Read the stories, and you’ll learn winter fly fishing is hard. Frozen fingers. Frozen lines. Real Jack London stuff.
Except when it isn’t.
On Sunday, it wasn’t.
Up here, we’re still in the grip of our indecently nice winter weather — a run of sunny, rain-and-snow-free days that defy the “winter” label.
The banks of the Upper Sacramento (the upper bits) should be carpeted with snow, and I should have skied down the road, but simply drove it instead, and could have done it in a two-wheel drive. I even fished some of the afternoon in a single long-sleeve undershirt before slipping on a light jacket.
It’s early January, and I was fishing a bug with its roots in a hatch that began in early October, and while I haven’t seen an October Caddis for weeks, I had an inkling.
For years I’ve suggested the “best” time to fish the October Caddis dry isn’t during the actual hatch. I can’t count the number of times I’ve caught more and bigger fish on an #18 PED parachute while October Caddis popped off the water like slow-moving hummingbirds.
Thousands of big bugs in the air, yet few — if any — trout eating them on the water.
Until they start dying.
Fly Fishing’s Confidence Game
Fly fishermen often pretend at knowledge they simply can’t possess. It’s a time-honored tradition, so when I say that the trout “know” the late-season October Caddis on the water are probably dying and therefore can’t escape, it sounds pretty good.
When I add — as a virtual certainty — they realize winter is here and the food-free spawn is coming soon afterwards, so they’re seizing the opportunity to bulk up, it all seems reasonable.
But really, who the hell knows?
I can say that Wally the Wonderdog and I fished for less than two hours, most of it spent rigging up and hiking down the rails (and in the Wonderdog’s case, rolling in something dead).
I only had three grabs.
But what grabs they were; slashing takes, like Northern Pike eating mice.
And yes, all the trout were big, at least by Upper Sacramento standards (they always are in winter).
The October Caddis
The big dying October Caddis pattern (a prototype tied by Raine, who has since changed the pattern) floats low in the water and the CDC wing no doubt looks tattered — like you’d imagine a dead October Caddis would look.
The first trout was a good 14″-15″, and like winter fish always do, he felt heavy and firm and solid and alive in my hand. After so long without a fly rod in my hand, it felt a little like I was reaching back into my past.
The second fish only stayed on for 4-5 seconds, and I’d suggest he was as big as the third, which — when I tried to measure it against the wraps on the fly rod — went on past the 18″ wrap.
Unfortunately, we come to the bad news; unless I can find some kind of accommodation, this might have been Wally the Wonderdog’s last fishing trip on the Upper Sac. In the past he was only peripherally interested in the fishing, but over time, he’s wholly keyed in on the fish to the point he’s trying to retrieve the damn things right out of my hand.
It makes for a tough time landing and releasing them (not to mention getting a picture), and sooner or later he’s going to catch one and kill it.
And I’m leaving out some of the language used when he decided to swim through a run while I was casting to it, or those moments when I lose a fish because I’m trying to horse them out of his reach.
Plus he’s not as spry as he used to be, and we hadn’t even reached the two-hour mark when he started limping and falling back, which meant it was time to go home.
We all get older, and the trick is to figure out what still works for us, and in the Wonderdog’s case, that might not involve scrambling up and down steep rocky banks — not exactly the Lab/Basset’s forte to begin with.
The Gear Stuff
I fished the 8’3″ Raine Hollowbuilt 5wt and the Rio Avid DT5 line, and the combination — at close and medium ranges — was astonishing.
Big dry flies are tough to fish accurately at short ranges; they’re wind resistant, so until you’ve got enough line mass driving them, they open up your loops and kill accuracy.
And accuracy is pretty much what it’s all about in this kind of fishing.
A short, strong leader is a necessity, as is a rod that will throw a decent loop at short range.
When Raine built new tips for this bamboo fly rod (converting it from a 4/5 to a true 5wt in the process), he added a little line speed to the equation.
It’s almost as if he’s reinvented the semi-parabolic style rod, only without all the weirdness.
More To Come
With the first real storm of the winter not expected until January 18 (and that’s a long-range forecast, which is worth about as much as you’d guess it was), the dying October Caddis bite might last a little longer.
With most of our options out of reach, my short trips are confined to the river or the nearby lake, though with a big deadline on the table, it may be a couple more days.
Fly fishing in winter is often portrayed as a kind of manly pursuit practiced by those lacking common sense (a label sought by many these days), but in truth, it always feels quieter and more reflective, and the sense of stillness is almost palpable.
Because nobody’s going anywhere in a hurry — and any expectations of a spring-level body count are gone — it’s as if you’re freed from the need to move quickly, and three big trout eating a dry fly is more reward, frankly, than it feels like I deserve.
See you on the river, Tom Chandler.