generally produce really big fish and ice-free water (for at least a portion of the river) downstream of the dam. Once I learned of this extended fishing season, I entered into a whole new world, one that I look forward to each year and rivals the buggy dry fly months of late summer and early fall for fish size and overall enjoyment.
Don’t misunderstand. I would fish dry flies to rising fish while wet wading every day of the year if I could. However, there is a beauty and challenge to winter tailwater fishing that might be an acquired taste, but is extremely rewarding.
I catch big fish in the winter. Period. Because the water is generally low and gin clear, sight fishing becomes the norm. I can walk stealthily along the bank, especially when I can get above the water, and locate the biggest fish that is feeding and then purposely target him. At the same time, this also means that same fish can see me. I have to be extra careful, wade only when necessary, approach from the rear, be cautious about not lining the fish. I have to use small bugs, size 20-24 midges and baetis, and very light 6X tippet, usually fluorocarbon. But this combination of sight fishing to large trout and hooking them on tackle that is more likely to snap or pull out of the mouth makes the experience so much more exciting.
The conditions are often brutal. A day that sees highs in the mid-30s is a luxury in January. This means the fishing window is cut down to about 9-3 on most days. Knots become nearly impossible, guides ice up and completely close, even your fly line has a different texture to it. The sun is low and the glare is awful. Seeing a tiny dry fly or small strike indicator, especially ones that are white, is often impossible. Your feet are cold, your hands are cold, your face is cold, and you still have to strip down to pee. Good equipment can make all the difference in these situations. Gore-Tex, wool, down, and really good sunglasses are all near-mandatory. And if your boots are worn or you still use felt, you might find the iced-over rocks to be your demise. Anyone who has fished the Blue or the Frying Pan knows of that which I speak.
But this time of year can be the most beautiful in many ways. The snow adds a new texture to the outing as you crunch along the river’s edge and muffles the sounds just enough to give you that extra feeling of solitude. Colors that were a kaleidoscope of oranges, reds, and yellows just weeks before mute into monochrome gray on overcast days. The ice at water’s edge sends a spectrum of refracted light in all directions when the sun does make an appearance, and then the Colorado Bluebird Sky (to borrow from The String Cheese Incident) provides the needed warmth to bring bugs to the surface and with them, fish. Eagles and Osprey fly reconnaissance missions up and down stream fishing for their dinner, while Blue Heron stand guard on the bank only to test the limits of gravity as they launch their bulk downstream at the sound of your footfalls.
Winter fishing is brutal at times. It takes commitment to venture out into a snowstorm only because you have faith in the weather forecast that predicts enough of a warmup to justify the effort and you have hope that the day holds the type of adventure that is only possible this time of year. I cannot imagine not fishing in the winter now that I have gotten a taste of the possibilities it holds. I am partially embarrassed by that version of me who was shocked at the gentleman in the fly shop that assumed I would be fishing in below-freezing temperatures. I look back with regret at all the years (most of them when I was in my prime) I sat at home and looked for entertainment in less demanding endeavors.
Yes, I look forward to summer and the warm, carefree fishing that comes with it. But I am eternally grateful for winter fishing and the bountiful experience it provides.