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The best flies for winter fly fishing



Five simple yet vital patterns

By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist

We are in the heart of winter. Snow covers most of the ground, the skiing is consistently good in this nice cycle of storms, and temperatures range from near zero to forty degrees. So I am asking you to think about fishing. Fishing? It’s February for goodness sake.

Fishing in February is not unusual—in fact, there’s a small cadre of anglers who argue the next few weeks serve up some of the year’s best fishing. The yardstick for measuring this: fewer people on the rivers, the potential for abundant hatching midges, mid-day fishing hours cease the need to start early or stay late, and the box-of-chocolates ideology is amplified in winter.
If you head out to our local waters to fish in the coming weeks, be sure your fly box is well stocked with the following patterns to avoid common pitfalls.

Zebra midge. The beadhead version is preferred but not essential. If I had been exposed to this fly earlier in my angling, I would have caught many more trout. The pattern is very simple and is tied by adding thread to a hook, adding a bead, wrapping the layers of thread with some wire, and calling it good. As fly patterns go, it cannot be simpler. As flies that catch fish go, it’s versatile and effective. In winter it’s best fished as nymph as part of a two-fly rig, but an un-beaded Zebra midge can be fished as an emerging insect under a dry fly or small indicator. Tied in various colors, with black being the most popular, this fly is tied onto my rig at some point during any winter outing.

Choosing the right fly for winter fishing is important. The Pat’s Rubber Legs stonefly nymph is an essential fly for the Gallatin River this time of year. Fish it as a lead fly in a two-fly nymph system. PHOTO COURTESY OF GALLATIN RIVER GUIDES

Choosing the right fly for winter fishing is important. The Pat’s Rubber Legs stonefly nymph is an essential fly for the Gallatin River this time of year. Fish it as a lead fly in a two-fly nymph system. PHOTO COURTESY OF GALLATIN RIVER GUIDES

Pat’s Rubber Legs. Here it is again. This fly makes every “must-have” list out there. There’s even a story circulating that a bonefish in Belize ate this fly. Tied to imitate a stonefly nymph, this pattern is just plain good. You will most often fish it as a lead fly in a two-fly rig. Similar to the Zebra midge, it is easily tied and also easily fished. Very few flies are effective year-round, but a Pat’s rubber legs is one of those rare patterns that can entice a fish to eat any day of the year.

Griffith’s gnat. As February wanes, the potential for hatching midges increases. Midges are small insects that provide the bulk of a trout’s winter diet. Read more about midges in my Feb. 2014 column titled “Midges: Little itty-bitty bugs of huge importance to winter fly fishing.” The Griffith’s gnat mimics a midge cluster on any river. This pattern is effective on the Gallatin and Upper Madison, but it should work on any body of water where midge clusters dominate in winter.

The original pattern is tied with hackles to allow it to sit high on the surface, making it easier to see, but a colored post can also be used for better visibility. When fishing the Griffith’s gnat, I place fly floatant on my leader as well as the fly so the fly floats higher on the surface.

Any firebead nymph.
In choosing which firebead was the best—between Czech nymphs, Ray Charles, Scuds, Sunkists and worms—I took the easy way out. In winter trout are on the lookout for easy meals with lots of calories, and a firebead, a fly tied with a pink or orange beadhead, is just that. Firebeads burst onto the angling scene around ten years ago. A few purists argue the firebead imitates an egg. We’ll never know what a trout is thinking while eating a fly, but there’s no arguing this fly’s effectiveness.

Jujubee midge. In addition to having the coolest name of the group, this fly is a fish-catching machine. Created by Charlie Craven and inspired by the ultra-selective trout on pressured waters, the Jujubee midge has become a local favorite. For years we were able to keep the secret quiet, but the more effective it became the harder it became to keep it quiet. Jujubee’s are tied in a variety of colors. Similar to a Zebra midge, they can be fished as a deep nymph or emerging insect. Once you go Juju you’ll catch trout through and through.

I cannot remember if a few weeks ago the groundhog’s shadow was seen or not. With snow thick on the ground, it feels like winter is here for awhile longer. For skiers and riders that’s a good thing, and for anglers it is too—snow now means more water come summer. As the snow flies, embrace it. And now with the flies above, you can enjoy your winter fishing even more. Just be sure to carry them all because when fly fishing in winter you never know what you’re going to get.

Pat Straub is the co-founder of the Montana Fishing Guide School, 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 he co-owns Montana Fishing Outfitters.

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