The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 26, 2012

Rising fish in the middle of the winter

By Clint Ferguson
For The Register-Herald

— This past weekend, winter decided to make its appearance dropping snow across much of the Mountain State. Up until then there wasn’t even a flake found in the higher elevations, which is very rare for this time of the year. 

I can’t remember a time when you could drive the entire length of the Scenic Highway in the high mountains of Pocahontas County in January and the beginning of February without seeing any snow at all. 

That just doesn’t happen, but it did this year. For those that don’t know, the Scenic Highway isn’t maintained in the winter and snow drifts often make the road impassable from December through March and even into April during bad winters like last year for instance. There’s snow there now, however, as the area received a few inches over the weekend.

So with heavy snow and frigid temperatures in the forecast there was only one thing to do and that was to pack the truck with fishing gear and hit the water before the snow came. The Elk River was beautiful, as it always is, and was in great shape. I couldn’t wait to wade out and cast a line and wasted no time in suiting up and walking to the first hole we wanted to fish.

Upon arriving I noticed that we had the river to ourselves, which is one thing I like about fishing in the winter. The first hole we came to had rising fish sipping midges and in no time Tara hooked up with the first fish of the day, a beautiful colored-up rainbow. Tara continued fishing while I looked the hole over and spotted a really nice fish hanging on the bottom. Needless to say I spent the next 15 minutes trying to catch that fish but he wasn’t having it.

Tara had moved to the next hole and found another pod of rising trout. They were being picky and playing tough to catch, which is typical of this river. That’s what I love about fishing this place is that you have to figure out what exact insect they’re eating, and then match that with your fly to catch fish.  Match the hatch and catch lots of fish or on the other hand if you just pick a fly and start casting you’ll be in for a long day.

Being observant and aware of what’s going on under the water’s surface is a huge part of fly fishing. It’s important to slow down and just watch at times to see what’s going on. That’s exactly what I did and immediately noticed two really nice rainbows feeding close to the bank about 6-12 inches under the water.

From experience I knew they were more than likely eating black stonefly nymphs as these insects crawl on the rocks in back eddies beside the bank and then hatch into adults once they’re out of the water. I also saw a few adults crawling around on the rocks beside my feet and fluttering in the air, which helped confirm my suspicion. I tied on a No. 16 black stonefly dry fly pattern and then dropped a nymph pattern about two feet off the back of it and proceeded to fish for the two nice rainbows that were still feeding in front of me.

After several drifts and a couple of close inspections and refusals I realized that my dropper fly wasn’t getting deep enough. I dug in my fly pack and found the smallest sinker I could find and attached it to my line between the dry fly and dropper fly. On the very first cast after that, one of the rainbows took my offering and the fight was on. After a short battle Tara slid the net under the rainbow, which had rosy cheeks and a bright red stripe down its side. 

It was in the 17-inch range, although when Tara pulled the camera out to take a picture the battery was dead. All we could do was admire the pretty trout for a few seconds and then send it on its way to be caught again another day. Tara looked at me and said, “I bet that’s what those fish were eating over there,” meaning on the other side of the hole where she had been fishing. I gave her a small sinker and she waded back out to give it a try and within five casts she was hooked up.

She almost had the fish in before it spit the hook for a long-distance release. By then it was afternoon and the snow forecasted began to fall. That’s probably why we had the river to ourselves. It started out light before it really started putting it down. There’s something peaceful with the sound of the river rushing and big white snowflakes falling down with no one else in sight, other than Tara, who was starting to get a white covering.

As the snow picked up in intensity so did the trout. Those black stoneflies were now hatching and fluttering across the water’s surface and the trout were whacking them. We both cut our droppers off and proceeded to lay a whooping on the fish until the snow ran us off the river. It was nearing 5 p.m. and the snow was hammering it down so we decided to leave although it was hard because the fish were still rising.

We were both wet and it was getting hard to pick out your dry fly on the water. I had nothing left dry, to dry my fly off, and it kept sinking so I said the heck with it. Tara popped one more rainbow as we worked our way back to the truck. We caught all rainbows that day. I can’t think of another place where you can catch rising fish in the middle of the winter, in the middle of a snowstorm.