Bob Boese, Louisiana

December 15th, 2008

Winter Bream
By Bob Boese, Louisiana

Louisiana doesn't have winter, not really. Average temperatures for January-February are in the 60s with lows in the 40s. Not exactly electric socks cold. But…as our mild winter gets into full swing and the weather dips toward the three or four days below 40 we get each year, Louisiana's water temperatures put bass and bluegill into slow motion. Cold blooded species reduce their activity with extremes of temperature and bass/bluegill consider water temps in the low 60s or 50s to be practically paralyzing. You know the fish are there somewhere, and you're pretty sure they have to eat, but where? Obviously they can be caught in winter or ice fishing would merely be an excuse to drink beer…or could it be that…?

The key to winter is patience.

Studies consistently show that, as the surface temperature drops, bass and bluegill move to deeper waters and significantly reduced their hunting territory and in one case a large bass (hunkered down in the roots of a tree) showed no discernable movement at all for nearly four months – which pretty much guarantees he was flyfishing–proof. The seasonal transition pattern from shallow to deep depends entirely on weather conditions. As it heats up and cools down, bass and bluegill will move to shallows to feed, then retreat back to depths, then back and forth over a period of months (December – March). However, any feeding pattern can be disturbed with even moderate water temperature changes, or barometric changes, even with modified amounts of direct sunlight.

Bass and bluegill of similar size will generally be in the same proximity, so when fly fishermen find larger fish, they should concentrate on that area. Because of shrunken hunting territory, a "good" area may be only a few feet across. Normal fan casting (in a 90 degree arc) is not the approach to take here, and a much smaller target area should be worked. An article on plastic worm fishing once recommended two dozen casts at the same location. That's just silly. Failure to get a strike is normally an indicator to move, and no strikes on a good fly at a seemingly good location in five minutes means there are probably no bass and bluegill there or another fly should be tried (but not longer than another five minutes). Results from a Humminbird SmartCast in January–February 2007 showed most of the large fish in a 1000' x 50' lake to be located in three small deeper areas. In a similar lake the fish were all congregated in a trough running 200' down the middle of the lake. Fish and move a few feet at a time until you catch fish.

Try to focus on any apparent structure or vegetation since small bluegill feed heavily on insects near the vegetation, and bass feed on smaller fish that feed on these insects. Bluegills and goggle-eyes are creatures of habit, and if you know vegetation is usually in an area in the spring/summer, bass and bluegill will frequently return to that area in winter, although bass prefer snags and underwater obstructions to vegetation. When the fish move out of previously occupied areas, drop-offs and deeper holes are the best areas to fish, often the only place worth fishing.

For either bass or bluegill, the fly of choice should be an insect replica first, then a minnow replica. Retrieves should be painfully slow. A "finger strip" is performed by holding the line between your thumb and forefinger, and then tugging lightly on the line with your middle finger, then you re-grip where your middle finger tugged. Use a finger strip-pause-finger strip-long pause-repeat, and the bait should only move an inch or so each strip.

On a bright day in the warmest part of the afternoon a hungry fish might take a surface bait, but the only reliable option for winter bass and bluegill fishing is one that doesn't float. The soft hackle is particularly adaptable to winter bass and bluegill fishing. Soft hackle flies have a lot of movement just drifting in the water without a lot of movement of the fly. Just twitched occasionally, the hackles wiggle invitingly (or, to bass, infuriatingly). There is no specific "catch-'em" pattern, and the choice of colors depends largely on the color of the water being fished. Not many insects are active in the winter, but the nymphs of dragonflies and stoneflies cruise the waters of ponds, feed actively and grow all winter to emerge as adults in early spring. These are larger nymphs and nothing smaller than a size 10 need be used. Of course, fish don't have calendars and any slightly warmer day might find a mayfly pattern effective.

In general, darker colors should be used for the body of the fly (black, olive or chocolate). These can be dubbed or or woven or simply thread bodies, but use nothing that will tend to float. The fly can be accented or dressed with bright contrasting colors by using flash in tails, wire ribbing, shiny bead eyes or plastic bead heads. Contrasting hackle (e.g. black hackle on an olive fly) will also provide some contrast. Brass bead heads or cone heads are optional, but generally cause the bait to fall too rapidly between twitches and, consequently, are useful for bass more than bluegill.

The second best option is a nymph or larva pattern. Since most flies will be tied on 12 or larger hooks, a bass and bluegill nymph can take advantage of materials trout nymphs cannot use. Chenille is particularly effective for bass and bluegill flies, which can be dressed with plastic legs, soft hackle or other hackle barb legs, and a variety of materials for the thorax . Flies should be buggy, but should not be so scraggly as to look like a piece of algae on the hook.

Because the fish are not willing to expend any energy to chase down your fly, using a double fly rig is highly recommended. A clouser or deceiver pattern minnow trailing an insect pattern (or visa versa) will present more fish catching options. More than one large bass has fallen prey to a rubber leg nymph trailed closely by a minnow imitation … as if it were chasing the nymph. Apparently bass get really perturbed when they think someone is getting a meal they are not.

Bass and bluegill are not particularly line shy. For winter fishing you want tippet that sinks easily and is invisible. Flourocarbon lines (e.g. Vanish) are a good choice. You can get Vanish in a 6 lb. test at 250 yards for $12 whereas 25 yards of flourocarbon tippet is $13. If you use something more visible than flourocarbon, the key is to try and get a line with a diameter of .010 or less. In ponds a long leader can give you a pretty decent (1 ft/sec) sink rate and a 10-12 foot leader/tippet is not too long.

Winter takes are not bone-jarring attacks. Winter takes are subtle and frequently nothing more than a little pressure on the line. In very shallow ponds (5' or less) a popper dropper rig can be used. In this instance the popper is simply a cork, but make sure it has long rubber legs. The dropper will only go as deep as the line between it and the popper, so don't be stingy with this part of your rig. You don't need a "pop" from the popper, so continue using tiny strips. If the rubber legs twitch and you didn't cause it, that is a take. Sometimes a fish will inhale and your only clue is that the popper legs moved toward the head of the fly (indicating the fly moved backwards). This is a take.

Now for the downside (other than the fact that winter fishing is cold on the fisherman and takes more patience than many of us possess) which is that winter bass and bluegill fish don't fight very hard. Warm water species spend most of their energy doing what's necessary for keeping alive in cold water. There is not a lot left over for a spawn-like rod-bending battle. Large bass often act like catfish (or perhaps an old boot), barely moving dead weight on the line. Not fun. ~ Bob

About Bob:

Robert Lamar Boese has fly fished for five decades. He is an environmental negotiator, attorney and educator who has provided environmental legal services for more than thirty-three years including active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Justice. He is a well known fly tyer with several unique patterns to his credit. He has developed and authored federal and state regulatory programs encompassing a broad spectrum of environmental disciplines, has litigated environmental matters at all levels of the federal and state court systems, and is a qualified expert for testimony in environmental law. He has authored over 60 published text chapters, comments or articles on environmental matters, is a member of the Colorado, District of Columbia and Louisiana Bar Associations, and is a certified mediator. In addition to his legal practice, Mr. Boese has been a high school teacher, an associate professor of Environmental Law and Public Health, has authored numerous fiction and sports publications, and is a softball coach and nationally certified volleyball referee. He is the president of the Acadiana Fly Rodders in Lafayette, Louisiana and editor of Acadiana on the Fly. He has been married for thirty years and is the father of two fly fishing girls (25 and 21). For additional information contact: Boese Environmental Law, 103 Riviera Court, Broussard, LA 70518 or call 337.856.7890 or email coachbob@ymail.com.


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