Salomone: Subtle fly-fishing changes come with the seasons in Colorado
Vail Valley Anglers
We are lucky in Colorado to have an open trout season all year long. However, a year-round season presents some difficult winter fly-fishing conditions. Where just a few weeks ago picking open water proved to be a task, now the Eagle River has broken open from Wolcott down to the confluence with the Colorado River. Targeting trout in the winter requires anglers to be keen observers who notice the subtle changes in the water when coming out of a frigid winter.
River conditions have lain dormant for months. The constant presence of midge larva has lulled trout into a perspective and they want and need something new to eat. The subtle changes in water temperature experienced throughout a typical late winter day will trigger insect activity, and those minor increases in temperature are followed by an increase in trout feeding.
The intimidation some feel when contemplating a winter fly-fishing experience is unfounded. Fly-fishing in the winter presents challenges to keeping yourself warm but no more than a day of skiing on the slopes. The gear most people have for skiing doubles as great equipment for winter fly-fishing. The same approach to layering with polypropylene, fleece and gore tex (ski socks rock) prepares any angler for a comfortable outing.
Targeting the prime time hours from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. focuses your efforts on the best window for success. Some anglers choose to present their flies in the deepest water below broken water riffles. This will put you into fish. However, by midday trout are moving into the warmth created by sunshine in mid to shallow depths. Anglers are then provided with a sight fishing approach for fish that have changed behavior, position and activity level.
The bright sunshine radiates heat back from the river bottom in shallow water and spurs along increased insect activity in the warming currents. Choosing to fish stretches of the Eagle River that run East to West provide an extended window into the afternoon for warmer water activity from longer direct sunlight exposure.
Shallow water trout in the Eagle River provide exciting yet challenging sight fishing. Locating trout that have moved into shallow water is a game for a keen eye and a slow pace. With eons of evolution shaping their camouflage, trout still cannot hide their shadow. Quality sunglasses are an asset for spotting trout and shadows in the clear water of winter.
Rigging for trout that have migrated into the warmth of skinny water requires anglers to perfect a shallow water nymph presentation. Micro shot helps to dial in specific depths for your drift. This is critical to fooling trout that feed in clear, shallow water. Unweighted nymphs drift in the sunshine with a degree of disconnect not achievable from weighted nymphs.
A pair of white foam strike indicators placed 3 or 4 inches apart in the middle of a 9 foot leader with 6X tippet provide an extra degree of stealth while detecting the slightest pause. Single indicators, airlocks, thingamabobbers or yarn can spin in the current when a trout eats and can be difficult to detect. A pair of foam indicators will change their position in tandem as opposed to spinning when you get a bite.
Rod length is a matter of preference and chosen fishing technique. A 9 foot rod paired with a sealed drag reel is the ultimate in cold weather equipment. Click and pawl reels lock up from cold, freezing water and riverbank snow. Euro-nymph rods can pick apart water and control drifts with a tightline connection that rarely misses a bite in deep or shallow water.
The flies of choice are subsurface nymphs that depict the larva and pupa stages of midges and small Blue Wing Olives. Proven flies would be midges in any stage-BWO larva and pupa nymphs and caddis larva. Small, black stoneflies are another key fly for anglers at this time of year. Longtime local anglers know to be looking ahead and anticipating a major insect emergence like the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch. Those bugs don’t just appear! They are in the water now and developing rapidly which makes a caddis larva an excellent selection.
One word of caution as we slide into spring, trout are going to be spawning in shallow water gravel. Rocks devoid of sediment, weed growth and appear clean are active spawning locations. Tread softly around spawning activity. Choosing to target spawning trout does no good for our Eagle River trout population. Conservation and preservation now guarantee opportunities for generations of anglers in the future.
Anglers should be aware of safe handling practices for winter. Tailing trout with gloves is a poor choice. Gloves have been proven to remove the protective slime layer, and it takes weeks for trout to recover physically. Lifting trout out of the water can freeze sensitive eyeballs and exposed gill filaments. All these things will not immediately kill trout but leave them expending precious energy toward recovery and often prove detrimental to the fish in the long run. Keep them “wet and in the net” during frigid air temperatures.
Winter fly-fishing is a peaceful and productive time for those that arrive prepared. Anglers need to focus on subtle changes in the river that occur throughout the day. Temperature, sunlight and depth, when compounded, create exciting winter fly-fishing opportunities from which any angler can benefit.
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.