I pulled into Mark’s driveway in the predawn darkness of a cold, February morning and parked the truck in about six inches of fresh snow. The storm had begun late the night before and was forecast to continue for the next 36 hours. The garage door was open and my headlights illuminated a pair of snowmobiles. After grabbing his gear bag, waders, and a couple of rod tubes, he walked right past the sleds like they weren’t even there. He continued toward the truck through the falling snow as the garage door closed behind him. I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of leaving the snow ponies in the barn on such a snowy day.
On our way to the river, we sped right by the lines of cars pulling into ski resorts. “These people don’t even know what they’re missing,” I said as I reached for the volume knob on the stereo, “and I’m happy about that”.
The Black Sabbath got louder and the truck went faster. We finally arrived at the river and were greeted with an empty parking lot. I let the truck run while we sorted through gear in the back and put on our waders. The music was still playing.
With our semi-frozen fingers, we threaded sink tip through the cold, metal guides on our seven weights. We tied our boot laces and our blood knots. Mark uncorked a bottle of rye and we each took a big swig. It was cold, it was snowy, and we couldn’t wait to get in the water. Thoughts of streamer fishing often conjure images of flannel shirts and fall foliage. But in reality, with a few small tweaks to your autumn technique, streamer fishing remains just as effective during the darkest and coldest days of winter.
Meter your expectations. The first thing to keep in mind when you abandon your bobber is to also abandon the hope of a twenty-fish day on the river. You simply will not experience the same kind of numbers fishing a streamer in the middle of the winter as you will with midge rig. Generally, the fish you catch will be a little bit larger and the eat is a hell of a lot more fun.
Bigger is not always better. Although giant streamers have been in vogue as of late, the smaller varieties are what I choose when the mercury falls to the bottom of the thermometer. During the winter, rivers are generally lower and more clear than they’ll be for the rest of the year so high-profile patterns designed to push water when clarity isn’t good are simply not necessary.
Instead of a six-inch streamer with three rabbit strips and a spun deer hair head, reach for something a little with more of a classic profile. Variations on old standbys like a Complex Twist bugger, an Articulated Goldie, and other sparse and simple patterns tend to get more attention this time of year.
Slow and low. When the river temperature drops below degrees and fish are in survival mode near the bottom of the river, they generally aren’t quite as willing to swim across a run to eat your fly like they would during the warmer months.
It’s important to slow your retrieve, and in some cases, be ready to experiment with no retrieve at all. Additionally, you’d be wise to fish a sink tip or use extra weight on the leader to get your fly down in the water column.
Be flexible. Finally, you should be thinking of everything outlined above more as suggestions than rules. Part of what makes fly fishing so interesting and fun is that everything is constantly in flux. The conditions you experienced the last time you were on the river will never be exactly the same again, so what worked then very well may not on your next trip. Stay reactive and listen to what both the fish and the river are telling you.
Photos and writing from Mark Rauschenberger, a talented content creator based in Colorado. When he’s not hunched over his laptop with a cup of espresso, you’ll likely find Mark with his wife, Claudia, exploring new water throughout Colorado and Wyoming on their never-ending pursuit of the next greatest destination.
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