Philip offers some lake fishing ideas to keep the rod arm active through the cold months of winter.
There’s something about a dog curled up by the fire which emphasises the contrast between winter indoors… and out. Our little terrier isn’t the most intelligent creature that ever lived, but when the sleet is lashing the windows just a couple of metres from her basket, and I open the door to step outside, vest in one hand and rod in the other, she always lifts her head and looks at me as if to say, “Are you mad?”
It’s that step which is the hardest part though: out of the house, out of the cabin, out of the car or, god forbid, out of tent. Once the threshold has been crossed, you soon realise that even the worst the Australian winter can throw, is still quite tolerable if you’re properly dressed (and with today’s hi-tech gear, there’s no excuse not to be). And because I’m fishing for trout, a fish that will continue to feed until the water actually freezes solid, no matter the weather, there’s always hope – genuine hope.
- In the Rough
Let’s get the worst case over with first – winter wind. There can be few things as disheartening as a gale when the temperature is in single figures, but even this situation can produce good fishing, honest! In your favour, the trout, which are already feeling pretty relaxed in muted winter light, now have the bonus of broken water to help hide them. And is it too much of a stretch to suggest they can also sense that no dangerous animal in its right mind would be out hunting in such conditions?
Except the trout themselves of course. The idea that all lake food gets pushed to the windward shore may sometimes be a little simplistic, but not so the notion that wave action in the littoral zone displaces and exposes all sorts of food. I’m not saying you have to put yourself directly into the teeth of the gale. However, I recommend you at least try where the waves are striking the shore at an angle: much the same benefit, easier casts. Stick caddis, yabbies, snails, nymphs and gudgeon are all going to be much more available than normal on wave-washed shores. And don’t worry too much about imitation: a trout feeding on a stirred-up winter bank is unlikely to knock back a nice big, dark wriggly Woolly Bugger, maybe with a bright bead or a bit of flash. Besides, knowing you’re using a fly the trout can find in the murk and chaos, means you are fishing with belief and purpose – both essential elements of successful winter flyfishing.
- Stream Mouths
There are sensible rules which close most streams to trout fishing over winter so spawners, and their redds, can be left undisturbed. However, the bays and inlets where streams enter lakes – worthy of consideration at most points of the season – become extra-interesting in winter. Obviously, there is usually a procession of trout on their way to the stream; or on their way back to the lake having spawned. On second thoughts, maybe ‘procession’ is a misnomer. ‘Pulse’ probably more accurately captures the concept of trout clustering in bays and inlets ahead of whatever the heck it is that inspires them to run upstream: temperature, rain, moon phase…
Then there are the hungry trout returning to the lake after spawning, in various stages of depletion after not much feeding and not much food. Depending on what goodies are available back in the much more fertile lake, they may move considerable distances seeking decent feeding grounds, or they may begin hunting seriously the moment they arrive.
Speaking of which, I’ve become increasingly suspicious that these trout, and other large trout ‘in the know’, feed on young trout returning to the lake for the first time. This cannibalistic behaviour is accentuated when big flows push down the streams during rain events or snowmelt. Baitfish patterns, Yeti-style flies or the good old Woolly Bugger once again, can be deadly; fished where the upstream currents dissipate into the lake. (Be sure to follow local fishing regulations defining the boundary of the closed stream and the lake – although the best fishing is usually well out from the obvious stream mouth anyway.)
Cast right out, preferably far enough to reach the submerged stream channel, let the fly settle to a decent depth, and retrieve slowly: think ‘I’m a slightly disoriented little trout’. The takes can be merely a gentle increase in tension, or a violent jolt – be ready for either.
- Edge Polaroiding
The sun’s angle in the sky is low in winter, and the hours of really good light are limited. This means conventional polaroiding along a bank or wading, is often difficult. However find some elevation, and everything changes. Looking down into the water from height gives you a perspective that simply can’t be replicated at lake level. To help, lake trout have an exaggerated tendency to cruise the edges in winter; partly a function no doubt of their increased sense of security in winter which I discussed earlier.
The catch with polaroiding from high up, is how do you get your fly to a sighted trout? One option is to actually cast down to it if the distance from your position to the water is not too great. However, a better plan is to fish with a friend and take turns spotting. This keeps the person fishing close to the water and less visible, while the spotter can guide the cast using reference points along the bank like tussocks, logs, unusual rocks, etc.
