Friday, October 23, 2015

Catching Trout on Small Streams in Winter

A Wisconsin winter brown

As any reader of this blog will know. I'm obsessed with fishing small streams. Fortunately for me, small streams fish well throughout winter, so long as you time your trips well. Due to their high surface area to volume ratio, small streams react very quickly to changes in ambient temperature and sunlight. While a medium to large trout stream like the Quinapoxet will typically stay between 32 and 35 F all winter long, a small stream can easily hit 45 F on a warm winter day. My personal "magic number" for deciding whether to fish in the winter is 38 F. Although this is arbitrary, and fish can definitely be caught at lower temps, I've found this to be a good dividing line. If, based on stream gauges and weather forecasts, I don't think my target stream will hit 38, I don't go. A few tips for winter small stream fishing:

A Massachusetts winter brown 
Watch the weather.  As I mentioned above, weather conditions are critical for winter small stream success. I pay attention to three factors in particular - forecasted high temperature, previous nightly low temperature, and cloud cover. Here's why:
  • High temperature - This one is pretty self-explanatory. The higher the air temperature, the higher the water temperature, and the higher the water temperature, the more likely you'll catch some fish. There is one thing to be mindful of when looking at the high temperature - if there's snow on the ground, a warm day will lead to a lot of melt. The snow melt will average about 32 F, so it will actually bring the water temperature down on these days.

  • Low temperature - This is important due to the same surface area to volume ration I mentioned earlier. The same characteristic that causes streams to warm quickly also causes them to cool quickly. This means that a cold night will bring the stream all the way down to 32F. Because winter days are short, there isn't much time for the sun to act on the stream and warm it, so even a very warm day is unlikely to raise stream temperatures enough after a cold night. Fishing can actually be better on a colder day if the previous night's temperature didn't drop too low. One of my best days last winter came on a day with a high of only 38, but a previous nightly low of 36. 

  • Cloud cover. Cloudy days help fishing for two reasons. One is snow melt - as I mentioned above, snow melt will drive water temperatures down. The brightness of the sun is a HUGE factor in snow melt. A sunny day around freezing will actually lead to more snow melt than a cloudy day in the 40s. The other benefit of cloud cover is less spooky fish. Because there are no leaves on the trees in winter, plenty of direct sunlight reaches the stream. This makes trout in the open very visibile, and therefore vulnerable to predation. They know they're at risk, so they'll tend to hide near undercut banks or log jams on sunny days. The sun also means that you, the angler, casts hard shadows on the stream, increasing your risk of spooking fish. So, a cloudy day means the fish are going to be easier to find and easier to fish to without spooking. Win-win!
Summing it all up - So, how do you leverage your knowledge of the weather into a successful day on the stream? Pay attention to the weather for a few days prior - ideally the weather will be warm and sunny if there's snow, or warm and cloudy if there is snow. Fish in the warmest part of the day - typically the best fishing will be from 10 AM to 2 PM. Be prepared for failure - winter fishing can be hit or miss. Catching any fish means it's a successful day.

 A winter Salter brook trout


Now that you know what weather conditions to look out for, what flies should you use? My favorite winter fly is an unweighted size 12 black wooly bugger. Because these streams are fairly shallow, you don't need weight to get to the fish. In fact, a weighted fly will likely lead to more snags and casting trouble than it's worth.

 I almost always fish downstream in winter, as it allows me to hang the fly in the current and gently guide it to any sections of the water I'm fishing. Why? Trout won't move much for a fly in winter, so you need to get the fly right in front of them. While a dry fly floating down the center of the stream will attract a fish from any section of the stream in summer, winter fishing requires much more precision in presentation.

Though streamers are my favorite flies, nymphs can work too. Because I find it hard to get a good drift with a nymph in pocket water, I typically avoid nymphs for all but the largest, slowest pools. That being said, I like to challenge myself and I'm going to try to catch more small stream trout on nymphs this winter.

A beautiful winter day on the stream - no fish were caught on this day, but the trip was absolutely worthwhile.

