Winter in the Driftless Area
We’ve hit a bad patch of weather here in the Midwest over the last couple weeks and it has derailed a handful of opportunities to wet a fly. I got desperate at times and headed to a blown out stream only to walk its bank debating whether or not to line a rod. Sure I checked USGS and knew what to expect, but sometimes you need to see it for yourself. Friday I took advantage of my company’s summer hours and snuck out to the closest stream with the “best” water conditions. Fishing from 2-5pm in the middle of July with high, stained water isn’t exactly optimal conditions, but it was fishing. It’s starting to feel like the off season leaving me searching for things to fill the void. My fly boxes are full, the website is pretty much up to date and I even cleaned out my DVR of old fly fishing programs. I blew through episodes of In the Loop, Fly Nation, Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing, Sport Fishing on the Fly and The New Fly Fisher. Seasons on the Fly got me thinking about this blog. The intro of the show explains every angler has a favorite season to chase fish on the fly and for me, with little hesitation, that season is winter.
I struggle to give any praise to a season that overstayed its welcome here in the Midwest giving us notable snow accumulation in May. I live in Minnesota, but I am close enough to Wisconsin to fish its waters. Both have an early or winter season, Minnesota starts January 1st on southern streams (although all streams may be open this coming year) and Wisconsin opens the first Saturday in March. The winter seems longer without fly fishing as both seasons close in September. That’s five months tying flies, reading, scouting new water and building anticipation. I’ll get out on the southern MN streams from January to March, but there is only one stream close and early in the year you may do more de-icing and trudging through a foot of snow than catching fish. March in WI is my sweet spot. My birthday closes out February so the first open week of March I take off to fish. I look forward to this time more than any other. I spend a week prepping, organizing, re-organizing and packing. It shouldn’t take that long, but it’s part of my “process.” As if the off season isn’t lengthy enough fishing in the winter only gets good after 10:00am. Knowing this, I still get to the stream at 8:00am and that’s after a lazy morning of sipping coffee and eating a big breakfast (gear is packed in the truck the night before). The anticipation of the event is too much for me to stand so I’m out the door. There is something magical about winter fishing everything in vivid black and white, the air is crisp and a stream fished many times before somehow looks new. This past winter was especially memorable as my favorite stretch of water was closed the year before with bridge construction. During the regular season my typical outing is around 4 hours, but during the winter I get 4-5 full days. This allows me to slow my pace and take in views of frozen cliff walls, thick ice hanging off the bank, snow clung to trees and the wildlife that dares to brave the conditions.
The winter provides tremendous solitude, especially during the week. Tracks in the snow are rare and after you cross the stream a time or two tracks become non-existent. The snow provides a timeline and there is something rewarding about fishing untouched water. It feels like discovering a new stream. Did I mention the fishing? Winter fishing is the same question asked a different way. I need to erase the memory of where the fish were the last time I was on the stream, but when located they usually come in bunches. At the end of the day I’m cold, tired and ready to do it all over again the next day. But it’s June and longing for the winter isn’t something I’m ready to do, there are plenty of fish still to be had. My mind has shifted to warm water species and even a trip to the salt in a week or so. I’ll be fishing the surf in Delaware over the Fourth of July, hopefully when I get the weather's improved or the DVR is filled.
Get your head out of the gutter - we’re talking indicators here! I suppose I’ll learn a lot about my audience if this is the most visited, but least read post. Then again an author who lures folks in with a provocative title only to bait and switch is like someone running into a fellow weight watchers group member at an all you can eat buffet. Both a little embarrassed and both guilty.
The nakedness I’m referring to is fishing without an indicator not the ultimate in wet wadding. For this conversation we’ll focus specifically on nymphing in streams. Fishing without an indicator is much more common in still water environments. In the evolution of fly fishing techniques it seems to me this was the quickest to be devoured. You float a dry, swing a wet and use an indicator for nymphing. Trust me I get it. Fishing with an indicator is the easiest and most effective method to catch fish, thus its popularity. European style nymphing and fishing with sighters instead of a suspension device brought naked fishing back in vogue, but that can be an intimidating space as well. I’m not suggesting you throw away your indicators or run out and buy a Euro nymphing rod, I’d rather talk about the space between the two.
Fishing naked can be done with a standard leader, but it is much tougher to detect a strike without a visual reference. You can use the tip of your floating line but then you deal with drag and inaccurate judge of depth. Euro-nymphing was my gateway to fishing without an indicator. In this technique I use a knotted leader with a built in sighter to provide a visual reference of depth and detection of strikes. There are a lot of good recipes out there; here is how I construct mine.