My preferred technique for this sort of fishing is to present one or two small wets under an indicator, such as a stick caddis, nymph or buzzer. (See Indicator Fishing on Lakes in the FlyStream Annual 2017/18 https://flystream.com/magazine/.) This allows the angler to set a trap for trout which usually track quite predictably along the bank and only a metre or two out.
The second option is to cast a small to medium-sized Woolly Bugger and let it settle to the bottom; either presenting the fly when it will be sinking in sight of the fish (requiring good visibility yourself or excellent instruction from your spotter!) or twitching the fly a little as the trout approaches – enough to let it notice the fly but no more. The strike relies on a good call from your trusty spotter, or, less likely, your own view of the trout being sufficient to see its deliberate movement to the fly; and ideally, the white flash of its mouth as it eats.
While most insects that cause trout to rise are either at the egg stage or sound asleep during winter, chironomid are (ironically given their diminutive size) unfazed by the cold. With antifreeze in their blood and a lifecycle measured in weeks, chironomid are able to appear in good numbers through the depths of winter, creating the rare winter luxury of casting to surface-feeding trout.
On light wind winter days – especially overcast ones – midging trout can be found somewhere on many lakes, subtly disturbing the surface as they take midge pupa from just under it, or snip down emergers and adults. In fact they’re so subtle, most anglers walk or motor straight past them. Look and listen really carefully, or you’ll miss these winter midgers.
On a positive note, the daytime hatches tend to be a trickle rather than a flood, so once located, the trout take quite well and will move a foot or two for your fly. Try a low-floating dry like a Claret Carrot or Klinkhammer-style emerger, with a buzzer or stick caddis beneath.
Evening often brings more frenetic midge feeding as the insects hatch in huge numbers. But while the trout become easier to see, their catchability diminishes exponentially as your fly(s) become lost in a blizzard of naturals. Single out an individual trout and try intercepting its path with a gently but steadily-retrieved Carrot dry (they can be pulled without sinking) and a buzzer 40cm behind which approximates the size of the naturals. This kind of fishing requires a pretty good cast and retrieve skill set – the trout won’t deviate more than a couple of centimetres to eat your fly – plus perseverance and belief. If you spend too long looking for the ideal fly instead of fishing, the rise will be over. Instead, back your judgement and focus on repeated first-class presentations.
If you’re a little baitfish like an Australian smelt or galaxiid, your mere existence after millions of evolutionary years, is living proof that schooling works as a survival strategy. Far from offering the trout an easy-to-inhale mouthful, schools made up of agile, synchronised baitfish present a difficult and confusing target. The consequence is, winter smelters are somewhat like evening midge feeders: spectacular to behold, but difficult to catch. And again, the secret to smelter success is perseverance and presentation. By all means, find a fly that approximates the size and shape of the naturals, but then work hard on putting it in the right place at the right moment.
It helps to keep in mind that frequently, the trout are simply breaking up the school with their initial spectacular charge. It’s only after this that they turn around and hunt down the stunned or crippled minnows. The second point mounts an argument for your fly not to be a perfect copy of the naturals. A splash of red to suggest blood, or a different shade to suggest a baitfish which was already sick before the attack, can both make a fly a more appealing target to a trout that’s most interested in food that’s easiest to catch.
Similarly, the temptation to pull the fly fast to match the speed of the trout’s attack, can be misplaced. It’s the wounded or disoriented baitfish that the trout will be looking for – to the extent that smelters will sometimes take a fly while it’s still sinking; before you even begin that slow, helpless retrieve.
For all that, smelting trout are usually quite hard to catch, which is where the perseverance bit comes in. With everything happening so fast and unpredictably, even your best efforts usually can’t guarantee you fly will be ‘in the zone’ and noticed by the trout. Trust that your fly and technique is as good an option as any, and keep at it.
Keep warm and keep looking
As with my approach to most lake fishing, in winter I try to balance plenty of walking and looking, with the fly spending a decent amount of time in the water. When spotting conditions are good – read reasonably calm, some polaroiding light or both – I‘ll devote more time to looking for signs of trout. If it’s rough and cloudy though, I’m prepared to spend more time prospecting: searching likely areas; particularly as per highlights 1 and 2 above.
Either way, I can’t stress enough the importance of being warm and dry. Nothing will pull you off winter water quicker than cold hands, cold ears or, worst of all, a cold core. Use layers, gloves, balaclavas or beanies; all coated in a breathable waterproof jacket, and waders. And bring plenty of food and a decent thermos – sometimes, that late afternoon snack, washed down with a hot tea or coffee, can be almost as enjoyable as the fish you’ve caught… almost!