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Winter Flyfishing

By Jay Peck

Reproduced with permission from the Show 2001 edition
of Lake Ontario Outdoors

Despite the cold of winter, the snow and ice, there is no reason to put the fly rod away for the winter. Fly-fishing during the winter can provide as many opportunities as the winter weather can provide in challenges. The ice and cold of the winter can be easily managed by dressing properly for the cold and winterizing your reels. The time of the day can make a big difference in the effects of the cold and fishing success.

Lake Ontario tributaries can provide some unique fishing opportunities during the winter. Steelhead will trickle in all winter long. These fish are starting their spawning runs. In the Western Basin of Lake Ontario, Brown Trout are through with their spawning and are back to feeding more aggressively, slowly working their way back to the lake. In the streams and rivers both the Brown Trout and Steelhead are available.

Both the Steelhead and Brown Trout can be found in the same river. Both Steelhead and Brown Trout use the same pools and runs. For the most part, Steelhead will be found in the heads to the gut of the pools. The Brown Trout will normally be found from the gut to the tail outs of the same pools. Despite the fact that both the Brown Trout and Steelhead are sharing the same pools, each fish is in a different stage of spawning and are using the same pools completely different from each other. The Steelhead is interested in resting in the heads of the pools and waiting the winter out while slowly working their way up river. Brown trout are a different story at this stage of the spawn cycle. The Brown Trout are on the feed. Most of the Brown Trout will be located in the gut to the tail of the pools where a majority of winter-feed is found.

Despite the freezing water temperatures of winter, both Steelhead and Brown Trout will feed. Steelheads are fond of snacking on nymphs such as Stoneflies, Hellgrammites, large mayflies nymphs and stray eggs leftover from fall. Food such as this is always tumbling down into the heads of the pools. Brown Trout are just as fond of the large mayflies nymphs and stray eggs.

Most rivers in the Western Basin of Lake Ontario are full of Creek Chubs and Hickory Shad. The Creek Chubs spend the winter in the tail outs of the pools, where the speed of the current is slower. Sadly for the Creek Chubs, this is where the Brown Trout like to spend the winter.

The Brown Trout will put on weight feeding on these fish. Flies for taking advantage of this opportunity are fairly straightforward. Both Brown Trout and Steelhead are fond of nymphs; Stone Flies Nymphs are one of their favorites. During the winter, the average Stone Fly Nymph is about a size 8, to as large as 4 or as small as 14. Sizes 10 and 8 work the best and supply a hook to properly hold a large fish. The recommended nymphs for winter fishing are Black Stone Flies, Hares Ear, Prince Nymphs, and Hellgrammites. For winter Steelhead and Brown Trout fishing, tie these flies with a little flash, by employing materials like artificial seal and Lite Brite mixed into the dubbing. Do not forget about flash back nymphs - these flies will work here. The Steelhead and Brown Trout like to have the flies jazzed up a little.

Along with nymphs, streamers are effective flies for winter fishing. Brown Trout are actively pursuing minnows, while Steelhead can be enticed into jumping on a streamer from time to time. Streamers tied with soft materials work best with the cold winter water. Examples of streamers are Zonkers, Marabou Streamers and White Trolls. Flies like these can be fished slowly along the river bottom so that the currents of the river can bring the streamers alive. Both Steelhead and Brown Trout are fond of streamers fished slowly along the river bottom.

Rivers in the Western Basin of Lake Ontario have both Creek Chubs and Hickory Shad wintering there. Slowly swinging streamers along the river bottom is the best presentation to imitate the wintering Minnows. The streamers in white and gray work best in the clear water. Fluorescent colors work best in discolored water and during dark days. The best sizes for streamers are 6 and 4. Tie the streamers approximately 2 1/2 inches long.

The guts of any winter fly box will be egg flies. On any given day egg flies can account for a fish or two. Color and size of egg flies can be as complicated or as simple as anyone would like to make it. I prefer to keep it simple. In clear water, flies in sizes 10 to 8 in natural colors work the best. In discolored water or on dark days, flies in sizes 8 to 6 in fluorescent colors work best. The normal collection of egg flies include Glow Bugs, Nuclear Row Bugs, Carpets Flies and Estaz Flies. These are the only egg flies that I carry.

Presenting flies during the winter has two considerations. The first consideration is that the fly must be on the bottom. The second consideration is that the fly's drift must be slowed down. Water temperatures during the winter are going to be between 32 and 34 Degrees Fahrenheit, which is cold. With water temperatures like this, the fly must be slowed down. Flies must be drifted just fast enough so that the fly does not hang on the bottom. The same goes for streamers. The slower the streamers are fished the more effective the presentation will be. The trick is to keep the streamers as close to the river bottom as possible while the fly is swinging.

With winter water temperatures and below freezing air temperatures, ice will be a constant obstacle. The fat fly line carries lots of water through the guides of a fly rod. The guides can freeze solid in just a few casts. With the freezing problems and the fact that the fly must be kept on the river bottom, one of the easiest methods of presentation is called "high sticking." The high sticking method is best performed with a standard fly rod and fly line, and leaders. Start by working with 2 to 2½ rod links of lines. Casting upstream at ten o'clock, make an immediate upstream mend while holding the rod tip and line off the water, follow the drift with the rod tip downstream to two o'clock while maintaining solid contact with the river bottom. As always, constant weight adjustment is always critical to maintaining the correct drift. For winter fishing do not fish more line than you can cast without pulling wet fly line through your rod tip, by doing this the ice will form on the fly line instead of in the guides of the rod. Break the pools into small bits and systematically fish each section. By doing this you will avoid constant ice in the guides.

Despite the winter challenges of the ice and cold, there are many opportunities for the Fly Fishermen. If you dress properly and prepare your gear, there is no reason to put the fly rod away for the winter.

Jay Peck is a professional fly fishing guide on the Lake Ontario tributaries. He guides on the Salmon River from September through mid-October for Salmon, Steelhead and Brown Trout, and on Oak Orchard, the lower Genesee River and Sandy Creek in Monroe County from mid-October through December for Giant Brown Trout and Steelhead. Contact Jay at Coleman's Fly Shop by telephone at 716.352.4775 or on the web at www.colemansflyshop.com.

Lake Ontario Outdoors is a quarterly magazine which provides comprehensive coverage of the outdoor sports for the Lake Ontario region.

Content © Troy Creasy Enterprises, Inc. and Jay Peck
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