Beginning with winter solstice, the journey to spring in my part of the world is measured in pitifully small increments of advancement in temperature and daylight. While the improvements can seem barely noticeable through December and January, hope begins to appear with the arrival of February when average daily highs hover around the freezing mark and more than an hour of fishing light has begun since the shortest day of the year.
A fishing day for me is anytime I am not fighting ice encrusted guides or the risk of frostbitten fingers. And while winter conditions remain a constant throughout the month, a reduction of subzero nights and a northerly migrating sun bring a progressive increase to the number of hours I am willing to spend pursuing trout on the Henry’s Fork when winter’s worst lies in the rearview mirror.
Although the arrival of February brings a fairly significant increase in opportunity for casting to rising midge feeders, most who fish above the 5,000 foot level will spend more time probing the depths of deeper runs and pools for the larger residents who will remain disinterested in the exertion of surface feeding until emerging insects are larger and the water warms to above 40ᵒ F.
Whether fishing nymphs or streamers; deep and slow are the bywords for fishing water only a few degrees above freezing. And unlike juvenile trout which will occupy the shallow edges, adults are prone to the comfort and security of depth in their selection of winter habitat. With metabolism slowed by cold temperature, big trout do not seem to require a high volume of food nor are they often willing to expend energy or fat stores in pursuit of fast moving prey or food drifting outside a distinct comfort zone.
In cold water, mature trout seem inclined to hug the stream bottom where the water is generally warmer and most food sources are concentrated. Upward or lateral movement of more than a foot or two is the exception rather than the rule for winterized fish which feed opportunistically on organisms drifting close by rather than chasing down a meal.
Aside from midge larvae, which are about the only aquatic insects to be truly active in mid-winter, trout will not generally see a consistent food image during times when cold water dormancy limits the activity and availability of aquatic organisms. Therefore, acute selective feeding behavior associated with trout isolating their attention on a single insect species or other source of nutrition is seldom a problem through most of the winter months.
Since the opportunity to feed during this period is usually based on a random selection of nymphs, larvae, and other fish, I do not usually concern myself with precise imitation when selecting a fly pattern. A typical nymphing rig might include a heavy, black or brown stonefly pattern in size 6 or 8 and a smaller Pheasant Tail or Hare’s Ear nymph in size 14 or 16. The flies are tied to move naturally with the current by utilizing thin rubber legs or soft, flexible materials like marabou and Partridge hackle.
My winter streamers in size 6 and 8 are relatively small in comparison to what I would normally tie on in other seasons, but they seem to work just fine and represent much less work when fishing with chilled hands and a lighter fly rod. And like the nymphs, I want my streamers to display action without excessive manipulation with the rod or line. At times, I will also fish a nymph and streamer in tandem.
A 9 foot 6 weight rod allows me to switch back and forth between nymphs, streamers, and dries with relative ease, which is particularly helpful when changing rods can mean a considerable hike through knee deep snow.
My line is a double taper floater, which allows me to manage the drift with mending techniques that keep the fly moving slowly and close to the bottom. And I try to maintain a dead drift whether fishing nymphs or streamers when temperatures are at their lowest.
A 10 to 12 foot leader allows the fly to sink quickly to the proper depth, and I will add a small split shot or two in deeper or quicker currents. In the interest of controlling fly drift and detecting the always subtle take, I try to limit my cast to 30 feet or less.
In the high country, the rewards of winter fishing are not always defined by the size or number of the catch, especially on those welcome days in February when calm winds and a climbing sun can mask the reality that true spring weather can lay two or more months into the future. And at times like this when progress finally becomes noticeable, simply being outdoors and fishing can be reward enough.