Winter is prime time to take a guided fly-fishing trip in the Vail Valley | VailDaily.com

Winter is prime time to take a guided fly-fishing trip in the Vail Valley

G and I stood knee-deep in the Eagle River as a few heavy flakes of snow tried their best not to become rain.

The monochromatic view of the snow-covered riverbanks and the flat light of the gray clouds had lulled me into a rhythm — cast, mend, drift, repeat — and I stared dully at the blaze-orange bobber as it dipped ever so briefly under the rippling surface of the water before reemerging in the current.

"Get him, get him, get him!" G shouted, snapping me out of my stupor.

My brain finally registered the barely perceptible tug on the line, and I ripped the end of the rod toward the sky, hoping I'd set the hook in a fish this time and not another stick or wad of river muck.

“Fly-fishing is not about doing it the easy way, it’s about doing it the right way

— the right bug at the right time with the right presentation.” Alex GarnierProfessional guide, Minturn Anglers

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The line moved upstream and I was treated to a flash of white belly, confirming my catch was prey and not plant. I struggled to maintain a good fighting angle on the rod as G talked me through the motions of coaxing my quarry toward shore, first tugging in the line and then playing it out and letting the fish swim.

The battle was soon over, and I went slip sliding across the slime-covered rocks in my waders to where G had wrangled my foe. A largish rainbow trout squirmed in the bottom of the net, and in its jaw was set a tiny hook fringed with pheasant tail feathers and carefully wrapped with grey thread and orange dubbing.

The fly I had tied less than 24 hours earlier had caught a fish.

Tie flying

My journey to angling glory began with a beer and a bobbin.

On this night, like most Wednesday nights during the winter, G, aka Alex Garnier, was amongst a group of guides at the Minturn Anglers fly shop, sipping Montucky Cold Snacks and tying flies. A few weeks before, I had sheepishly admitted that I'd never been fly-fishing, and G hatched the idea of taking me all of the way through the process, from hook and thread to catch and release.

I cracked a beer and took a seat next to Minturn Anglers general manager Dave Budniakiewicz, who showed me how to grip a tiny fishing hook between the jaws of the rotary vise that would serve as my mechanical fly-tying assistant for the next few hours.

These Wednesday night tying sessions started with guides getting together to stockpile bugs for the summer season and hash out ideas for patterns for whatever they were currently fishing. The social hours have since grown into an opportunity to suck more people into the cult of fly-fishing.

"It's something to do in the wintertime," Budniakiewicz said. "It gets people in the shop and helps us develop relationships with our customers, having a few beers and tying up bugs with them."

We started with a simple pattern called a San Juan worm: a piece of chenille — a velvety sort of yarn — secured to a hook. I threaded a bobbin and began carefully wrapping the hook with purple thread, from the middle, forward to the eye, where the line would be tied, and back to the bend in the hook.

"Worms are always in the water and are not specific to what's happening with the bugs in the river, or the 'hatch,'" G said. "Tying the San Juan, you learn the very basics: getting the thread on the hook, attaching the one piece of material and finishing with the whip finish knot."

I fumbled with the whip finish tool and finally managed to tie the final knot, securing the worm so a curious fish couldn't rip it off the hook. Budniakiewicz showed me how to flash-singe the ends of the chenille with a cigarette lighter to keep it from fraying.

Across the table, another novice fly-tier's worm went up like a candlewick, half of its torso engulfed in flame. G put out the fire and removed the now-tiny worm from the vise, clamping in a new hook to demonstrate the next fly.

As the night went on, the patterns became progressively more difficult and complex, incorporating beads, feathers and bits of metallic wire. The process of wrapping thread and brushing epoxy was tedious, but it's all worth it when you take your flies out on the water, Budniakiewicz said, as it makes the fishing experience more intimate.

"You feel that much more connected to the fish because you sat at home the night before, contemplated what they were going to eat and whipped up some bugs that you thought would be appropriate for what you were going to do," he said. "If you whack a couple of fish on those flies, you're ecstatic."

Catching a fish is thrilling, but fly-tying is an art in its own right, he said.

"It's apples to oranges when it comes to fishing," he said. "You could have the best fly fisherman in the world and they might not know how to tie a San Juan worm. But it makes you a better fisherman, learning the different stages and colors of the bugs."

Two for two

Back on the river, the sky was starting to clear a bit, and I stomped some warmth back into my feet, which were beginning to go numb from wading in and out of the frigid water. Aside from a few float-fishermen and a bald eagle that had been surveying us from high up in its perch, we hadn't seen a soul for hours.

"The winter is cool for a couple of reasons," G said. "First, there's fewer people, and second, the water is low and the fish have less real estate to hang out in, so there's a better chance at getting your fly in front of more fish. This also means there's a chance at getting a big one.

"I guess for me there's also a third. The fish don't eat as aggressively in the winter, so you have to make a perfect drift to fool them, so it's harder, in a way, which makes the reward when you do get them that much better."

G demonstrated a roll cast with the perfect drift and a hungry brown trout snapped up the worm I'd tied the night before. My flies were two for two.

"Fly-fishing is not about doing it the easy way, it's about doing it the right way — the right bug at the right time with the right presentation," G said. "If you succeed, they eat your fly and you get a chance to interact with a wild fish for a moment and release it unharmed.

"Tying the fly helps complete the circle. It connects you to the fish that much more. It's better that way."

Gone fishin’

• Fly Fishing Outfitters (1060 W. Beaver Creek Blvd., Avon | 970-845-8090) offers half-day and full-day guided wading trips, plus half-day and full-day winter float trips on the Eagle, Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers. Visit http://www.flyfishingoutfitters.net for pricing and more information.

Gore Creek Fly Fisherman (142 Beaver Creek Place, Avon | 970-476-3296) offers half-day and full-day guided winter wading trips, plus half-day and full-day float fishing trips on the Colorado and Eagle rivers and full-day floats on the Roaring Fork River. Visit http://www.gorecreekfly fisherman.com for pricing and more information.

Minturn Anglers (102 Main St., Minturn | 970-642-3014) offers half-day, three-quarter day and full-day guided winter wading trips, as well as half, three-quarter and full-day float trips on the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers. The company also offers three-quarter day guided ice fishing at Sylvan Lake in Eagle. Discounted winter rates are available. Visit http://www.minturnanglers.com for pricing and more information.

• Vail Valley Anglers (97 Main St., Riverwalk at Edwards | 877-926-0900) offers half-day guided winter wading trips and full-day winter float trips on the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers, as well as ice-fishing trips that last approximately six hours. Visit http://www.vail valleyanglers.com for pricing and more information.