With single digit temperatures again in the forecast, this seems like a good time to talk about cold weather catch-and-release best practices. When the temperature is so low that you’ve got ice forming on your waders, or your line and leader sports frozen droplets the moment they hit the air, you should be thinking about what could happen to a fish’s gills or eyes if exposed to that same frigid air.
When it’s Everest summit cold out there, try to keep fish in the water as much as possible. Absolute best practice would be to never remove the fish from the water. If you must take a picture, keep the fish in the water (in your fish-friendly landing net) until you’re ready to shoot. Then it’s 1-2-3, lift, shoot, and get that fish back in the water ASAP. Limit your number of shots. Please remember that damage time is measured in seconds.
Like the title says, you can find my latest piece in the March 2021 issue of The Fisherman magazine. Early Season Tactics: Hunting Transition Trout is about the rough patch of fishing we face in the next month or so. It’s loaded with useful strategies and tactics to help you catch more fish, and includes a guest appearance from UpCountry Sportfishing‘s Torrey Collins. You can read the article here.
Quality content like this usually isn’t free; The Fisherman is kind enough to allow public access to the article. Why not support them with a subscription? You can do that here. Many thanks to my editor, Toby Lapinski, for giving me the opportunity to write about fly fishing subjects that matter.
I fish the way I want to fish, and sometimes that means I go fishless. I’m OK with that. When it lines up, I may be doing battle with multiple high-teens browns. When it’s a day like yesterday, I get the not-a-touch trudge through the snow back to my car, wondering if my feet will ever be warm again.
Not that I’m complaining. I had a blast. Due to the inclement weather, angler activity was almost at its Farmington River-winter-ten-years-ago level. You still can’t access the majority of dirt pull-offs (they’re currently snowplow pile pull-offs) so you’re stuck with the major parking areas. That didn’t prevent me from going for a walk to find solitude. I fished three marks within the Permanent TMA (no slush, 370cfs). I started off tight-lining jig mini-streamers, but that was a problem with the 24-degree air temp; frozen beads of river clinging to the exposed leader. So I switched locations and did the traditional full-sink line. I did catch a lot of the bottom. Sadly, it never fought back.
Then, I decided to experiment. What would happen if I fished the mini-jig under an indicator? I could bounce it along the bottom, or suspend it near the bottom. I had one of my bigger home-brew yarn indicators with me, so I re-rigged and had at it. I tried it in different kinds of water, from fast-moving glides to languid dry-fly pools. In the faster water, I had to constantly check the indicator upstream and mend to prevent the fly from moving too quickly, but the rig proved to be the answer to the iced-up leader problem. Just because I didn’t connect doesn’t mean it won’t work on another day. More research to come…and I encourage you to try new things when you’re on the river.
I spent two-and-a-half hours yesterday early afternoon banging around the Permanent TMA. Cloudy, 37 degrees, water about 250cfs. The mission was streamers and the method was tight-lining/jigging and then full sinking line with more traditional patterns. I hit three marks and only found fish in one, and they were more concerned with smutting on some midges than whacking my streamer. I did get one take, but it was so soft I thought it was the bottom; I did a tip set and by the time I felt the head shake, the trout was off. So it goes. By the way, many of the river’s parking pullouts are not plowed, so easy access is limited.
Speaking of reading fly fishing books and discovering little gems: John Nagy’s Steelhead Guide 4th edition is where I found the pattern German’s White Nightmare. It’s the one at upper left. I keep a few in my box for trout, and it was a good choice for the full sink line in yesterday’s lower flows. Oh — it was also the only pattern I had a touch on all day.
I got a late start and had to run a few errands, so I didn’t get to the river until noon. I fished above and within the Permanent TMA. I made the decision to look for unpopular winter water, and so I had three marks all to myself. The river was up a tad from last week (400cfs) and we had a few snow showers. Observed: midges and Winter/Summer caddis, although not many of either. The method was tight line\small jig streamer. I only had one take, and I missed the fish; it was a very subtle pause, and I didn’t even get a head shake into the bargain. Wow, where did the time go? Reluctantly, I left to tend to responsibilities that were far less fun than tracking a drift through a fishy-looking run.
Yesterday I fished with Toby Lapinski, a long overdue payback for all the striper outings he treated me to this fall. We decided to go for big instead of numbers, so streamers it was. We started in the Permanent TMA, although we first bounced around looking for a mark that didn’t have the equivalent angler population of Manhattan. (Hint: stay away from the big name pools.) Conditions were perfect for winter streamers: 325cfs, clear, no slush ice, 40 degree air temp and overcast with occasional mists and drizzle.
Rule one of winter streamer fishing: find the fish that want to eat. We decided to mix it up at the first mark. I was long-leader-tight line small black jig streamer in faster water; Toby was traditional fly line with a white jig streamer in slower, deeper stuff. I blanked, but Toby scored a big, bad brown. You can’t see it in the photo, but that’s just over 20″ of trutta buttah. Awesome trout. Observed: a modest midge hatch and trout rising to them in the frog water. We started with the place all to ourselves; by the time we left, there were five other anglers.