Recipe: 5’ Butt Section; 20 Lb Mono Blue Stren – Blood Knot – Sighter; 8" 10 Lb Mono Hi-Vis Gold Stren– Blood Knot – Sighter; 8 Lb Mono Neon Tangerine Sufix – Clinch Knot – Tippet Ring – Clinch Knot Tippet Material (length determined by water depth)
Buy the smallest spools possible, one batch of materials can tie a lot of leaders. Keep in mind mono will break down over time. I recommend buying tippet ring with rounded edges. I found flat, washer shaped rings have sharp enough edges to break the tippet off at the ring rather than the fly wasting five feet of material every time you get hung up. I won’t go into a lot of detail regarding tight-line techniques as there are a lot of good books out there by people better informed than me. I highly recommend reading George Daniel’s Dynamic Nymphing. As the name implies one method relies on a tight-line between rod tip and fly. The other, an indicator setup, there is a tight line between the nymph and indicator. The former is typically cast a short distance and the latter used for longer casts. Greatly oversimplified, I know. When I talk about the space between the two methods, think of your sighter as you would your indicator. Specifically I concentrate on the knot between the two sighters. I can go from high sticking with my line perpendicular to the water to casting distances I would with an indicator. I simply cast upstream and across, give my nymph time to sink and then raise my rod tip until the blood knot attaching the two sighters holds just on top of the water. In slow, deep water I’ll let the sighter sink completely. If the water is clear and the colored sections are visible I can detect strikes even when submerged. This is extremely potent because the path of the nymph is different than in a traditional tight line or indicator set up. In both methods the fly travels more or less in a straight line with the current. Using this technique the fly travels in a curved path starting in a straight-line and then arcing towards you somewhat opposite of swinging a fly, but effective for the same reasons. The greatest challenge of fishing naked is learning to detect strikes. Instead of an indicator dropping the leader will stop or hesitate. With any nymphing, I set the hook any time something looks "funny." The more you fish without an indicator the better you’ll get learning what “funny” looks like. Fishing naked is a stealth approach and minimizes the commotion on top of the water. It also presents a drag free drift by keeping line off the water or getting an indicator caught in a micro current. When I need to cast a further distance and don’t want to wade the water in front of me I’ll add a suspension device. The sighter provides a more accurate indicator placement and ultimately the depth of my fly. When used in tandem, if I can still see my sighter, I’ll concentrate on it rather than the indicator. I am amazed how often I catch fish on the twitch of a sighter before the indicator is disturbed.
Next time you’re out on the water lower your inhibitions and get naked. If you've read this far you know what I mean…
As I visit various fly fishing forums I see a lot of discussion around buying gear on Ebay, so I thought this an appropriate platform for me to weigh in. So you’re clear on my stance - I purchased most of my rods and reels off Ebay, but my process is deliberate. I’ll lay out my method in the hopes it saves you some money and gets you in better equipment.
What: To start, I think certain items are safer bought through unseen auctions than others. For example, name brand rods and reels are made so well and with great warranties I’m more comfortable making those purchases. If you’re looking to save a lot consider a used rod or reel, but make sure you read through the rest of the blog to hedge your bets. I stay away from clothing because I can’t determine fit from a picture online. I learned the hard way buying a wading jacket which looked like a belly shirt. As a side note, I strongly discourage going to your local fly shop, trying something on only to buy it cheap online. Fly tying supplies is a mixed bag. If it is something low cost I’m willing to take a gamble on it, but there is a lot of garbage out there. When I find a product and price I like I’ll bookmark the seller and if available, view their full site outside of Ebay.
Rods purchased on Ebay through trade in programs
Who: There is certainly a risk vs. reward when buying through an auction site. Making a purchase from a buyer who is representing a business provides extra incentive for them to be forthright in their dealings. Another benefit of working with a shop selling on Ebay is the emergence of trade-in programs. The Leland Upgrade Program comes to mind. I bought my Sage Z-Axis from them and don’t regret it for a minute. They allow customers to trade in gear for store credit and in turn sell their merchandise online. It’s their reputation, so they provide an honest review of condition while taking the mystery out of who you are dealing with. Buyers also get the peace of mind that if something goes wrong a business has more incentive to fix it. I bought a used Sage Xi2 and initially had a bad experience, but the company I purchased it from, Anglers Habitat, made it right replacing the faulty rod with a brand new Xi3. All the reasons to buy from a business are the same reasons you may pay a little more. My econ professor would be please if I mentioned Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations at this point. You may be able to get a better deal from the individual seller, but you’ll take on some inherit risk if things aren't to your liking. Ebay has safe guards including buyer protection and allowing buyers to comment/grade sellers. Be mindful of the seller’s feedback. I’m a “cup half empty” kinda guy so I’ll focus on the negative comments even if there are only a couple. That said, there are a lot of good individual sellers out there and with any transaction there is some leap of faith when you’re buying sight unseen.
Seasons end is a great time to buy
When: I have found a science regarding best times to buy equipment and it follows logic. The close of the season (if there is a close) is the time when people look to ditch old gear, but not necessarily when people are buying. So I have found from September to November, auctions tend to end lower. Once you get into the holiday season they’ll start to go up again. Then early in January people may get rid of rods and reels if they received an upgrade as a gift. Shops also look to move equipment at the end of the year to make room for new product. This leads into another ideal buying opportunity, when products are discontinued or new models come out. I bought two Z-Axis fly rods once they decided to discontinue it in favor of the One. A rod that was $700 one day was half price the next. People were embarking on their own upgrade program selling their used Z-Axis for One cash. And stores were doing the same. Again I benefited when the Lamson Litespeed made recent changes to its design and paired those rods with new reels. One other side note - auctions ending during M-F especially in the afternoon tend to go lower (people at work, not watching, etc.). Sure there are trade-offs and compromises, but if you want premium gear on a budget this is a great way to do it.
How: It pays to be diligent when making a purchase on Ebay. When I know what I want I’ll set up a saved search and watch a few auctions to gauge the market. Once the going rate is identified I’ll hop on the next one that comes up. Don’t get caught up in the winning more than the savings. It’s tough to do at times when bids start pouring in, but know your budget and know the market. With luck there will be a couple ending around the same time to give you options. Ask questions of the seller and if you need more information have them send additional photos. As they say, bid with confidence - good luck and be careful because it can be addictive!