** NOTE: This is Part Seven of a Troutbitten series on fly fishing for trout through the winter months. This will all read a little better if you back up and find Parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five and Six. **
Smith and I found ourselves on another late December, post-Christmas fishing trip with light snow and good winter fishing. Air temperature: 26. Water: 40. There’s something special about this annual excursion. We fish together often enough that we don’t need an excuse or an event to bring us to the water, but this week-after-Christmas full day trip has become something of a tradition. While many of the annual trips I do with my Dad or other friends come with difficult water conditions all too often, winter weather has a way of balancing everything out.
In our area, most winter precipitation is delivered in occasional shots of snow. And even if a winter storm dumps twelve inches in one day, that doesn’t do much to the river levels. So around here, if you can deal with the colder temperatures, the river conditions are more predictable than any other time of the year. Mid-to-late December is about the point on the calendar when all of that begins. It’s also when the egg bite really turns on.
Smith passed me on the bank as I hooked a decent wild trout. I looked over to see him standing against the spruce forest as a backdrop. Greens and dark browns were dotted with white-capped boughs that hadn’t yet dropped their snow from the previous morning.
Smith hollered the one word question, punctuating it with a gesture toward the energetic trout at the end of my line.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Been this way all morning.”
I netted the fish and worked the hook loose before looking back up to Smith.
“You doing any good?” I asked.
Smith kicked the snow around a bit with his dripping wading boot.
“Not yet,” he said and walked upstream.
An hour later the same scenario repeated in reverse. This time Smith passed me walking downstream on the canyon side. Bordered by enormous chunks of cold limestone and winter-green moss, Smith showed up as I released another trout.
“Are you still on the egg?” I heard him yell across the water.
I nodded yes, placed my net back in the holster and flipped the line forward. I was about to ask Smith if he’d had any luck, but when I looked over he was already gone.
Smith fishes fast. He likes to cover a lot of water, so our general leap-frogging technique for sharing the river usually devolves into something else pretty quickly. And today, I caught glimpses of Smith up and down the river, both close and far away, every time I had enough of a break through the evergreens and around the canyon walls. I figured he’d surely find me around noon for an unplanned lunch break — that happens a lot between two friends on the river. But he never showed up to take the second Christmas-ham sandwich I’d stashed in my vest. No Smith. So I ate the extra sandwich and chuckled at my own selfishness.
It wasn’t until about 2:30, with just a few hours of winter daylight left, when I next saw my friend. He showed up with a river-worn exasperation, just as I hooked another foot-long wild trout.
“Alright, Dom. What the hell are you doing?” he demanded boldly. Smith takes pride in finding his own path and solving his own puzzles. But like every good angler I know, he’s humble enough to ask the right questions at the right times.
I landed the trout, released it and joined my friend on the river bank. I glanced down to see his egg pattern, similar to my own in both color and size, attached to the hook keeper.
“That’s the right fly, but I’d rig it a little differently,” I said, pointing to his Nuke Egg.
“Alright,” Smith said.
“And . . . I don’t know,” I said. “They’re just really picky about the way an egg drifts, man. So, there are a few things I focus on and do a little differently when I’m nymphing an egg pattern.”
Smith knelt in the crusty snow. He dug into his pack and pulled out a pint of stainless steel. Then he poured steaming coffee into the lid of his small thermos.
“I’m listening,” he said to me.
Here’s what I told Smith . . .
— — — — — —
Deader than Dead
The predictability of the winter egg bite can be excellent — if you’re nymphing skills are tuned up. That means true dead drifts. No motion. Think deader than dead: no flies sliding across current seams, no being pulled downstream at top-water speed and no lagging on the bottom.
Our favorite pea-brained fish seems to understand that eggs have no propulsion system. The egg is a highly visible protein pack, and it’s carried along naturally with the current. It doesn’t swim, dart, slide across lanes, or cling to rocks. Trout know it. And because they are masters of the current, they know where to expect the egg. Fishing an egg fly forces you to improve your drift. Think about everything you know about good nymphing. Get it just right. Now make it better.
Remember, deader than dead.
Soft Hits and Soft Seams
Because trout know the egg isn’t going anywhere, they’re in no rush to capture it. Trout are supremely efficient animals that don’t waste energy rushing to eat an egg. Instead they capture it casually and with confidence, because they know the egg isn’t alive. It can’t swim away, and its course is predictable. So trout slide over a few inches and intercept an egg — almost leisurely.
Rarely have I seen wild trout dart to grab an egg (but it does happen).
