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Oh, Baby But It’s Cold Outside

11/04/10 – Welcome to this season’s Thursday Reviews. These Thursday Reviews will continue weekly through to April 1st and then I’ll switch to Friday Updates for the fishing season. Friday Updates consist of weekly reports on river conditions.

IceThe focus of this Thursday Review is winter trout fishing here in Maine. Which is something, unfortunately, that is severely limited.

The obvious limiting factor is that most of our water is HARD during the winter – at least all of the stillwater is hard. So that means if we’re going to fly-fish here in Maine we’ve got to find some moving water.

But not all moving water holds fish in the winter. Riffles may be open but fish aren’t going to be there. They will be hanging in slower, deeper pools and runs. So that’s where you should be – leave those riffles for a warmer (water temperature) day.

Even moving shallow water will freeze from the bottom up (Anchor Ice) and that’s another reason to stay out of the riffle areas. Algae covered rocks are slippery but not as slippery as ice covered rocks. So much for the water you should stay away from – how about the water you should fish.

Pools or runs with some depth and slow current are custom made for winter holding spots. Fish are protected by the depth, able to move into the shallows if we get a sunny day that warms the bottom and occasionally something will drift by providing an easy meal. Fish don’t need much of a meal when their metabolism is low.

Springs are another good bet. Springs are as important to the winter fisherman as they are to the summer fisherman. That 55 degree water bubbling up from the bottom is bound to draw fish. And if you find a fish you’ll probably find more than one. Fish tend to pod up when comfort becomes more important than feeding. Or said another way when fish have to choose between sharing space with another fish or freezing they tend to share the comfortable spots. So if you do hook-up don’t leave that spot there’s a good chance that fish wasn’t alone.

Bottom discharge dams are another good bet. While Wyman Dam (which is closed all winter) isn’t a true bottom discharge the water doesn’t dump from the top. Because of that below the dam is a likely area. You might not be able to fish that until spring but after April 1st it’s not a bad area to work.

Midge patternWhat to use for a fly is a good question. Hendrickson’s are out – streamers aren’t as productive as they are when the water is warmer and the stonefly, caddis and mayfly nymphs are all burrowed down in the bottom trying to make it through the winter. So what’s the best bet – midges!

Midge larvae and pupae are there year round and if you see fish surface feeding out in a glide in January chances are the main course is midge. Stock up on size 16 to 22 midge (red is a good color). Two favorites of mine are Herter’s Bastard nymph and the Red Bird (shown in the picture). I like the Herter’s Bastard better because when I’m fishing it is someone asks what I’m fishing I can reply “a little bastard.”

Remember that midge larvae spend most of their lives on or near the bottom. So even though the stonefly activity in slowed in the winter a weighted stonefly is a good way to get a couple of midge patterns down near the bottom.

The time of day is also important. The perfect January thaw day for me starts with bright sun in the morning followed by a cloudy afternoon. You know, one of those few days we get where a warm front is moving in and with it comes rain – then freezing rain late in the day or early evening.

If I can get a few hours in before the rain starts I figure I’ve got half a chance and half a chance is about as good as it gets in Graph of January Thaw temperaturesJanuary. Of course if it doesn’t rain it’s OK with me but the morning sun part is important. Morning sun seems to increase my chances especially if the direct sun on the bottom can raise the water temperature just a couple of degrees.

Fish seem to adjust to water temperatures. A cold day may put them off the feed in early June but that same temperature water in mid-winter would bring on a feeding binge. I know my expectations drop with water temperatures get below 40 degrees in the fall. However, let the water gets up to 40 degrees in the spring after a long cold winter and I’m looking to catch fish. It’s all relative

I also gladly boot up with rubber sole boots once the snow flies. Felt bottoms just pack too much snow. Felt is as dangerous in the winter as rubber without studs is in the summer. So put on those rubber bottom boots (with studs) and be happy you have them..

Species of fish also makes a difference. I can’t prove this but my feeling is that Landlocked Salmon are the easiest to catch during the winter. Togue certainly feed well when it’s cold out but they aren’t normally in any moving water that I fish. And the Brookies and Browns haven’t ever been real cooperative during the winter months. Rainbows are also a good bet but we don’t have much rainbow water that is open in the winter so for me – I like to head for some water that holds Landlocks.

When it comes to important winter gear ranked right up there with rubber sole boots are strike indicators. I don’t fish a lot of strike indicators during the summer but I like them in the winter. I’m normally fishing a short line (less than a rod length of line beyond the tip top) and a fairly long, light leader.

The short line is manageable without stripping which helps keep ice out of my guides and light tippets allow the fastest sink for my flies. I’m not real worried about break-offs as the fish don’t normally hit hard and if I get a fish on runs are short. My leaders are long (so I can get to the bottom of those runs and pools) and I don’t worry much about a smooth taper because I’m not trying to turn over a long line or get a delicate presentation.

So there you have most of the things that come to my mind when I’m winter fishing. In summary, I fish slow and deep with a dead drift (including streamers if I put one on). I wear rubber soles. I look for deeper runs and pools and avoid riffles and I fish strike indicators which help me control my fly depth so I can work that water six-inches to a foot off bottom. Midge patterns make up the most of my presentations with a stonefly or two added for weight and streamers sometimes find their way onto my line but I don’t strip them I fish them more like a nymph.

I hope some of that information helps you this winter and since the water temperature this morning is 42 degrees out back of the shop you don’t have much time before these techniques will be needed so get out there and try it this weekend before the water temperatures really slow things down.