Published Dec 6th 2008
The season has not finished yet - with the flyrod in the snow-fields
The land and the animals all change their appearance with the seasons. This repetitive cycle can also be observed in aquatic life but only a few of us are aware that one important element in this system always remains the same.
And that is the fish.
No matter which season we are in they are there in the water, even in the winter. The fish do not migrate to Africa along with the swarms of swallows and storks, they just tend to change their location looking for shelter which protects them from the coming frosty, chilly weather and they keep on feeding.
Be it either herbivorous or carnivorous they take food even during these hard months. So if they are there and they are also feeding, we have a good chance of catching them and this is the point where we, the fishermen, enter the cycle.
Unfortunately most of us think that our hobby is just a seasonal thing that ceases to function for the period between the first frost and the appearance of the buds on the trees in the spring. We pack away our fishing gear and leave it in the garage.
Folks, you should realize that the season never stops! With a little bit of practice and preparation we can continue chasing our favorite quarry with great success - potentially as successful as in the summer months. The rivers, streams and burns are the same as well as the species. Only the packing changes.
Possessing the necessary information on the area we want to fish, we can easily discover which are the most productive areas in the winter. A nice water running almost in the back garden is a real treasure especially considering the shortness of the days.
In Hungary the species found in big shoals that feed most actively during the cold months are chub, white-eyed bream and roach. Their activity increases as the water warms up during the day and reaches its peak around 2pm and lasts until dusk.
The winter diet consists of algae and moss but they also take the aquatic forms of different insects such as mayflies, sedges and buzzers.
Right, we know where we can go and what our potential catch can be and what to use if we want to fool them but are we prepared properly for a cold days fishing.
Flyfishing in sub zero temperatures is a real challenge. It is cold out there but to what degree? The air occasionally creeps into the positive but more often it is in the region below the freezing point. The ground is covered with snow and ice but the water is still running in its bed.
It stands to reason that it is warmer than the air but not much. Therefore clothing needs careful consideration. Wading is essential in most cases if we want to catch. Neoprene chest waders are a must. Very often I wade in rivers during winter and find that you need to increase the air gap between yourself and the water.
My solution starts with the wader and works its way towards the body.
I use 5mm neoprene chest waders under which I put 2 pairs of thermo long johns and a pair of thin fleece trousers. Even if I look like a Michelin man, the thick layers cannot keep me warm for more than 1 - 1.5 hours and I need to regularly come out of the water.
Keeping you upper body warm is a much easier task and I assume all of us have got a warm insulated cap. A pair of neoprene gloves and a hood can be a real blessing if snow falls. Do not make a mistake and set out without them.
I would like to point out to one thing that if it happens can cause untold frustration. This is ice forming in the rings. We cannot avoid it or prevent if from happening but we can definitely do some things to mitigate the effect.
Firstly try to choose a rod with increased diameter rings or equip your blank with a set of oversized ones. One rod I know of, which is produced with large diameter rings, is the Redington RS3 #3 rod. Take a look at the picture. The one on the top is the #3 and below you can see my RS3 #5. It might look strange and can be criticized aesthetically but is very practical. Obviously with the larger diameter rings it takes longer for the ice to completely block the line's way.
It is important to treat your line when not in use and prior to fishing even though you have probably done it extensively before the cold months arrived. I also apply - and do not laugh - Vaseline. It does not cause any damage to the line but makes it more water repellent. Less water on the line leads to less ice clogging up the rings. The amount of water carried on the line can be further reduced through a correct casting technique and also through a right way of controlling your lures. Keeping contact tight between lure and rod can be achieved by extending the arc the rod moves through instead of retrieving the line. Try to practice the roll cast instead of the normal false cast. The water is usually warmer than the air and immersing the tip of the rod in the water and shaking it, gets rid of the ice temporarily.
I have not noticed any damage caused to my tackle while fishing in the winter, but this may just be because I do not do enough winter fishing.
As I wrote earlier the reason for using light tackle is down to the very gentle takes.
The finer, lighter and softer the line is the better it registers any movement of our lures at the other end. Obviously I would not recommend an ultralight setup because you need to cast those nymphs, occasionally further than just a couple of yards.
You have to justify and compromise according to the weight you need to reach the depth where the fish are. In my case the balance leans towards the sensitive thus in most cases I use either a 3- or 2-weight line. Detecting the bites is possible in many ways and I highly recommended watching for all types at a time.
Let us run through some examples.
