February Blues

By ROB BREEDING for the Flathead Beacon

February is the lousiest month on the calendar. It might not be so if I were an ice fisherman or a hockey player. But I’m neither, so my options are limited.

Friends tell me that my lack of interest in ice fishing is a personal problem. Maybe so. I don’t have anything against ice fishing really, other than the cold. The Flathead’s a fine place for it, with all the still water and winter weather that ensures reliable ice most of the time.

I’ve adapted by broadening my fly fishing game. There was a time when I basically put the gear away once the weather turned in the fall. I like fishing dry flies, and for a long time that’s all I fished. If stuff wasn’t happening on the surface I grew disinterested. Then bird season started and I was finished with fishing until March when the skwalas hit on the Bitterroot.

River of Ice by Mark Mesenko.

River of Ice. ©Mark Mesenko

The last couple of winters I’ve gone all in on nymphing. It helps to have a tailwater handy. Free-flowing rivers can be tough in the winter, but reservoirs are a regulator, moderating the temperature extremes of a river. The water flowing under a dam in January may seem frigid, until you compare it to a nearby free-flowing stream.

Nymphs rule winter tailwaters in the Northern Rockies. There’s the occasional mayfly or midge hatch, but they’re too sporadic to keep you busy until spring.

I’ve been experimenting with a new rod this winter, a 10-foot, 4-weight designed specifically for nymphing. So far the results are mixed. The added length of the rod is handy for this type of fishing where we often have no more than a foot or two of fly line beyond the tip. Casting performance isn’t really critical. You don’t cast heavily weighted, multi-nymph rigs with bulky strike indicators; you just pick the rig off the water and fling it back upstream, running the nymphs through fishy-looking runs multiple times. Sometimes you have to hit a fish on the nose to get its attention. Winter trout aren’t likely to move far to take a fly.

A 10-foot rods makes it a little easier to toss that hardware around the stream, but there is a downside. Longer rods are heavier, and a heavier rod takes a toll the longer you fish. There’s a variety of nymphing techniques used today, but most include some form of high-sticking. I spend a lot of time with my rod arm shoulder level or higher as I work to keep all but my leader off the water and the fly drifting naturally in the current. If the weather’s nice enough to allow a full day on the water I can feel that extra weight. An ounce makes a difference.

I find myself gravitating back to the old reliable – my 9-foot, 5-weight. It’s lighter, which is a function of its shorter length as well as construction. Plus, since the rod isn’t as tip heavy, it balances with a much lighter reel. That pays off in an outfit I can fish easier all day long, even if I can’t dab that bulky nymph rig a foot farther out into the current.

And then there are those occasional bursts of winter dry fly action. If trout start busting the surface during a blue-winged olive hatch, I can replace that nymph rig with a lighter leader and dry fly, but that 10-foot rod isn’t well suited to the task. It just feels heavy and ponderous when I need to present a fly on target 40 feet away.

I’m not giving up on the rod, but I don’t think I’ve found its sweet spot, yet.

For now, even winter nymphing is off the table for a spell. It was 20 below when I headed for work this morning. There’s not much you can do outside that’s fun when it’s that cold. And it doesn’t have to be below zero to make winter fishing a chore. Once the temps drop into the low 20s expect problems such as iced-up guides to crop up. I can dress for the weather, but I have my limits.