Salomone: Five borderline flies for frigid conditions
Vail Valley Anglers
Winter fly fishing makes me appreciate our sport even more. Sure, I long for the dry fly days of summer when caddis are gobbled up along the riverbanks. But when a blanket of white lays claim to the riverside my wintertime fly fishing benefits from some borderline flies. These are not the flies to get the purists’ affection. However, these five flies will gather attention and a bite when fishing in frigid conditions.
When I say “borderline,” I mean that these flies aren’t the typical flies found in a fly box. Most flies are designed to imitate a stage in an insect’s life cycle. Whether it is the larva, pupa, emerger of adult, fly anglers are well adept at matching the hatch in this aspect. However, the five borderline flies I’m going to discuss don’t really belong.
These flies, for the most part, are all meat. They represent sustenance, protein, the key to getting through tomorrow.
Trout feed all year long. They don’t stop eating in the winter. It’s the food source that changes. But fish still have to eat.
Scuds, worms, sowbugs, eggs and leeches are all what I call borderline flies. Some of these don’t even belong in the water. And yet these borderline flies can be the ticket to wintertime success.
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Scuds are small, freshwater crustaceans that proliferate in weed growth. Scuds are constantly present in the water. And I mean all water, rivers, streams, beaver ponds and stillwaters, scuds are there. I’ve watched in the summertime as trout push into weed beds causing the scuds to swim with a pulsing motion that trout can exploit.
A larger bite, scuds are easy to eat and pack a lot of protein. Scuds are eaten by trout alive or dead too. A dead scud changes color to more of a rust or orange color. A live scud is predominantly olive green. Nymphing with a scud along the river bottom in the winter is a good approach to success.
As water begins to rise, worms get thrust into the mix. A worm fly may get you some naughty looks on the river. But a worm is too good for trout to pass up. A seductively, drifting worm imitation works in the river current giving the illusion of movement and life. Even sitting still on the bottom a worm fly, whether a San Juan or Squirmy, wiggles from the slightest current push.
A squirmy worm possesses the feel, heft and weight of a real worm. Trout find the squirmy irresistible even in winter. Fished along the river bottom, worm flies have no means of locomotion. Rather, they bounce along with the speed and pace of the river water, but always on the bottom.
Sowbugs, the rolly polly bug children taunt into curling up tightly, are another morsel without locomotion. Sowbugs tumble along completely current bound. Flowing with the might of the river current, sowbugs are easy bites to capture.
As a food source that really doesn’t belong in the water, sowbugs curl up tight, drown and unflex into a dead drift posture. A sowbug tumbling along in the water is the kind of sustenance that helps trout make it through the winter.
Yarn egg flies come in a huge variety of colors. Yarn flies are inexpensive to make and an easy fly for beginning fly tyers to create. Like the squirmy wormy, a yarn egg fly drifts in the torrent seductively, softly and smooth. It’s a natural tumble that trout have been conditioned into eating.
The brightly colored protein blob garnishes a lot of attention in cold, clear winter water. Egg flies tied with yarn float differently compared to glue-gun eggs or beads. The yarn becomes water soaked, and mimics a swollen egg with the same resistance found in a natural egg. The way yarn bounces along helps anglers present their flies with a sense of realism.
Leeches are found in most watersheds. Leech flies breathe in the current with a natural movement that trout find delirious. Swing it, strip it, let it dead drift, a leech fly works for you and sells the presentation.
Borderline flies will produce success in the frigid months. From waterbound food sources like leeches and eggs to misplaced bugs that really belong out of the water like a sowbug, fly anglers do what they can in the wintertime to produce a bite.
Michael Salomone moved to the Eagle River valley in 1992. He began guiding fly-fishing professionally in 2002. His freelance writing has been published in numerous magazines and websites including; Southwest Fly Fishing, Fly Rod & Reel, Eastern Fly Fishing, On the Fly mag, FlyLords, the Pointing Dog Journal, Upland Almanac, the Echo website, Vail Valley Anglers and more. He lives on the bank of the Eagle River with his wife, Lori; two daughters, Emily and Ella; and a brace of yellow labrador retrievers.