Although anglers were seemingly everywhere, we had the second mark all to ourselves. Oh. This guy was there, too. He was hanging out in some faster water and hit on the drop as the streamer was jigged downstream. I missed him on that first take, but fortunately I didn’t deviate from the presentation, and he came right back and struck on the drop again. Here’s to second chances! Great photo by Toby. I had one more hit on the jig, then I switched over to a traditional streamer winter streamer setup: full sink tip line and short leader with a weighted fly (Coffey Sparkle Minnow).
Winter fishing requires attention to detail. If you’re not ready, you might miss it. Here’s a hawk-eyed Toby focusing on his sighter. I had one little bump on the Sparkle Minnow, then we moved to the third mark. Only one angler there, but he left after 5 minutes and again we had a long section of river all to ourselves. I managed a fine 13″ wild brown and then we called it a (victorious) day. We fished from 11:30am-4:00pm, and I was grateful for the time spent on the water, the action, and the good company.
Some of you didn’t get last Tuesday’s Zoom link email — that is, the mass email I send out to my Zoom contact list, not the new post alerts that you get from this site. Actually, you did get it. It just went to your spam folder. So please make sure your Tuesday Zoom link email is going to your inbox. (I’ll be sending tonight’s out around 5pm.) Also, if you’re on the Zoom email list, you’re on the Zoom email list. You don’t need to ask every week to be placed on it. I hope all this helps, and I’m looking forward to a good crowd tonight (Winter Fly Fishing).
Due to popular demand I will be doing a second wet fly tying Zoom class. This one will focus on wingless and winged wet flies. I haven’t decided on a date, but it will likely be Saturday the 23rd or Saturday the 30th. Same great value price ($10). Please stay tuned!
You too can learn to tie old school wet flies that trout cannot resist.
Every once in a while I need a new project. Since I’ve been on a streamer kick, this seemed like a capital idea: try fishing small jig streamers on a long leader. This video featuring Lance Egan had piqued my interest. The point is not to cover vast stretches of river, but rather to work in close and target likely holding areas, tempting trout with a protein payoff. I’d fished in a similar manner for smallmouth on the Hous, bouncing dumbbell eyed streamers or larger jig streamers (like Barr’s Meat Whistle) along the bottom, but I wanted to try the longer leader thing with a smaller bug.
I reached out to fly fisher extraordinaire Devin Olsen for a quick leader formula. He suggested a basic construct like the one in his book Tactical Fly Fishing: 12 feet of 15# or 20# Maxima, 3 feet of 12# Amnesia, 18″ of 0.012 sighter material, tippet ring, then 6′-10′ of 4x or 5x tippet. I kept fly selection simple with this basic black and silver jig streamer, tied on a size 8 hook. Total length is about 2″.
So I hit the water. The winter crowds continue to astonish. I saw more anglers out yesterday than I do during an entire previous typical winter. I stayed within the Permanent TMA, with was running cold and clear at 450cfs. I shared the first mark with four other anglers; I blanked, and the only trout I saw taken came on bait.
I scored a lovely mid-teens wild brown in Spot B. This fish hammered the fly on the drop. This is a video still so the shot really doesn’t do the fish justice. I thought I had a trophy brown in Spot C, but two-thirds through the fight I could tell that something wasn’t quite right. My suspicions were confirmed when I netted a large sucker, foul-hooked in a pectoral fin.
The last two marks I hit were also blanks, but I counted the day as an unequivocal success. I’ll be working on this technique some more this winter, and will also be using it at times for smallmouth. It’s certainly best for in-close work, not only in terms of presentation, but casting as well. (The rig is an absolute bitch to cast; you’re not so much casting as you are lifting, loading, and lobbing.)
One question I get a lot is, “How do you determine how you’re going to fish the Farmington?” The answers can be complicated, but sometimes it’s simply dictated by conditions and, especially yesterday, what I feel like doing.
First, conditions. We had a high water event Monday night, the river spiked, and now it was coming down. 875cfs in the Permanent TMA is not for novice or foolish waders, especially in very late fall. That water is moving and it’s cold. You need studded boots and a wading staff, and especially you need to stick to wading slower, shallower stretches (that’s often where you’ll find the fish).
I liked yesterday’s overcast, and we even had a few snow showers to boot. Or is that to glove?
Next, method. I felt like swinging streamers. I fish for my own pleasure, and even though winter streamers on the Farmy can be dicey — the trout are either biting or they’re not — when it’s on, it’s good. And fun. I was using an integrated full-sink tip line with a short (3 feet) leader and a mix of weighted and neutrally buoyant streamers. I also played a bit with different colors.
So, how was the fishing? It started off great, with a bump on my first cast. I made the same cast and the fish hit it again. But no real grab. Sadly, this was to be the pattern of the two-hour session: lots of bumps, but no real takes. I fished two marks hard, then packed it in around 4:30pm.