Fishing in winter can be tough, but remember, the point of fishing is to have fun. Go in with low expectations of catching  fish and you'll be much more satisfied than if you expect to catch a ton. Appreciate the beauty of a stream in winter - for me there's nothing better than spotting the bright red streak of a cardinal or the emerald boughs of a hemlock against a backdrop of snow.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Thinking About Winter on the Swift River

Winter is fast approaching. Here in MN we had our first frost this past weekend, and the leaves are transitioning from brilliant hues of red, yellow, and green to a uniform brown. The Wisconsin trout season is over, and the only streams open in MN are too far to make a trip worthwhile. Luckily, the bass fishing in the Mississippi should still be good for at least another month. There are also some pike hanging around and I'd love to get a few of them before it gets too cold.

A Swift River Rainbow from a cold day in January 2015 

So, despite some opportunities to fish, I've transitioned to a planning stage in regards to fishing. I'll be home in MA for Thanksgiving weekend and then for about a month in December/January. I already have a trip planned to the Swift on Thanksgiving weekend, and hopefully I'll have time to hit a few small streams if water temperatures cooperate.

Planning for the Swift

The Swift River can be an intimidating place. There are tons of large, picky trout in its crystal clear water. Flies must be small and presentations perfect. This can easily add up to a frustrating day on the water, but this can be avoided with some planning. A few tips:

  • Bring small flies. No one likes using small flies (well, maybe there are a few masochists who do), but on the Swift they are a necessity. Though you can sometimes get fish on streamers or other large flies, fish in the Swift will generally feed on tiny midges, especially in the winter. My favorite is a size 24 tung-head zebra midge, but I've done well on size 20 midge dries as well.
  • Be prepared for company. The Swift is ALWAYS crowded. Even in winter. The least crowded day I've seen on the Swift was a day last January with highs in the teens. Even then, I saw three other anglers. Luckily, people who fish the Swift tend to be helpful to beginners, and they know it will be crowded too, so they won't likely be upset at the company. You should make an effort to give other anglers as much space as possible, but realistically you'll be in close proximity to others.
  • Move around. There are many "famous" sections of the swift - The Y-pool, the Pipe, the Tree pool, and so on. These spots all have fish, but there are plenty of less-known areas with plenty of fish as well. Last winter I found a huge school of Brookies in the shallow water downstream of the Y-pool. I was hooking up with fish after fish while the guys in the Y-pool got nothing.
A nice brookie from that same January day.

The Swift River can be a great spot to fish, and is probably our best winter fishery in Massachusetts. So, if you haven't already, give it a shot this winter.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A JT Special Variant

I was inspired by Jo's recent post on FlyFishMA to put my peacock herl to good use. I decided to try to imitate Jo's streamer pattern - the JT Special.

I didn't have any white marabou, so I substituted white crosscut rabbit, which I palmered and then propped up with my thread to form a wing. The final appearance is pretty similar to the original, but it will be interesting to see how the action of the rabbit in the water compares to marabou. In my experience, marabou compresses more in the water, but also moves more, so my variant will likely be a little fuller-bodied, but with less movement.

I can't wait to give this fly a shot at the Swift this winter!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

End of the Season - Browns, Brookies, and Waterfalls

One of two hydropower plants in River Falls. Fortunately neither has a large impact on trout fishing in the Kinni.

Wednesday unfortunately marked the end of the Wisconsin inland trout season. The MN season is still open for a couple weeks, but the closest streams are a bit too far to make a trip worthwhile. So, I'll likely be troutless until Thanksgiving.

Luckily I did have success on my last two trips of the season. Last Sunday, bored of my usual spots, I decided to explore a new section of stream. I had caught fish on other sections of this stream, but for some reason I never explored the lower, high gradient section. I've missed the higher gradient streams of New England, so I decided to give it a shot.

What I found was even better than I could have expected. The stream was moving fast, and although it was small, there was plenty of casting room. It sits in a narrow ravine, so I think the lack of sunlight prevents the formation of dense undergrowth. To top it off, there were two large waterfalls in the ravine where the stream flowed over shelves of limestone bedrock. Oh, and there were fish too.

The first pool I fished was formed where two current tongues met and then flowed around two large rocks. I had three hookups and landed 2 fish in this pool - 1 brown and 1 brookie landed, and another brown that got away. The fish were small, as is to be expected on streams like this, but they were brilliantly colored. I think both the brookies and browns are beginning to prepare for the spawn.

I had less success farther upstream, but I managed to land a few more brookies in some of the deep pools, including one just below one of the waterfalls.

On Wednesday, the last day of the season, I took a friend to fish in the fading hours of the day. We both managed two small trout on dries before dark, so it was another successful day!