Winter Fly Selection for the Vail Valley
Post and Pictures by Bob Streb
I feel less like a pack mule in the winter. I simply carry a lot less extras, sometimes even leaving the sling pack behind after jamming my “winter box” of flies in a jacket pocket. The need to carry every pattern in the catalog plus several medium sized rabbit’s worth of streamers just is not necessary this time of year.
Why? You ask.
The cupboards are sparse that’s all. After a long bountiful summer of big juicy steaks with all the trimmings under the shade of the tree in a gentle riffle, Mother Nature will now spend the next 4 months feeding them sunflower seeds once in a while. Midges make up the bulk of a trout’s diet during the winter and most of them are smaller than a 22. These little morsels along with micro may fly nymphs make up the small end of my dropper rig. I carry a variety of midge patterns in size 18-26 covering the larva stage, pupa stage, cripples and adults in 4-5 colors. Keep your midge patterns slim and as the season goes on and the water continues to get colder start to take the bling and the beads off your patterns. Black, cream, gray, red, purple, olive and blue are all popular base colors for your midges.
Micro Mayfly Nymphs are simply that, juvenile may flies that are months away from emergence but still definitely present.
Mayflies molt often as they are growing, so carry a few very small nymph patterns in pale yellow. Choose these patterns on the sparse side also, most of my winter Mayfly Nymphs are very small but I tie them on a hook size one or two times larger.
Oddly enough I don’t spend very much time messing with this part of the rig in the winter months. Patterns are very basic and at most I am changing a color once in a while to feed my boredom issues. Chances are if you fished a size 20 red midge larva all winter you would do just fine. I do however change my attractor pattern at the top of the rig a lot more in the winter than I tend to during warmer times. My thinking has been that the water is the lowest and the clearest of the season and the fish hang in very lazy feeding lanes so it is easy to see things very effectively.
Attractor patterns tend to be bigger, bolder, heavier and maybe flashier than their little hitchhikers and while they often get eaten, they tend to serve a higher purpose. I have seen an attractor fly change turn the dropper bite on and off just like a switch. Changing your point fly is at least 2 knots but If you have the bravery to take a second, switch that attractor and give the low clear water a break, fruit tends to fall from the tree. The best example of this is Mr Egg Fly. Most of these glow bug ties can be seen easily from space so I am pretty sure the old Brown Fish knows it’s bouncing around relatively quickly. Spend 2 dozen good drifts with an Egg and get nothing in the winter months and it’s time to do come up with a different idea.
Like the Micro Mayfly I mentioned, other species of aquatic insects like Annelids, Stoneflies, Craneflies and Caddisflies are abundant in a juvenile stage. Hell some Stoneflies live for 3 years as a nymph. Anglers often wrongly shy away from “summer” patterns like Caddisflies thinking they aren’t there and this can handicap the winter fisherman’s chances greatly. When the Egg comes off the point I look to become more subtle with my attractor. A size 14-16 Caddis Larva with a black bead is usually my number one choice when I bring someone in off the bench. From here I will start to get larger with #12-#16 Stones and Worms while still trying to keep flies impact to wary trout in clear water to a minimum. After a full cycle of trying I go right back to the Egg and I still might not have played with either of the droppers.
Winter fishing can provide some of the best fishing of the year with less headaches when it comes to fly selection. Simplify. Tie More. Change your attractor. Change depths and speed. Sleep in and buy warm socks.