On bigger, open waters I usually cast across the current or diagonally towards the opposite bank. As soon as the line falls on the surface and has got "stuck" and you need more line to allow the lure to sink then just simply flick or mend the line against the current by feeding out some line through your fingers at the same time. Any line arc can be corrected by the same action. The only difference is that you do not feed any line just turn the line over upstream. I repeat it a couple of times till my nymph reaches the target depth which means close to the bottom of the river. Once it is done I tighten the line and establish contact. Then comes the controlled drift applying short twitches. I pull the line slowly so that the lure drifts across the river and end up on my side further downstream.
On narrow rivers and streams you cast upstream in a straight line and retrieve the line a touch faster than the current. The tip of the rod needs to be kept somewhere between 10-20cm or 4-8 inches above the waters surface.
The fish sometimes lurk close to the bank under the overhanging vegetation and attack the lures as soon as they hit the water or in the sinking phase.
Therefore you always have to keep your eyes on the tippet and on the leader. This type of take cannot be sensed through the rod nor can it be seen on the fly line and all you see are small ripples around the tippet or leader. During the drift when you do not animate the nymphs just keep contact. Even the slightest bite is registered by the line but the fingers only feel the aggressive yanks.
In the last phase when the nymphs have drifted across the river the line straightens and tightens and you have a very direct contact through your fingers. Takes are detected through your fingers either in a form of short consecutive twitches or a slow motion stop as if the hooks have caught something.
And finally we have come to the trickiest type of bite. You will not see it on the line or rod. The fish takes the nymph while drifting at the same speed, without changing direction or making any sudden movement and holds the lure in its mouth for only a few seconds. To catch these educated fish you have to rely on your sight that means you need to follow your rig under the water, which can be only done in clear water and at close range. There are days when this is the only way to catch something.
On a cold day all the sleeping trees and dead bushes along the bank were buckling under the weight of the frozen rain that fell during the night my friend and I wanted to try our luck on our favorite water.
Looking from the top of the steep bank we saw huge shoals of chub, so many we could not count them but as we waded in and cast a few times the fish did not seem to be interested at all and this was unusual.
After a while it started to annoy me and driven by my curiosity I simply walked closer to them. I pulled off roughly 1.5 meters or 5 feet of line and cast my fly upstream towards a bigger shoal of fish. The white flashy thorax of my buzzer imitation was clearly visible in the water. As soon as it reached the bottom I moved the rod tip to the opposite direction so that the buzzer imitated an emerging movement on a half arc.
Success followed almost immediately, however the hook was spat out instantly.
The lesson was learned and next time I saw the white of their mouth I lifted the rod and connected. Although this method may have little to do with flyfishing, the only common thing being the tackle, it works.
My friend who had been using the conventional drift did not catch anything. I landed 20 fish. Ever since in clear water I really like using this method either at very close range or cast a bit further.
As for the rig, I prefer two flies. We can moralize over this but at least give yourself a chance to catch and not just test your nerves. Personal experience makes me think that the second fly tied approximately 50-60 centimeters or a couple of feet from the point more than doubles our chances and also allows us to test more than just one at a time.
Because most of us do not have practice in casting tandem flies we tend to avoid them mainly due to being scared of tangles. I can assure you, you do not need to worry about it. As a tippet I use a 1.5 meter or 5 feet long piece of mono. I form a 40 centimeter or one foot loop at one end using the standard water knot. I cut the line to leave a short 10-15 centimeters or 4-5 inches of line for the dropper. This technique reduces the probability of tangling to almost nothing.
I have tested many flies in the past 9 years but nowadays I seem to stick to 4 patterns.
First comes the black gold head woolly bugger tied on a size 10 hook. These mimic either a leech or a small baitfish but are very successful in the winter. Interestingly it does not catch fish in any of the other seasons The only drawback of the pattern is the high interest pikes show in it and they can give you a hard time if you hook in one.
Second in the row is the good old gold head hare's ear in a dark grey shade. Be it either the point fly or the dropper it is very hard to beat. I always keep some in size 10 and 12 in different weights.
The third favorite is the pheasant tail with a pink fluorescent thorax. I have tried quite a few variations but this funny color has always outfished the others. The size is 12 to 14. The same applies as for the hare's ear.
Finally the one which I have already mentioned: it is basically a buzzer pattern tied on a curved size 10 hook (Kamasan B100 for example). The abdomen is pheasant tail fibers wound around and painted red. The thorax is synthetic white dubbing. Unlike the others this one is not weighted. It is mainly used as the dropper fly but occasionally I use it as the only fly.
Anyway, I think it is time to go fishing and not sit in our nice warm workshop bent over our vices and tying flies while dreaming about the past season's big catches. Even if this period of the year looks dead we really can find suitable locations and keep on fishing!
I wish successful frosty fishing to all of you!