Time For Tailwaters
October 04, 2010
The anglers may be gone, but the trout are still hungry. Bundle up for cool tailwater action. (February 2008).
Photo courtesy of Steamboat Flyfishers.
Like many Colorado flyfishermen, I had always put my tackle into winter storage by mid-October. As the water and air temperatures began to drop, my focus shifted to football and my fly-tying table.
Despite the urging of my fishing friends, I declined to join them on their winter trips, even though they reported success. Over time, their invitations, fishing reports and trophy photos began to erode my resistance.
Finally, I decided to make a secret, solo trip to sample this anomaly called winter fly-fishing.
ON THE WATER</b
The thermometer registered a frigid 5 degrees as I parked my Explorer and stepped into an icy blast that threatened to quickly penetrate my parka, jacket, and down vest.
I pulled out my 5-weight rod, pre-rigged with a pair of midge larvae on a 6X tippet, and began the treacherous, slippery descent to the Taylor River tailwater.
Immediately, I saw the subtle ring left by a rising trout. More rise forms followed. Two huge browns were feeding on tiny midges in the surface film. My already frosted fingers fumbled as I frantically changed the flies to a size 20 Griffith's Gnat, with a size 22 Midge Emerger dropped 18 inches behind.
Although I didn't catch a single fish on that trip, two hookups with trophy-sized trout convinced me that winter offers flyfishermen great fishing opportunities -- and that cold, wintry days can be quite comfortable for the angler who's properly dressed.
The extreme cold on the Taylor River that day was mainly the result of its 9,100-foot elevation. Extreme conditions are not necessarily typical of many Western trout rivers in the winter, however. Winter temperatures along Colorado's mountain rivers can range from toe-numbing cold to jacket-shedding warm.
Winter trout angling in the mountain states usually means tailwater fishing and targeting oversize browns and rainbows with tiny flies and ultra-light leaders.
The water flowing from a bottom-release reservoir remains at a constant temperature and typically will remain ice-free for some distance downstream, even on the very coldest days.
Tailwaters are also fertile, producing ample insect life on which the trout grow fat. Three Colorado reservoirs contain mysis shrimp, a nutritious food that bulks up the enormous fish found below the dams. The benefits of targeting winter trout are many, not the least of which is that you'll have the stream to yourself.
Also, winter fly-fishing is a gentleman's game -- no early-morning or late-evening fishing. There's no need to be on the river until the sun has had ample opportunity to warm the water and stimulate insect activity, perhaps even a midge hatch.
Fishing activity usually peaks from about 10 a.m. until 3 p.m.
<br<holding, FEEDING LIES</b
Low, cold and clear water equates to lethargic, but spooky, trout. They seek out deep, protected water with limited current flow for their preferred holding lies. Cold-water trout require less sustenance than more active summer trout; and so feed more sparingly. Trout in deep, slow currents are usually in a restful mood, not particularly interested in feeding. They will also hole up under protective cover and tend to refuse most food items that pass.
Midges, the most active food source in icy winter waters, form the trout's primary source of forage. Trout survive by eating a lot of midges, but since these insects are usually quite small, the effort is not energy-efficient. The fish will move very little to intercept these tiny morsels. To be successful, you must drift your offering right into the trout's mouth.
The shrewd angler seeks trout occupying feeding lies. These fish have reacted to hunger pangs or perhaps increased insect activity, and have moved from their protected holding lie to a more productive spot to eat. Normally, a feeding lie will be shallower water, perhaps warmed by the radiant sun. Water at the head of a pool and the calmer water along a seam in the currents are likely locations to find feeding trout.
I emphasize three key factors for productive winter fly-fishing:
'¢ Successful fishermen sight-fish.
'¢ In winter, trout demand precise presentations, and
'¢ First-time winter flyfishermen, or anglers fishing new waters, should take advantage of a guide's experience, if possible. A knowledgeable guide can teach you more about identifying good lies, proper presentation, productive flies and sight-fishing in one day than experience will teach you in several trips to winter waters.
Improve your chances by spending time visually searching for trout rather than blindly casting to vacant waters. Because winter trout tend to congregate in preferred lies, a lot of winter water will be void of trout. If you catch a fish, there is an excellent chance other fish are present in the hole. A good sight-fisherman will catch far more trout than one who spends the day casting to empty lies.
