By Patrick Straub
Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist
I was riding the chairlift in early February when the gentleman next to me asked: “Six [inches] of fresh. Pretty good day today isn’t it?”
“They’re all good, these days,” I replied. “Ski in the morning and fish in the afternoon.”
Sliding one ski across the other, he removes some new snow off his boards, revealing the newest model of ski I’ve wanted since summer. I might have coveted his skis, but in a few hours I’d be on the Gallatin River, anticipating my toughest decision of the day: which fly rod of my ever-growing collection do I use? My medium-action dry-fly rod; my slow-action dry-fly rod; my longer nymph rod; my all-arounder; or perhaps the zero weight?
Fly rods are similar to skis: One’s ability dictates the level of enjoyment from specialized models. For fishing our local waters in winter, it’s nice to have a small quiver of fly rods to choose from. Here are some of my favorite line weights, lengths, and actions.
It’s a nympher’s world in winter. Winter angling is often nymph-centric and a longer rod will make things easier. With minimal hatches and fish holding on or near the river bottom, weighted flies and weight on your leader are staples.
Most anglers agree a strike indicator is important for fishing subsurface. With an indicator, weighted flies and some split-shot for weight, the rig is cumbersome to cast and manage. I suggest rods no shorter than 8 feet, 6 inches long, up to 10 feet.
I’m also a fan of a medium-action rod for winter nymph fishing for two reasons. A very stiff rod can feel heavy in the hand, making it difficult to feel the weight of the rig during your cast and detect subtle strikes if your indicator doesn’t move much. For most winter angling situations, a four or five weight is ideal. Six and seven weights – especially on the Gallatin – are an Escalade when you need a Camry.
Dry fly fishing is a privilege not a right. It’s a bitter pill for me to swallow, but fish rise infrequently in winter. Even on tail waters and spring creeks, fish feeding off the surface is like eating biscuits and gravy – not something to eat every day but when it’s good, it’s worth every bite.
Because of this lack of activity, the softest and lightest rods are used sparingly in winter. There’s a time and a place for the dry-fly rod in winter, when the midges hatch in abundance coupled with the proper weather. If the nightly low temps hover above freezing, winds are calm, and clouds dominate the sky, fish will eat hatching midges off the surface. If I see this trifecta forming, the two- and three-weight rods find their way into the car along with the 5X and 6X Rio Suppleflex or TroutHunter Finesse tippets.
Wind is a fact of life in winter. A few days this month were storybook fly-fishing days – a little sun in the morning to warm the water, clouds building in the afternoon, and calm wind. If February has a reputation for good snow, it also has the reputation for windy conditions on our local rivers. The snow cannot arrive unless something blows it in.
If one of these storybook days arrives, hit the river. One of my favorite beats is the Lower Madison in Beartrap Canyon – relax, it’s not a secret anymore. On most calm days you’ll be sharing the river with a few undergrads skipping class, some regular locals, and the random visiting angler. But in between these windless days, be prepared with a fly line that’s one or two line weights heavier than your rod. This allows you to fish a five-weight rod so you have better feel, but the rod will load faster and bite into the wind better.
It’s winter. You’re fishing. Be thankful. If you need a reminder that fishing is a fun respite from the daily grind, winter angling and its variables may not be your cup of tea. That’s OK, because it leaves more water for the rest of us.
Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and along with a partner owns a guide service on the Missouri River.