Saturday, November 28, 2009

Change tactics for winter fly fishing

There is no such thing as bad weather when it comes to fly fishing … just bad equipment.
It’s a lesson mostly learned the hard way but it’s one that’s never forgotten, because winter fishing can hurt. It can get bone-crushing cold along the banks of my favorite little trout streams. But with the proper accouterments and layers of fleece and wool, the avid winter angler can spend a quiet afternoon casting flies in relative comfort.
Think layers, and I’m not talking about chickens.
The report today is there is no snow on the banks. I won’t have to worry about slipping on ice. And the sun is expected to warm the air.
Still, it’s the time of the year to switch to winter fly fishing mode.
Over the years, I’ve learned the best times to fish in winter are during the middle of the day, preferably with some sun out to warm the water a bit and kick up some dry fly action.
Trout slow down their dining habits during the cold months; they still eat, but their metabolism slows way down and they don’t eat that much. Bouncing a nymph on a big trout’s nose will entice hits. The fish are unlikely to chase a fly any distance, so fish those nymphs slow and deep.
I try to find spots of slow water warmed by the sun, then swing a heavily-weighted fly through the deepest water. During the winter the trout will be hanging out in the deeper pools, leaving the riffles and pocket water for the spring and summer, so it helps to be more selective about where to cast.
The ideal temperature for trout fishing is 63 degrees in the summer. As the thermometer approaches that magic number, feeding activity increases. If it gets hotter, the fishing slows.
The water is not going to get that warm again for some time now that winter is just weeks away. According to the Web site, if the water temps get below 38, the fishing will be very slow. Above 42 degrees, and activity increases.
Fishing a wooly bugger or streamer like a nymph, letting it drift naturally into a deep, is one good cold-weather tactic. I use a 4X tippet and fish with little line out so I can feel the soft hits better without a strike indicator. Using dry flies as strike indicators usually works most of the year, but the fly doesn’t always get deep enough.
Another thing to keep in mind is that stocked trout don’t slow down as much as wild trout during the cold months; I find myself hooking into fish more regularly on the Delayed Harvest rivers than on the little wild waters. No one has a scientific answer for this, but subscribes to the theory that stockers continued to seek out food when the wild trout know it’s just a waste of time since there are no insects floating around.
The No. 1 way to improve your winter trout fishing is to add split shot to the tippet, usually 6 to 8 inches from the fly. It is the hardest lesson to learn for fly fishers, especially those of us who revere the dry fly to almost religious status. Most of us hate using such weight, but that soon disappears when we hook into a big trout.
I use a 4-weight rod, so slinging flies with heavy shot on the tippet can be awkward, or even dangerous. I mash the barbs on my flies, so if I do hit myself in the back of the head slinging heavily-weighted nymphs, I can get the hook out of my ear with relative ease. On my last excursion, I pinched on a split-shot the size of a marble and could barely get it out into the current. Switching to a smaller size, I compensated by casting upstream with a lot of slack in the line to get the fly deep in the water. It works.
And, if with the sun in your face, have some fun catching winter trout.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Joy of a one-trout day

