Salomone: Low and Slow
Vail Valley Anglers
Winter has placed a frigid grasp on the river, squeezing the flow into a sluggish pace. Even the flowing water moves with the speed of melting butter. Anglers who inadvertently overlook the cold and its effects on the water, bugs and trout will struggle to achieve winter fly fishing success. But the fly-fisher who recognizes the signs and adjusts their approach will find repeated winter success by fishing low and slow.
Why anglers need to slow down in the winter months is a matter of the extreme conditions dictated by the cold. Extended periods of single digit temperatures will have a lasting effect on the river that could take days to overcome. The cold overnight temperatures create slush ice in the flowing water and form anchor ice along the river bottom. Extreme conditions such as this necessitate some forethought.
Trout will not move in the coldest winter water temperatures. Rather, trout find suitable conditions in very specific locations where food and oxygen are available and energy exertion is at a minimum. Often anglers will find winter trout sitting motionless on the river bottom rocks. Some may suspend ever so slightly, making apprehensive movements. But make no mistake, trout will not travel far for a bite to eat.
Midge larva in the winter will be along the bottom of the river and red in color. If you are fishing a midge larva pattern in the winter, red is the No. 1 choice, with black and olive coming in at No. 2 and No. 3. Surprisingly, the Miracle nymph, white with a black thread head, has been a proven performer during the cold weather months.
Zebra midges, mercury midges, miracle nymphs all in a size 18 or smaller produce during the winter months. Small nymphs are the norm for winter fly fishing. Anglers with a well stocked tailwater box will find many of the same bugs are productive on the freestone Eagle river during the winter.
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Longer leaders will assist anglers in the clear water conditions. Fine tippet is a necessity for managing small nymphs. However, sharp ice shelves, frisky winter fish and frozen fly rod guides can sever even the toughest fluorocarbon material easily. Strive to get away with the largest diameter tippet possible. Heavier tippet shortens the fight time, an added insurance policy for any hooks that find flesh.
Getting your flies down into the “zone” is a trial and error game. Micro shot has filled the need for dialing in your presentation perfectly. A string of small shot pinched on your leader lets anglers find the exact depth to match the trout and is more easily managed in the water. Getting down to where the water slows along the river bottom is where you want your flies for a low and slow approach.
All anglers will increase their catch rate, whether in winter, summer or fall, with the assistance of a high-quality landing net. Most nets from fly-fishing companies like Fishpond, Rising or a custom wooden net maker incorporate rubber baskets that do not remove the precious slime layer that protects the skin of trout. A good net like the Lunker from Rising nets or the El Jefe from Fishpond have a longer handle, wide scoop and deep bucket. Longer-handled nets double as good boat nets and excellent wading staffs.
It is important to mention that most anglers will be fishing with some type of glove during the winter. Many companies are making fantastic gear for winter hands; however, gloves will remove the slime layer from all salmonids. Studies have shown that trout handled with a landing glove need weeks of time to regrow the damaged area. A good net holds trout in the water, rests the fish without handling and releases the fish without damage.
The hazards from frigid air temperatures are many. Delicate gill filaments freeze when removed from the water. Eyes can skin over from cold winds. And the thin skin on fins cannot withstand the chill. Winter is the time for admiring a caught fish in your net and not your hands.
“Low and slow, that is the tempo” is how the Beastie Boys put it a long time ago. And that is how you want to present it today. Winter months require a sluggish pace, deep riding nymphs and finesse. Anglers able to incorporate all three will find repeatable fly-fishing success during the coldest months of the year.