Winter on the Snake River can be long and chilly, offering solitude and picturesque landscapes unlike any other season. Fly Fishing during this time of can offer some of the most challenging yet productive angling opportunities of the year.
Understanding how trout deal with cold water and short days is one of the keys to success in the colder months. Typically rivers run much lower from mid October through March in the Snake River Drainages. While this allows for much easier access to many of the rivers and streams, it also limits the food available to trout. At the same time fish become less active and more selective in there search for food.
With food and activity to a minimum it’s best to understand the best times to fish and what patterns and techniques to employ for success.
Populations of Midge are common in most bodies of fresh water world wide. In many bodies of water Midge outnumber all other aquatic insects by a bunch. A good number of trout have one form or another of Midge available to feed on nearly all the time. With this in mind, it pays to understand the insects life cycle and habitat as it relates to fly fishing.
Midge are a “True Insect” meaning they have a complete life cycle beginning with a fertilized egg deposited into a body of water. The egg becomes a Larva which lives in or on the bottom of the body of water for weeks to months. At the time of sexual maturity, the Larva becomes a pupa which amends the water column to the waters surface. The Pupa then climbs out of its pupal case and emerges to the surface as a sexually mature, winged adult. Sexually mature adults search out other adults on the waters surface or in the air. During large hatches, swarms of Midge May form both in the air and on the waters surface. Trout love eating large mouthfuls of adult midge that are clustered on the surface.
Midge hatch most days of the year when air temperatures are above freezing. During colder winter days Midge will hatch during the warmest part of the day. Typically you will find adults flying or on the surface from noon to four. However, the Larva will begin to pupate earlier in the day. This is when most fish take advantage of the hatch. As the worm like papas leave the bottom of the stream, lake or river, they wiggle back and forth and ride a nitrogen bubble they have expelled from gills near their heads. They struggle in the current and are sucked into current seams and Eddy’s. This is where trout wait and intercept them before they emerge as adults.
Fishing Various versions of zebra midge patterns during this time can be very productive. We like to use a typical vertical nymph rig with Thingy Ma Bob indicators. I like to use a tungsten bead Zebra near the bottom of the water column and about a foot up tie in a glass bead thread midge and then another foot up a Grizz Frizz winged midge pupa. I’ll vary the distance between indicator and top fly as water depths warrant.
Paying close attention in shallow, flat water near the edges of moving streams can be a great way to locate fish that are feeding on midge. If I see trout heads bulging or breaking the waters surface, I may choose an adult midge pattern or a Griffiths Gnat or other midge cluster pattern. I like a non-weighted pupa pattern such as a CDC midge emerger or Serendipity 12-18″ below the floating dry fly.
Slowing down and keeping away from the waters edge can be an advantage over other angles who wade right in and start casting before locating fish. A good pair of polarized sunglasses are worth every penny when fishing in low winter light. Maximizing the most productive part of a short winters day also helps. Most of my winter fishing days are from 10 a.m to sunset and many only for those few warm hours after noon.
Fishing small flies in slower moving shallow water is best done with lighter fly rods and thinner longer leaders and tippets. I prefer a 3 or 4 weight rod with a floating line. I like 9 ft monofilament leaders down to 4X or 5X Fluorocarbon tippets work well in shallow clear water and can be the difference in an OK day and a Great day.
On moving water I prefer working my way upstream along the near bank. I’ll stay 10-30 feet away from the waters edge and move slow focusing on the water from mid stream into the bank. I’m looking for obvious sings of feeding trout such as heads, dorsal fins or tails breaking the waters surface. Winter midge hatches can be sparse and trout may not show the rhythmic rising like they do during summer blanket hatches. You may have to watch likely water for some time before a feeding fish shows itself. Move slow.
On still waters look for trout to be in areas where wind may concentrate mating adults such as weed lines and coves or small bays. Trout can feed as they cruise shorelines searching for emerging pupa. Try to predict the direction they are feeding and place your flies far enough ahead of them to allow you flies to sink to the level they are feeding at.
Strike indicators are typically a good choice for anglers fishing suspended or emerging midge. Personally, I like the 3/4″ or 1/2″ Thingy ma bobs using a vertical rigging where the indicator is tied to the end of a six foot butt section of leader using a loop knot. Then I simply tie in the needed length of tipped directly around the butt section of leader. The improved clinch knot tied around the butt section slides up and “butts” against the loop knot forming a 90 degree angle in the rig. This allows for just the small diameter tippet to fall through the water column faster. It also allows for quick adjustments to be made in fishing depth.
Favorite fly patterns vary from fishery to fishery in size and color. However, one form of Zebra Midge or another is typically involved. I vary emerging patterns but prefer those utilizing thread, mylar and CDC. Sparse thin bodies seem to make a difference when choosing fly patterns. Midge are not chunky.