The mountains look like piles of Chevy pickup trucks all reddish-brown and tan with rust and age. Most of the bright color of fall is gone. The November sun felt good when it slipped through the trees along the path.
The air was cool but not biting cold, so there was no need for a jacket. In fact, after a half-hour hiking gradually uphill along the river, I got warm. Perhaps, I thought, the fishing would be better up and over the hill confronting me. At the bridge where I left the car, the trout failed miserably in hitting my fly, so I caught nothing.
But it was a good day to be out, and the path had softened to a thick comfortable carpet of wet, dead leaves. The air was full of the rich smell of rotting wood, decaying leaves and at times a hint of a smoky campfire.
I never made it to the top of that hill. Those three prongs that feed the Davidson River would have to wait another week at best, for my legs were giving out. Finding a sun-softened rock to sit on, I skinned lunch by ripping the foil off two granola bars and then killing a nearly-cold beer I had in the fishing vest. Refueled thusly, I returned to attack the river, only to be met by indifference and perhaps even a little scorn by the wild rainbows and browns.
For the next hour the fish ignored my hopper, scoffed at my nymphs and greeted by dry flies with utmost scorn.
Fish, like people, can be hateful.
It was my own fault for arriving at the water in late afternoon, even though it’s well known that the best fall and winter fishing often comes during the height of the day when the sun is the hottest.
But it got colder. I slinked home without having caught one trout and pulled into the driveway in no hurry to quit, pulled out the flyrod and slid down the bank across the road. There, I hid behind a tree so I could flip the little yellow fly into the current without scaring what I hoped would be a big fish hiding close to the bank.
He was there. As the fly began to move toward the bank the fish hit, jumped and ran with the line slicing through the water’s surface like a knife through a tender steak. He was a fat handful at 16 inches .
And he made my day.
Getting out a little earlier the next day, I met a friend at Avery Creek close to where it empties into the Davidson. Both are catch and release streams, so you know there will be fish. You also know they will not be easy.
We caught several little trout, wild rainbows no bigger than a bass lure.
Switching to a dry fly, I tossed it into a little swirl next to a rock where the water was quiet. It was a tough place to put the fly, for as soon as it landed, the current would grab my line and drag the fly like a water skier, leaving a tiny plume a spray in its wake and scaring all the trout.
But not every time. Something splashed at the fly and missed, so I put it back in the same spot with lots of slack in the line, watched it settle from just a second and then disappear as a fine wild rainbow nailed it on the run.
Not as big as my homey trout, it had twice the fight.
And, you know what? That fish made my day.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Taking the path less traveled by

I had no idea where I was headed. There was a little parking lot, but there were few cars on a Monday afternoon. Upstream from all the commotion at the fish hatchery, my map says the Davidson River splits, then veers off to the north and then splits again into three little tributaries that originate close to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Adventure beckoned. New water and wary trout waited for my fly to float by.
I crossed the big bridge and really didn’t expect to find much. It was just such a perfect day for a gentle walk through the Pisgah National Forest under a canopy of gold and orange. After a week of unsteady rain, the cushion of leaves had softened, making the trek a lot like walking on thick new carpet.
But it was not a leisurely stroll. It was uphill, with steep banks stretching deeper and deeper with each step on the rapidly narrowing road, which turned into a trail which then turned into a skinny path.
It was way too far to slide to the water. I kept walking. A strikingly bright sun knifed through the beech and maple. There was a shy breeze whispering through the hemlocks. The air was perfect.
Normally, all my fishing activity is confined to the water downstream, near the hatchery or just below. That’s where the humungous trout big as hound dogs fin lazily in crystal clear water within sight of hundreds of tourists and fly fishers. Occasionally, I have caught some of those monsters, and at other times the bigguns broke my line. Mostly, those trout ignore anglers’ flies, for they have seen every imaginable type and size and color. They are, in a word, educated fish. They see a lot of fishermen, too, and don’t spook easily. They just hunker down and stare at you.
That portion of the Davidson is Catch and Release. Past that section and the hatchery, there is the part known as "The Gorge," which is not for the faint at heart or feeble of body. The water roars over boulders big as cars. It’s much tougher to get out than it is to get down the bank to the river.
But, like I said, there was adventure beckoning. I went farther up, past Cove Creek to where Long Branch Creek goes left and the Davidson wanders to the right where it later splits into three little creeks — Right Fork, Daniel Ridge Creek and Shuck Ridge Creek.
I walked forever.
When I came to what was left of an old bridge, I considered sliding down the bank to get to the other end of the road, but then I realized I would hve to climb back up that same bank.
So, I took the path less traveled by.
This little path, which followed Right Fork uphill, was just as steep with a gorge almost as deep as The Gorge. I found one place that was easily accesible to the creek, slipped down a gentle bank and caught a little wild rainbow surrounded by loud, rowdy water tumbling over huge rocks.
I leaned my back against a smooth, warm rock just to let the day soak in. I could have fallen asleep and decided it was too late and I was too worn out to finish the trek to the end of this little path.
The walk had taken its toll. And I still had the return hike to the car.
For the next week I walked with a little less bounce . It was Friday before the aches faded so I could consider finishing the exploration.
Yeah, I took the path less traveled by and it certainly made all the difference.
I ached all over.