Bitter cold and drifting snow have confined me to the tying bench awash in self-pity. My shaking hands are symptomatic either of the cold or withdrawal from fishing as three weeks have passed since my last cast. Oh sure, I could have dressed in my warmest layered clothes and spent the day dipping my rod after each cast to prevent ice buildup in the guides. I’ve done that plenty of times while experiencing both satisfying success and exasperating failure. A sip of steaming coffee accompanied by a wistful glance at my rod rack almost persuades me to abandon caution and begin pulling on long underwear and wool stockings. Almost, but not entirely. Can it be that advancing age is responsible for my reluctance? That uncomfortable thought led me to resolve to schedule my next fishing trip. Regardless of the weather, I will, in five days, wade a favored stretch of spring branch in search of smallmouth bass, rock bass, and other panfish that I suspect have moved there from the river to feed in the warmer water. I feel better already. I will face whatever fierce winter weather nature has in store. I’ll arm myself with fingerless gloves, packs of hand-warmers, a goose-down vest, a few high-energy bars, and a thermos of coffee. It will be a great adventure. I can’t wait. First, let me check the future weather forecast so I will know how to prepare. Oh good! The Weather Channel is predicting 58-degrees.
Gray skies, coupled with a forecast high of 36 degrees, lured me to a small spring creek in the hope that bass had been drawn there. The spring emits 54-degree water year round, and that warmth would raise the fish’s metabolism and increase their need to feed. An upstream trek from the point where the spring branch entered the river consisted of carefully sneaking along the brushy bank and delivering short roll casts, often from a kneeling position. Each miniature pool was thoroughly explored with a size-12 brown Bully Spider. The second encountered pool had a sluggish eddy that quickly surrendered 4 Rock Bass, and the tailout gave up an acrobatic 11-inch Smallmouth. A rocky stretch of pocket water invited a fly change to a size-8 jointed Hellgrammite. A slow dead-drift presentation induced a missed strike, then 3 Smallmouths. Another upstream relocation brought me to the spring’s mouth. A size-12 soft hackle fly was knotted to the tippet and lowly stripped through the pool before allowing it to drift back toward a gnarled tree root. The location gave me 3 more Rock Bass before the setting sun demanded my retreat. In our part of the world, winter has gifts for dedicated flyfishers like me, like my cold but satisfying afternoon on the water.
What fly would get your vote as being the best fly ever created? For most, that would likely be the fly that catches the most fish. But that might depend on the species you are targeting, so let’s extend our definition to include only multi-species flies. Another criteria that could impact our choice is that the world’s best fly should be capable of being fished in a variety of different ways.
With those considerations in mind, my choice would be the Muddler Minnow created by Don Gapen. It was the first tied streamside to represent the sculpins that the Brook Trout were feeding upon. It was an immediate success, but that was just the beginning. Touted in outdoor magazines by fly fishing legend Joe Brooks and promoted by another legend, Montana fly shop owner Dan Baily, the fly became a trout fishing staple. Once again, that was just the beginning as creative anglers began experimenting with different ways of employing the Muddler.
It can be tied weightless with floatant added to imitate a grasshopper, which appeals to trout and bass and a variety of panfish species. Dressed in this manner, the Muddler can also be fished as a floater/diver to imitate a wounded minnow. Left unweighted but without floatant added, it is effective when fished just below the surface as a waker as the broad, tightly packed head pushes lots of water. When it’s weighted or fished on the sinking line, it can be at mid-depth or as a bottom hugger. The Muddler Minnow is my choice as the world’s best fly. What’s yours?
A 60-degree day with full sun forced me to enjoy a small pond in the hope that the warmth would entice bluegills to suspend a couple of feet over deep water. It’s a pattern I have fished many times before, but it usually occurs in late winter or very early spring. If the surface temperature rises a few degrees, some of the bluegill population will be drawn to it, and their metabolisms will be elevated so that they will be more aggressive. In most circumstances, fish will shun the bright sunlight, but this is a rare exception. In these conditions, fish will not forage in the shallows but instead will suspend over deep water and feed opportunistically. This requires a rod capable of 40- to 50-foot casts even if there is a stiff breeze. It’s also important to select lightly-colored, nearly neutrally-buoyant fly. The light colors will reflect the most light and will be most visible to the fish. I have never found bluegills to be “schooled up” in this situation. They are single fish, which require the angler to stay on the move and cast over different areas. This fishing is seldom fast, but it can be very satisfying. Unweighted size-12 white or yellow Bully Spiders enabled the capture of 15 bluegills in a couple of hours of midafternoon casting. The fish were located at 2 to 3 feet of depth, and my unweighted flies were counted to that depth then slowly retrieved.
Rain that raised the stream level enough to quicken the flow and persistent gusty winds forced a switch to Plan B. An upstream hike ground a long river bend brought me to a ridge that shielded my 5-weight’s casts to a series of deadfalls that harbored slack water downstream. from each. Several streamer presentations produced a swirl, but no takes. I snipped off the Black Nosed Dace but, as I contemplated the next selection, two rises dimpled the surface in the lee of a large log. Dun-colored caddis flies danced above the surface so a size-14 dark grey Bivisible was knotted to 4X tippet. Two dead drifts were ignored prompting the addition of a subtle twitch. The take was explosive and a 10-inch smallmouth skittered across the surface before diving toward the outstretched tree branches. In hand, the bronze beauty glared angrily at me through intense red eyes. The strategy was magical for the remainder of the evening as each deadfall pocket produced several smallies supplemented by a number of spunky Green Sunfish. At the end of the long pool, I became aware of the rattle of dry leaves as they scurried across gravel bars, and the wind acquired a chilly edge that required a speedy pace toward the bridge.
After several unseasonably warm days, I waded a favorite stretch of river armed with a 3-weight rod. A size-12 oft hackle was knotted to a 5X tippet and cast into clear water that exposed the rocky substrate. As the fly settled, I gathered the line preparing to impart action, but I was met with resistance that signaled the fly had been inhaled. The ensuing fight caused the light rod to throb and I elicited an audible laugh. A turquoise-flecked orange Longear Sunfish was admired and released. Another dozen of those beautiful battlers were subdued before a downstream wade of a few steps encountered a pod of equally hungry Green Sunfish. Again, a dozen were brought to hand before another move intercepted more longears. Seven turkeys momentarily startled me as they noisily flew overhead and across the stream into the large oaks on the river’s western ridge. The next cast resulted in a hookup with a small longear that was attacked by a sizeable Smallmouth Bass, but as I reached out to land the sunny my movement caused the smallie to drop its prey. Quickly I knotted a streamer to my tippet and probed the area carefully without success. As the sun slipped behind the tree line the air temperature plummeted, and reluctantly I waded ashore.