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Part One hundred eighty-nine

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The Winter Hatch and Panfish


By Johnny (aka Hillfisher), Texas

I live and breathe fly fishing. I am one with the fly rod. See the fish, be the fish. Now what looks good to the fish?

I spend a lot of time on the creek in my backyard, sometimes just sitting along the bank and watching the panfish and bass to see what they are feeding on and what traits they display throughout the days of our seasons.

My Creek in Winter

On this particular afternoon in mid January it's a balmy 72 degrees with a lot of sunshine warming the shallows in the creek and producing a large hatch. Looking out across the water there are areas covered in clouds of white produced by the sun reflecting of the tiny wings of Caddis Flies. They are emerging by the hundreds. Tiny B-52's no more than two to three inches off the water and moving downstream. Vee-wakes are starting to show on the surface. The predators are starting to move. For the observant fly fisher, this is a sign that catching fish is about to become a very good possibility.

Winter time means less food sources. Hoppers, ants, caterpillars and other forms of terrestrials are not present as well as other forms of food sources. So if a hatch is occurring, this is when the fish will be active, but selective. I have stood in the creek with rings forming on the surface all around me, casting surface flys with few to no hits. It is a common mistake to assume that the surface rings mean the fish are actually feeding on the surface, especially during the winter. You can throw just about every surface fly out there and they just wont touch it. Even the Texas Midge Fly does not produce consistently every day.

See the rise rings?

Now is the time for Nymphs. This calls for totally different tactics from the summer fishing. Throughout most of our winter, nymphs and streamers consistently produce more fish than surface flys. With the cooler water temperatures our warm water fish will react slower and conserve as much energy as possible. They will not tend to rise unless there is a warm sunny day producing a consistent food source such as the hatches.

There are several methods for using and presenting nymphs. All of them have worked for someone somewhere. I won't pretend to be an expert, but let me share a method which has worked very well for me. First of all the warmest part of the day in in the late afternoons. Typically I will see rings starting to form around 3:30 pm or later on any sunny warm day. Using small unweighted nymphs (my preference is the gold ribbed hares ear) about size 14, cast downstream. Allow the nymph time to settle to the bottom and then slowly strip it back allowing it to bump bottom. Depending on the leader length, rod length and creek depth, when the nymph is near enough to affect it's depth by simply lifting the rod, do so in a slow steady manner until the nymph breaks the surface. If at this point you have not caught anything pick up and re-cast. This only works in very slow currents, usually eddies or pools formed buy slow currents and natural obstructions. This gives the angler three strike zones to actively fish.

The first is on the bottom where most fish will be in our creeks during the winter months. Here they will take a nymph on chance one just happens to pass by. A good example of this is for bass fishing. During the summer top water is always very productive. However during the winter, weighted streamers, nymphs and baitfish simulators on bottom worked slowly is usually the only way to get bass. And the bite is gentle and hard to tell from bottom snags. Not the typical fierceness you hear about bass fishing.

The second is the nymphs ascension to the surface. This is where you are lifting the rod tip to slowly bring the nymph to the surface. This simulates a nymph ready to start it's adult life and the stage we do not see during the hatch. This is where most of the strikes come. It's a very satisfying feeling when you are lifting the rod and a nice panfish takes the nymph. There is no mistaking this as a bite! However this is also where it can be lost too. They are quick to release it upon finding resistance and/or lack of taste. At this point one of two things sets the hook. Take your line hand and sharply give the line a good tug to set the hook or lift the rod tip slightly faster without snapping the line.

The final stage often creates a lot of confusion for both the fly fisher and the fish. This is where the nymph just breaks the surface and two things happen at once. To the fish it signals the adult stage of the insect and it is escaping food! To the fly fisher it time for pick up and re-cast. This is what usually happens. The fly fisher sees the nymph break the surface and begins his or hers pickup for re-cast at the same time the fish sees dinner escaping. At this point the panfish slams the nymph at the same time the fly fisher is picking up! Now we have a very surprised fly fisher with a suddenly very heavy fly rod with an equally surprised panfish sailing through the air! I have actually seen a fly fisher get slapped in the face by a panfish!

So there you have it, one of the secrets to catching warm water fish throughout the winter here in Central Texas. Ya'll come on down . . . the fishing is good! ~ Johnny (Hillfisher)

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