Friday, November 23, 2012

Ever consider fly fishing in the winter?

Flies still hatch, and fish still need to eat

Express Staff Writer

It looks chilly, but a handful of fly fisherman are still willing to brave the cold of winter to go after trout in the Big Wood River and elsewhere in the area. Courtesy photo by Chad Chorney

The art of fly fishing requires that a fisherman trick a fish into thinking what’s being offered to it is a live insect. Fly fishermen are most successful when there’s a fly hatch going on. Without one, they’re typically not as lucky.

Bugs are scarce in the cold winter months of the Wood River Valley. Complicating the fishing situation even more is the fact that trout go into a somewhat dormant state when ice forms on rivers and lakes.

But fly hatches, mainly of midge and beatis flies, still occur in the cold of winter in the Big Wood River, in Silver Creek and in other area waters, and fish, though not as hungry as in warmer times, still need to eat.

Knowing how to take advantage of the situation makes winter fly fishing a favorite pastime of Ed Northen, president of the Hemingway Chapter of Trout Unlimited and a summer fishing guide for Silver Creek Outfitters.

“There’s not a lot of people who go out and fish in the winter,” Northen said in a recent interview. “For me, fishing’s not so much about catching fish. Of course, I like to catch fish, but it’s more about learning and about getting outdoors.”

Nonetheless, Northen has figured out how to catch trout in the dead of winter.

Northen, a Hailey resident, has lived in the Wood River Valley for 10 years. Before that, he was a fire captain and paramedic in Orange County, Calif. For about three years before retiring, he commuted between Hailey and his job in California.

He’s been a fisherman a good part of his life.

“I started fishing with a spin reel and worms for crappie in the gravel pits of California,” he said. “I grew up spin fishing, but I’m a fly fisherman now. I like the challenge that it creates.”

Northen uses a near scientific approach to catching trout in the winter. There are two basic ways to do it. One involves floating an artificial fly, resembling a real bug, on the surface in a method known as “dry fly fishing.”

“You’re simulating a fly that has gone from a nymph state under the water and it rises up to the surface and becomes a fly,” he said.

The other method involves going after fish with artificial bugs that look like nymphs. The method, known as “nymph fishing” involves putting a light sinker on the line and dragging an artificial water bug along the bottom.

The method used successfully depends upon the situation.

The winter fly fishing season starts in the late fall when snow begins to stick to the ground and ice forms on rivers and ponds. Northen said he’s found that the best winter months to fish are February and March and the best time to fish is between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. when on a bright day the sun warms the more shallow waters enough for nymphs to evolve into their flies.

In cold weather, Northen said trout generally stay in the deeper water, but when flies start to hatch, they’ll move into the shallows to feed.

“The metabolism of the fish slows way down in the winter, but they’ll get active if the bugs come out,” he said.

“It’s sometimes almost magical. You can be standing there with nothing going on and all of a sudden flies start coming to the surface and the water starts almost boiling with fish.”

After the end of regular fishing season on Dec. 1, most rivers and streams in the Big Wood and Little Wood drainage areas have catch-and-release only rules.

Northen said trout are in somewhat of a “survival mode” during cold weather so he recommends that when catching one that it be left in the water as much as possible and brought in quickly without overplaying it. Otherwise, the fish might be overstressed and die.

Being a good fisherman, regardless of the technique used, depends upon knowing where the fish are and serving them something they’ll willing to bite on. But as all fishermen know, sometimes, regardless of what they’re offered, the fish just don’t seem interested.

Northen acknowledged that there are days like that, especially in the winter, when he doesn’t catch anything. But that’s OK with him.

“It’s more about being out in the middle of the winter. It’s almost a meditative state. There’s snow falling and you’re standing out there and it’s quiet. It’s just spectacular.”

Know the regs

Since fishing rules can vary widely, especially on the Big Wood River and Silver Creek and in the winter, anglers are advised to know the regulations as determined by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Fishing-rule manuals are available at most retail outlets for fishing gear, or can be found at the Fish and Game website, The rules typically change slightly every two years, and a new manual should be available at the start of 2013.

Terry Smith:

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