Fly Fishing the Rockies in the Winter
Jarrett Voiles / Sportsmens Compass Contributing Member & owner of Brooks Fishing Equipment
Fly fishing in the Rockies and west during winter usually goes one of two ways for people. One way is looking through pictures of fish caught during the other seasons and refilling boxes while the wind blows and the snow falls outside. The other way, for those who can’t wait a few months to cast a fly to unsuspecting fish, is to bundle up in the warmest gear that you can think of, slip your way through snow and ice to the bank, and repeatedly knock the ice off your line so that you can re-grease it for a few more casts before the ice builds up again.
Whichever way you “fish” through the winter, spring is a welcome sight, and as the snow melts there is an undeniable draw to the river. But as the weather and seasons change, so will the gear you want to bring with you. Here we will go through some essential gear that you will want with you along with some must haves for your fly box whether you live out west or have an early spring trip planned.
First of let’s start with some basics. You can’t fish if you’re frozen to the bank. It may be spring be in the west and the Rockies in particular the weather can change in an instant. If you are wading be careful and make sure there are no ice jams up stream as this can lead to a wall off ice coming downstream if it breaks up. Also it’s a good idea to wear thermals and sweatpants under your waders. That water is still cold and as snow melts into the river it is ice cold. Also a wind and waterproof jacket are necessary. You will want to layer your clothing from base layer to outer layers to be prepared for changing temps and the possibility of storms. Other than that the basics such as gloves (remember you might get them wet so bring a spare pair) hat, warm socks, all while trying to avoid moister trapping materials like cotton, and of course polarized sunglasses.
Now that you are warm, dry, and ready what and how do you fish this time of year? Even though it’s warmer outside the water temperatures are still low, and will stay relatively low until the big rush of runoff from the peaks subsides. This means that the trout won’t be as willing to come off the lie they are on to pick off a meal and less likely to chase one down. So it is a little early to be stripping or swinging streamers. That doesn’t mean that trout won’t eat streamers in pre runoff rivers, just keep your retrieves slow or fish one under an indicator on a dead drift. Zonkers and Bellyache minnows are good patterns to dead drift, and don’t forget to overlook your Wooly Buggers which can be a great dead drifted pattern in the spring.
Nymphing is arguably the most productive way to catch fish as winter turns to spring. You’ll want to keep the patterns you’ve been using during the winter as staple flies. Midges will continue to be some of the most prevalent hatches on the river. Zebra Midges are a must have along with Disco Midges. Others such as the Rootbeer Midge and Jujubee Midge in sizes 18-24 are great flies that have proven themselves on many fish. Stoneflies are still going to be working too. While most stoneflies won’t be hatching until later on in the spring and summer, they live as nymphs underwater for two or more years (depending on the species) so they are always present as a food source and a good nymph pattern to try out especially if you need a heavy anchor fly. Baetis will start coming out and become a prevalent hatch in the spring as the water starts to warm a little. These little mayflies can be present in huge numbers causing fish to really key in on them and refuse nearly every other offering you present them. Good patterns to use are the Iron Lotus, Barr’s BWO, and the good old Pheasant Tail in sizes 18-22. Other new bugs that will start to be important are caddisflies. While they may not be out in huge numbers in the early spring like later in the year, there are some areas where prevalent hatches such as the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch occurs and are very important to the fish and anglers alike. Larva and pupa patterns are good to keep around later in the spring such as the Cased Caddis, Sparkle Pupa, and the Z-Wing Caddis in sizes 12-16.
Now if you are a true purist or just like your dry flies the early spring can be a great time of year, but your do have to be able to track some pretty small flies. As stated before midges will continue to be prevalent which means tracking the smallest dry flies you can. Some see it as a challenge and some as impossible but there are a few tips to make things easier and to miss less strikes. Firstly, this is only for midges, try cluster dries. Midges will cluster on the surface often after hatching and imitating this as opposed to a single bug allows you to use a larger pattern and flies such as Griffin’s Gnat and Rainey’s Sparkle Tail Midge are great examples. Also florescent of hi-vis posts for parachutes or wings are an obvious way to give you an advantage. One last tip is if you are fishing a single fly dry pattern and can’t track the fly watch for the area that the fly is landing in when you cast it and track that area downstream. If you see a fish rise in that vicinity then set the hook, not too hard though because you don’t want to spook the fish if it didn’t actually take your fly. Some other good midge dry patterns are the Mole fly, Parachute Midge and Crystal Midge in sizes 18-24. Emerger patterns shouldn’t be overlooked as this stage when bugs are transitioning from nymph (or pupa) stage to adult and provides trout an easy meal. These flies include the Smokejumper and the Top Secret Midge in sizes 18-24.
It’s a good thing that Baetis start hatching in early spring because they provide some great fly fishing opportunities to get you excited for the rest of the year. These hatches can be quite prevalent covering the stream’s surface with little mayflies waiting to take flight. This also presents trout with a great opportunity to feed. After Baetis emerge they have to rest on the water’s surface and wait for their wings to dry before taking flight. This means that they are an easy meal that fish definitely key in on. The naturals are small and it does pay to have some hi-vis options to see, but also natural imitative flies too because trout can be very selective when it comes to Baetis at times. Some staple flies to consider are Parachute Adams, Hi-vis BWO, Quigley’s Hackle Stacker in sizes 18-22. Again with Baetis the emerger stage should not be overlooked. When the bugs are coming out of their shucks the can be an easy meal and patterns such as Tak’s Baetis Emerger and Baetis Soft Hackle Emerger in sizes 18-22 are great ones to have with you.
Depending on the river that you are fishing Skwala stoneflies may be present as well in early spring. The can provide some fun dry fly fishing because you can use larger flies, and since they are not strong fliers you can twitch and impart a lot of action on your flies. Don’t forget your caddis dries either. X-Caddis, Mother’s Day Caddis, and some Elk Hair Caddis in size 12-16 can be very effective and necessary when trout start keying in on these erratic little bugs.
As the spring continues runoff will come all too quickly and blow out a lot or rivers in the Rockies and west for a period of time, and when the waters start to drop and clear you’ll be in for the great late spring and summer fly fishing that it brings. But just because it isn’t clear skies and 70 degrees 80 or higher doesn’t mean that there isn’t great fly fishing to be had. It’s definitely worth getting out, and while there are a quite a few staple flies and suggestions here it is also definitely worth getting in touch with a local fly shop or guide service to get expert information on the specific river you’ll be fishing if you aren’t already familiar. There are many nuances to rivers where specific patterns, techniques, and rigging can make the difference between a good and great day, and those are the people that will know the specifics.
So do your research here on the Sportsmen’s Compass to find where to get the information you need and get out and get fly fishing… it is spring already!