I carry a small pair of binoculars to assist in my search for feeding trout. Winter rise-forms are usually subtle, and my binoculars help me locate fish feeding on or near the surface.
High-quality polarized glasses are an absolute necessity, and a thermometer is also an invaluable tool in the search for winter trout.
Learning to position yourself properly once you've discovered a feeding trout is essential. Lethargic winter trout are focused on conserving their energy and won't move far to intercept your offering. Precise casts are required.
My preference is to position myself to the side and slightly upstream as close to the quarry as possible. Try to minimize glare so that you can follow the fly and watch the trout's reaction at the same time.
From this position, I can make sure the fly arrives in the strike zone before the leader or line, to reduce the chance of spooking skittish trout.
Stealth is critical. It's likely that a trout will cease feeding as long as a fisherman remains a possible threat. However, a trout that senses your presence may not flee if it is feeding heavily.
Cast far enough in front o
f the fish that the fly has time to sink to the proper depth before it reaches the trout. In slow currents, two or three feet is usually enough lead, but each situation is unique. You must control your line to prevent drag, and control your depth to get the fly down to the trout's level.
Watch the fish for any subtle indication that it has accepted your offering. If the trout slides very slightly to one side suddenly or opens its mouth, wait long enough to avoid pulling the fly out of the mouth. Then gently set the hook.
If you're using an indicator, set your hook at the slightest deviation.
If you blind-cast, select likely lies -- deep holes or bends, current seams, areas of slower currents and areas with protective cover.
You can also use your thermometer to pinpoint areas where the water is warmer, like areas of sub-surface springs or where ground seepages enter the stream. Only a 2- to 3-degree difference is often enough to attract winter trout.
Likewise, pay attention to stretches exposed to sunlight, and avoid cold, canyon-shadowed runs.
It's also important to fish quickly, but with purpose. If, after a few well-placed casts, you see no sign of trout, move on. Don't waste time on marginal water. You won't find winter trout in all of the same locations they inhabited during the summer. They will congregate in attractive, protected spots rather than spreading out across the river, so many seemingly likely spots may hold no fish.
When probing deep areas, begin fishing with midge larvae and pupa patterns. Nymphs, streamers and scud patterns are good options as well. Use enough weight to scrape the bottom with a drag-free drift.
Again, remain alert for a subtle take. Use a sensitive strike indicator. At best, an indicator will only detect about one of three takes. The more weight you use, the less sensitive the indicator will be.
Midges are fished to mimic their three-step sequence.
1) In the morning, midge larvae are readily available as they drift along the bottom of the stream.
2) If conditions warrant, the larvae will mature into the pupa stage and begin their emergence process by slowly rising to the surface.
3) Upon reaching the surface and breaking through the meniscus, the adult stage of the midge will fly off to mate and die.
Successful fishermen will begin the day by drifting midge larvae or nymphs to fish they've sighted. The offering should be weighted to drift right on the bottom.
Most winter fly-fishing activity will be subsurface. But you may notice slight surface disturbances. This is a signal to switch to emerger pupae patterns. I generally use an adult pattern with an emerger dropper that drifts just below the surface.
Visible rise patterns suggest that the trout have keyed on adult midges. If the fish begin to rise to my dry pattern, I usually exchange the emerger dropper with another dry fly.
If several trout are rising, focus on a single fish rather than casting without a specific target. Try to time your casts in rhythm with the trout's rising pattern, so that your fly will pass through the feeding window in tandem with the trout's anticipated rise.
As you might suspect, the winter fly-fisherman must come prepared with the proper tools. Environmental conditions are quite different. For example, the sun can burn you quickly, even through a light cloud cover. Use sunscreen.
Safety factors become more significant as well. A slip or fall into icy water becomes a real hazard. Hypothermia and frostbite are dangers to be aware of. Below-freezing temperatures mean that the combination of cold and wet can harm fingers. In extreme conditions, a dunking could become a life-threatening experience.
There are a number of cold-weather fly-fishing gloves available at fly shops. Don't leave home without a pair.
Likewise, riverbanks and slopes may likely be icy or snowy, creating a slippery walking surface. Icy rocks along the riverbank and in the water are very dangerous. I highly recommend using studded boots and a wading staff. When possible, avoid wading, especially in heavy currents.
