Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Trip Reports Trout & Char

Cold Comfort: A Winter Day of Fixed Line Nymphing

Matt Sment - Cold Comfort: A Winter Day of Fixed Line Nymphing - Driftless Stream Winter
Driftless Wisconsin trout Stream in Winter

There was about a month there when almost everyone in America was very cold. That is business as usual for this time of year in the upper Midwest, but it doesn’t make it any less of a pain. I spent much of it hiding indoors the best I could, but cabin fever was taking its toll. It was time to keep an eye on the forecast and make plans with my buddy Mike, so when the cold broke, we could make a b-line for some of our favorite Madison area small water.

It was a comfortable mid 30s but windy, and blowing straight downstream. We both rigged up our tenkara rods with the intent to nymph with weight and target the lower depths. While you do see surface feeding in the cold months, working that bottom layer of structure with weighted flies is the most productive tactic we’ve found for catching in Driftless cold. And I do mean “work”.

We’ve had some really good winter days, but nine times out of ten, we are lucky to come away with a fish or two each. It’s always a combination of air and water temperature changes that usually leave the fish moody. We seem to have better luck in winter with stocked Iowa rainbows than the wild Wisconsin browns. But that doesn’t stop us from trying.

One of the two small creeks in these pics has coughed up 16 inch browns and more 14’s than you’d think; you never know what is lurking in the undercut of a Driftless trout stream. This day was slow. This was the first and only trout brought to hand that day, a TDB. As we like to call them, a “typical Driftless Brown” of about 10 inches or so.

Matt Sment - Cold Comfort: A Winter Day of Fixed Line Nymphing - Typical Driftless Brown
The fish of the day, a Typical Driftless Brown

Neither one of us is easy on our gear. My waders are three seasons deep and leaking at both ankles, one of Mike’s boots is questionably held together by duct tape. But that doesn’t stop us either.

Matt Sment - Cold Comfort: A Winter Day of Fixed Line Nymphing - Mike Lutes
Duct tape wading boot repair is on its last legs

We both appreciate tip flex rods in a stout 6:4 action for this kind of thing. Mike was fishing a #4 level line on a 12 foot Tenkara Times model, about 5 feet of tippet and a random beadhead nymph. I was fishing a Dragontail Nirvana 400 with #3 level line and similar length tippet.

You do your best to stay out of sight despite glass clear water and challenging approach angles, but the big problem when casting into these small streams becomes the wind. Not only does that make it hard to land the precise casts we need on small water, but it causes a lot of snags on the banks.

To add to the challenges, this stream is choked with structure. It seems that much of the deadfall that came down when it was rehabbed was thrown in. This has been great for encouraging the fish population to thrive, but it makes it difficult to target the bottom without snagging. And snag we did. On bank, and grass, and ice, and rock, and log. “Summer water” we agree, best for wets and dries on the top six inches. And also best for winds gusting under 20 mph.

Matt Sment - Cold Comfort: A Winter Day of Fixed Line Nymphing - Snowy bank
By June, the grass on the bank here will be chest high

We spend a decent amount of time while winter fishing trying to interpret the conditions. Justifying why we are not seeing or catching fish on a stream we have had 30-40 trout days on during the summer. Temperature changes. Cold fronts. Snowmelt. An exceptionally hot summer a few years back. Possible shifting of Earth’s magnetic poles. Underground Lizard people. I mean, it can’t be US, right?

In any case it’s comforting to find a reason to pin it on. We finally settled on “it’s been cold”.

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