Fish still need to eat in the winter right? Of course! I made it my personal challenge a couple years ago to catch a fish, on my home river, on a dry fly in every month of the year. It really didn't turn out to be that difficult, but it was fun nonetheless.
It's also been a tradition of mine to go fishing around my birthday every year, which just so happens to be in early December, and to try and land a dry fly fish on my birthday. December, and January have always been the trickiest month to accomplish the dry fly challenge, but in reality if you can find fish feeding this time of year, it's really not hard to figure out what they are eating. On the Owyhee River, and several other of the rivers I fish around my home, it's likely midges, so tie one on and go for it. Oftentimes in the summer we can get bogged down, with multiple hatches going on at any time, trying to figure out exactly what a fish is feeding on. And sometimes it can vary from fish to fish. The winter is easier in that regard, at least on the rivers near me. So when I hit the river on the first day of December this year I was very pleased when I found a large pod of fish feeding on a long slick of flat water. Perfect.
One key if you are looking at dry fly fishing in December is fishing the right time of day. Usually this is going to be in the early to mid afternoon. This day I was on the water at 1:30pm and gave myself an hour window. When I drove up to one of my favorite runs and saw the water dotted with rises it put me into overdrive. Getting the waders on and the rod strung up in record time I quickly moved to the bottom of the run hoping to move up river picking off fish one at a time.
I was fishing with the CDC Wing Midge, which is a high riding dry meant to mimic the adult midge, or a mating cluster of adult midges. When I am fishing a high riding pattern like this I like to scan the risers and look for the rise forms that match the pattern I have on. The small dimples or dorsal, and tail fin rises often indicate fish feeding on emergers just under the surface. With this particular fly on I was looking for the fish whose noses were poking out as they gulped down mouthfuls of midges. It can be difficult to focus on individual fish with so many feeding around you. But sure enough I found just the rise I was looking for and served the #22 fly just in front of it's location. **SLURP** Right on cue the fly was sucked down, but I may have gotten a little excited. Setting the hook a little over aggressively for the small fly, light tippet, and large fish combo that this hook up provided. Sure enough, snap. So after re-rigging and tying on a new fly I went back on the hunt.
Another frustrating thing about winter dry fly fishing can be some very slow takes that lead to missed fish. I proceeded to miss 4 nice fish as I worked up the run, who took the fly, but for one reason or another my hook did not find anything to hang onto. Finally I found a nice bank feeder slurping flies, nose out, just like I like it. The fly settled in, and drifted right into his feeding lane, and it was on. Finally landed that dry fly fish.
I was getting cold now. The air temp was about 36, and there was a slight breeze that was a bit on the frigid side, and the fish in the run that had been rising all over an hour ago, had slowed their feeding pace considerably. I decided to leave my waders on but head down the river and only stop if I saw any likely candidates to dish my Midge to.
I didn't get far. I checked in on another of my favorite runs but the wind had picked up and the surface of the water was so broken by it, there were either few fish rising, or they were almost impossible to spot. So I headed back to the main road. Suddenly a slight abnormal disturbance in the water caught my eye at the base of a long run of faster moving water. I stopped and waited, and sure enough there was a fish feeding in a small trough, and it looked like a nice fish. I hopped out of the truck, grabbed my rod and got into position below the fish. Sure enough it was feeding regularly and aggressively. My first cast was right on target and on cue the big head rose up and took the tiny midge imitation. I set the hook and my heart sunk as I felt the pressure, then nothing and witnessed the tell tale swoosh of the big fish's tail as it reacted violently to the sting of the hook, that failed to find it's mark.
I figured I had messed this fish up, and was getting ready to get back in the truck and motor back down the canyon with my tail between my legs. All of a sudden I saw a rise again. Sure enough it fed once again, but was very cautious. He started feeding sporadically, so I fought the urge to toss my fly right back in there. I waited, and waited. It felt like 30 minutes, it was probably 5. Finally the fish had settled back into it's regular rhythm, feeding with the same aggressiveness as before. I still wasn't sure if I could get it to take the exact same fly again, but decided it was time to find out. Once again on the first cast the fish rose and gulped down my fly. Beautiful! And even better yet, the hook found lip, and held. I quickly knew this was a nice fish, just as I had suspected. The battle lasted just long enough. I netted a very deep healthy Brown. This one felt very satisfying.
On that note, the day was done. The window was closed, the bugs were done hatching for the day, and the fish were done rising. Time to go home, with a smile on my face.