Heavy neoprene waders should be matched with woolen or moisture-wicking fleece underclothing and heavy wool socks. Wind and the accompanying wind-chill factor are likely, so be sure to overlay your clothing with a good wind-breaking parka and warm headgear.
Warm, layered clothes ensure an enjoyable day of fishing regardless of the weather, which can range from sub-zero to very mild temperatures.
Fishing tackle should include a 9-foot, 4- to 5-weight rod. Some prefer a 6-weight when fishing with a lot of weight. In most places, a 9- to 12-foot leader with fluorocarbon 5X-7X tippet matched with a floating fly-line will suffice. Some experts recommend using only a 7 1/2-foot leader, but I prefer a longer one.
YOUR WINTER FLY BOX</b
Mayfly nymphs, minnow imitations, San Juan Worms, and where found, mysis shrimp, will attract February trout. As March approaches, Baetis hatches become important as trout begin selecting these tiny mayflies. However, midges remain the trout's staple winter food. They are more active than other subsurface forage during the coldest months. Hatches occur under bright sunlit skies, and this triggers trout to feed on the surface.
Colorado guide Pat Dorsey writes in his South Platte treatise that he believes the pupal stage to be the principal food source in the midges' lifecycle. When you don't see any specific hatches, dead-drift a midge larva along the stream bottom.
Size and color are important when fishing midges. Winter trout are usually very selective. Probably the most critical factors, in order, are size, color, and profile. Sizes 20 to 28 flies are commonly used in Colorado tailwaters. Black, red, olive and gray are favorite colors for winter trout.
Any patterns that imitate the midge larvae, pupae, and adult stages can be successful. But the following represent what many experts seem to favor: Dorsey recommends the Brassie, Mercury Midge, Top Secret Midge and Black Beauty. Other guides favor RS-2, WD-40, and tiny San Juan Worms. Although midge-mayfly patterns should be in sizes 20 to 28, mysis shrimp should be 16 to 20.
Griffith's Gnats or sparse Adams flies imitate the adult midge. A complete fly box might also contain some small 12 to 16 streamer flies as well.
There are more than 50 tailwaters in Colorado, and the following are just a sample of the more popular.
The Blue River below Dillon Dam, surrounded by shimmering snow-covered slopes, is perhaps the best-known home for double-digit-weight denizens of frigid waters.
Flowing underneath the Interstate-70 overpass and through the outlet shopping mall in Silverthorne, this section of catch-and-release-only Wild Trout Water provides an amphitheater where shoppers can watch fishermen tangle with huge mysis-nourished brown and rainbow trout.
Standing on "Spectator Bridge" over the river, onlookers often help locate trout for the fishermen. There are few hatches here, so the Blue is essentially nymph water. Standard midge and mayfly nymphs -- supplemented by mysis shrimp patterns, if flows are heavy -- are standard fare.
The Taylor River "Hog Pond" is as equally well known as the Blue, for it harbors the largest trout in Colorado, including the state-record catch-and-release rainbow -- 40.25 inches long. Rainbows in the 15- to 20-pound range and huge brown trout are not uncommon here, despite usually frigid conditions.
The Taylor provides extreme winter-fishing conditions at times, but the fishing remains superb. My favorite hole is guarded by a sign indicating avalanche danger. The narrow, debris-strewn path of innumerable past avalanches lends credence to this warning. As on the Blue River, midge, tiny mayfly nymphs, and mysis shrimp are key patterns.
The Arkansas River below Pueblo Reservoir, unmarked by any outstanding natural wonders, is a winter fisherman's dream. At lower altitude, the climate here is fisherman-friendly, and the trout are both willing and plentiful. Although not "Hog Pond" in size, the browns and rainbows here will average up to 16 inches, with a few trophy browns as residents too.
Below the reservoir, several miles of public access provide uncrowded conditions. Low, clear water combined with dreary days frequently produce massive Blue-Winged Olive hatches. Consistent water flows through winter months ensure excellent dry-fly fishing for both midge and olive hatches.
The premier section is just below the dam for a couple of miles. Size 18 to 24 midge and olive patterns will ensure action. But for those who want to attract the large browns in the river, Colorado fly-fishing expert and author Marty Bartholomew recommends streamer patterns.
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