These soft, non-aggressive and casual takes of the fly become obvious to the winter angler with some experience. In cold water temperatures and with a lower metabolism, a trout has no good reason to be over-eager with an egg.
Anglers talk about missed hits and hook sets on a winter egg bite, saying the trout were picky. Damn right they were. Wild trout, especially, take eggs lightly, and they want the drift just right.
Compounding this difficulty, trout tend to feed in soft seams through the winter. For me, this doesn’t mean fishing the pools as much as finding the soft edges of feeding lanes or the shorts stalls in pocket water (or maybe a good spillout). Trout may hold in very slow water in the winter (a deep pool). But I find them feeding in the same sections that I find them all year long. However, they often move into the slower, softer edges of these sections. Often, success in the winter is about finding very specific water types. And when the fish agree with your presentation, it’s best to look around for another piece of water which is exactly the same.
To convert on such specific opportunities, a good winter nymphing angler is on edge — ready to strike at anything and strike immediately. This is another reason I don’t recommend riding the river bottom but instead gliding through the strike zone. Try not to touch the rocks very often. Then set on anything unexpected.
Fishing egg patterns with consistent success requires your best nymphing skills of the year — so dial it up a notch. And be ready to set the hook. Strike more. Guess less.
Rig with Split —No Bead
Earlier in this Fly Fishing in the Winter series, I detailed my primary and secondary winter nymphing rigs. ** Spoiler Alert ** They both feature egg patterns.
Both of these rigs also include a second fly. But I should mention this: Many days, I fish a single egg and nothing else. When trout are eating well, all I need is the egg and the shot. Split shot? Yeah, let’s get to that.
I’ve made this argument a few times here on Troutbitten, but in short, using split shot for weight allows the fly some freedom of motion. With the split shot five inches in front of the fly, we are in contact and in control of the shot. That gives both us and the egg a little grace — about five inches of grace.
The logic for split shot stems, once again, from the unique qualities of real eggs in the water — they drift deader than dead. On a tight line and connected to our nymph, every tiny movement of the rod tip is transmitted to the fly. With split shot in between us and the fly, some of our unintended movements are deadened or insulated. We are granted some grace.
Just as important, unweighted flies have a sort of neutral buoyancy. That looks a lot more like the real thing than does a tungsten beaded fly constantly dropping toward the bottom.
What’s the downside of split shot? Strike detection, of course. By putting shot in between us and the fly, we lose some contact. That’s partially good — allowing the fly more independent movement. And it’s partially bad — loss of strike detection. For me, keeping the split shot five to six inches away from the fly is the sweet spot. I never place my shot twelve or fourteen inches away from the point nymph, because there’s just far too much slop in the system. It’s too easy to be out of touch.
— — — — — —
Smith capped the thermos of coffee and stood up. With a couple hours of daylight left, he seemed eager and renewed.
“One thing I don’t get, though. . .” Smith said. “Spawning season is over. There are no eggs drifting around down there right now. So why are trout so keyed in on them.”
Smith had asked the question I’ve asked myself for many seasons. So I gave him my best guess . . .
I explained that I don’t think trout are actually keyed in or looking for eggs the way they might be when looking for, say, Grannom nymphs in April. And Smith was right. There are no eggs in the system right now. But in some way, I believe the memory of those eggs remains for trout.
Our spawning season ended in early December, and dropped eggs are the last significant food source that our trout saw. Trout eggs are colorful enough that they easily stand out in the flow down there. While most of what a trout eats is small and brown, an egg must seem like a large ice cream sundae with rainbow sprinkles.
Lastly, trout seem genetically predisposed to eat eggs. And when nothing remarkable is active in a winter river, the site of an egg pattern triggers their opportunistic instinct.
“That’s good stuff, Dom,” Smith said. “I’ll try it. Now how about giving me a few unweighted egg flies.” Smith put his hand out.
“Yup,” I replied. Flipping open the lid on my chest patch, I plucked away a half-dozen of my favorite eggs for Smith. “That’s all you need, I said. Don’t even mess with other colors or ties.”
Smith nodded as he clipped off his tungsten beaded egg and tied on one of mine. Then he added a #1 shot five inches up the line.
“Good luck,” I said.
“Oh, I’m gonna catch ‘em!” Smith replied with determination.
“I know,” I nodded. “I’ll meet you at the truck after sunset.”
When Smith ducked out of sight among the darkening canyon shadows, I just knew he’d come back after dark with stories of success.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N