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Guyer: Early spring fly fishing in the ‘Old Days’

Sentinel photo by HARRY GUYER
Even the pictures of your winter trout show up better on snow.

Whenever we aging Baby Boomers gather, there is always a lot of talk about the “Good Old Days” of hunting. I’ve experienced some real heydays of rabbit, pheasant, turkey, and deer hunting that won’t be matched in the near future. Presently I think we are living in the golden age of bear hunting here in the Keystone State.

Today, however, I’ll change the subject to fishing. Back in the Good Old Days, there came a time each year for anglers when the trout stopped rising and it got too cold outside to fish like civilized human beings. We’d put our rubber waders away for the season and turn our attention to the fly vise (or vice as my wife spells it!), tying flies until spring arrived and the fishing got good again.

Thank goodness those “Good Old Days” have gone the way of the dinosaur. Many of us fish all year long. Although conditions may be different from summer fishing, if you dress warmly and prepare yourself, you can extend your fishing season throughout the year. And with the economy being what it is and the price of a fishing license, you owe it to yourself to get the most out of it you can.

Winter and early spring fishing is most often portrayed as a sport reserved for those hardy souls who drag wooden shacks out onto frozen lakes and drop lines through holes cut into the ice. However, for us fly flingers, by the time we cut a big enough hole in the ice to cast, we’re usually too tired to fish. Just joking. In those places where winter streams and rivers run fast and do not freeze, fly fisherman dress for the chilly weather and head out to their favorite spots to cast flies at the waiting fish, hoping for a strike that will get their blood pumping.

Winter flyfishing separates the men from the boys (and if you do it too much, from the women too!). Fair-weather fishermen may view it as just plain crazy, unable to see the “fun” in tying on flies with benumbed fingers, or even trying cast when your hands are so cold you can’t hang onto your rod handle and ice plugs the guides.

For all the weenies who think flyfishing is only for the spring and summer, there are actually two types of winter flyfishing. One is when the temperatures are very cold and the weather is not cooperating and the other is when Mother Nature treats us to a taste of spring–this year’s mild winter, for example.

Naturally, preparation for all the conditions that winter can bring is the key to an enjoyable day streamside, especially when the temperature is below freezing and the geegee birds are calling. One of the most important items you must have is a proper pair of gloves. This single item can make or break an experience.

You can get neoprene fishing gloves in either full-finger or fingerless style in any good fishing catalogue for anywhere from around $10 to (are you sitting down?) $100! With these, you can dip your hands into the icy streams with impunity. However, I prefer a pair of shooter’s mittens in wool with fingerless gloves and a mitten covering that folds back out of the way. If I have to reach into the drink, I take one off first. A handwarmer gives me relief after a chilly plunge.

Probably the next most important item of clothing is waders, and here’s where neoprene comes in. I have a pair of 5-weight stocking-type chestwaders that are actually only comfortable when the temperature dips below 32. Any other time they are too darn hot. Naturally, under them come my long-handles and a couple pair of good wicking socks.

I like the lightness and warmth of polar fleece, so I generally go for a shirt of that space-age material. When it comes to outerwear, I usually dress more for deer season than for fishing season. My good old Gore-Tex deer jacket fills the bill, and it has the added benefit of its blaze orange color, which may make it easier for rescuers to find my frozen carcass some sad day.

My favorite fishing hat is a breezy affair designed for spring and summer use. When winter fishing, I go with a much warmer toboggan that covers everything but my face.

Cold days are nothing new to steelhead anglers, and quite a few of us trek northwest in the winter to ply the Erie tributaries for these lake-run giants. Conventional steelie wisdom holds that the biggest, not the most, steelhead have always seem to come to the fly best “on the days that the bear are most content to be in their dens.”

There are some dandy trout in the tribs of the Raystown, too, and they can be caught all winter. Keep in mind that like steelhead, winter browns, brooks, and rainbows are at the lowest ebb of metabolic function that they will experience all year. Being cold- blooded, their metabolism is directly proportional to water temperature. They won’t chase your fly fast or far, choosing instead to intercept it, taking it softly.

In winter, streamers are very effective, especially when fished with a nymph, scud, or sucker spawn on a dropper about a foot up the line. These best represent the available food supply for trout this time of year. Black, white, and olive wooly buggers have been my most effective patterns. So has a weighted muddler minnow bounced slowly off the bottom of deep pockets.

In very cold water, always try to present a very slow and full profile of the fly during all portions of the swing. Try to keep the fly close to but not on the bottom of the stream, about 5 to 10 inches off of the bottom structure.

By the by, one more item that will come in handy is Ice Off Paste, usually found with ice fishing supplies. This will help keep the ice from forming on the eyes of the rod and allow the fly line to cast freely

When nymphing in cold water, watch your line, or if you prefer, strike indicator, very carefully. Trout won’t hit hard, so be ready to strike at any sort of slightly erratic behavior instead of waiting to feel the take has been key. More often than not there will be nothing there, but now and then you’ll connect with one you’d have otherwise missed.

A winter thaw or warmup – no matter how slight – allows a fly flinger to fish more like a human being. I like those absolutely stellar winter days that slip in on us now and then, especially ones when the mercury nears the 50 degree mark and snow melt muddies the streams.

On such an unseasonably warm day, you can opt for hip waders instead of chest waders, a light jacket instead of a deer hunter’s coat, and probably your old faithful favorite fishing hat.

This is the day when “snow flies” dance in the air. Actually probably small blue wing olives, trout will rise to these and to your dry flies if you match them with small enough offerings.

A nymph or San Juan worm pattern also works well, especially if you work downstream, keeping just ahead of the snowmelt. I recall a day probably over a quarter century ago when a friend and I fished from Woodbury to Hopewell, in one afternoon, motoring ahead of the murk. When the roiled water first reached them, the trout began hitting in a frenzy.

So don’t wait for April: instead of staying indoors, dreaming of the “good old days,” get out and enjoy some “good NEW days.”

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