When I was a boy fishing was always a spring and summer pursuit. In the spring I fished the local waters of the Teton River and Henry’s Fork that were within bicycle riding range. In the summer I accompanied my dad and grandfather to more distant waters. We hunted birds and big game in the autumn. The winters were long and sometimes boring except when we hunted jackrabbits with our 22s.
I often hung out at the Sugar City Merc to chat with Emery Thomas, the proprietor who was an avid fly fisherman. One February day I noticed a box of very small dark dry flies on the counter. “What do you catch with those – minnows?” I asked. “Those are snowflies. They’re working great up by Ashton, Emery replied.” He sold me a dollar’s worth (5 for a dollar) and I headed up the river. I had just turned 14, the legal driving age in Idaho.
I didn’t exactly knock them dead but I was amazed to see nice trout rising in the middle of the winter. Over time I figured it out and I spent most of my free time fishing during January, February and March. I almost always caught trout even on days when it was so cold I had to break the ice out of my guides after every cast.
I’m not as ambitious these days. I still love to fish in the winter but I usually pass if I can’t keep the guides in my rod from icing up. Yet there are more opportunities to fish during the winter than ever. The Upper Henry’s Fork above Ashton was closed to fishing during the winter months. Now the entire river is open for fishing except Harriman Park and a short section from the Ashton Dam downstream to the Vernon Bridge. Better yet, most of the major tributaries to the Henry’s Fork including the Teton River, Fall River and Warm River are open during the winter. Currently the Buffalo River is not open year round. Most of these waters are only open to catch and release so you need to make sure you keep up on the Idaho Fishing Regulations. You can find this online at http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/public/fish/rules/upperSnake.pdf.
The South Fork of the Snake is another good spot for winter fishing. Access is difficult in some places but instead of a great tailwater that runs an average of about 10,000 cfs during the summer months, the river runs about 1000 cfs. You can wade almost anywhere.
My favorite way to fish is with midges. These are the small insects I knew as “snowflies” in the old days. The trout key in on the emerging pupae. There are lots of good midge pupa patterns. You can usually get away with a size 20 dry fly hook wrapped with thread and a little dubbing at the thorax. During egg laying flights adults often hover over the water making a buoyant pattern like a Griffith’s Gnat a good producer. I like to use a tandem two fly rig with a dry fly on top and a pupa as a dropper. You can also score by swinging a small soft hackle peacock wet fly style.
If there aren’t fish rising you’ll need to switch to a nymph or streamer. Caddis and stonefly imitations usually out produce mayfly nymphs. Many mayfly species overwinter in the egg stage and therefore are not available as a food source for trout. I like size 16 Olive Cased Caddis and Olive, Brown or Red Zebra Nymphs fished in tandem with size 8 or 10 Brown or Black Rubberlegs Nymphs. Sometimes an egg imitation can also be very productive. You’ll need to get your nymphs deep. Remember, trout are cold blooded and they aren’t as active when the water is cold. Sometimes you need to drift the nymph right in front of their nose. You’ll need to use the same tactics for streamer fishing.
My favorite streamers for winter fishing are leech and Sculpin imitations. You need to fish them slow and deep. Pools with slow to medium current speed are best. I like to cast slightly upstream and across, mending to keep the fly deep, and letting it swing in the current. Don’t strip the fly fast, like you would in the summer when the water is warmer. Instead of a hard strike the line will often tighten with the soft take of a big trout.
Sometimes it is hard to get to good water because of deep snow. That’s where snowshoes can come in handy. We rent snowshoes and cross country skis at the shop. You can also rent a snowmobile at one of the local shops. If you’re really adventurous, you can float some of the sections but you better be prepared for some extra work getting your boat in and out of the water. I recently talked to a couple of guys that floated the Box Canyon. It was cold but they reported very good fishing with nymphs.
Henry’s Fork Anglers is open every day except Sunday throughout the winter. Our hours are 9 AM to 5 PM. We’re here to help if you want to take advantage of some great fishing opportunities this winter.