December 31st, 2001

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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Winter Fly Fishing
By Dick Wesnick, Billings, Montana

When winter weather blankets Montana, outdoor activities become the realm of the hearty and the diehard enthusiasts.

They take to the ski slopes, crank up the snowmobiles, trot out their shanties and go ice fishing.

But many otherwise devoted fly fishermen stow away their gear at the first sign of snow and below-freezing temperatures. They hunker down in their arm chairs and turn to "Fly Fishing and Tying Journal" and "American Angler" for imaginary excursions to famous trout streams, content with their dreams until the return of the robins and may flies.

Those who aren't satisfied with second-hand adventures, and get chills just thinking about Montana stream fishing in winter, head south to the San Juan, to Mexico for deep-sea fishing or the Bahamas for bonefish. If they are not experiencing winter fly fishing here at home, however, they are missing what can be one of the pleasurable, productive and quiet seasons on the stream.

Winter fly fishing is a rapidly growing facet of the sport and is gaining new followers every year.

It's certainly not a new adventure for professionals like Gary Lewis of Bozeman or Roy Senter of Livingston.

Senter has fished for decades but began guiding about 16 years ago after a full career in the Navy. He can be found fishing as often in winter as in summer because, he said, winter is the time to enjoy uncrowded conditions on streams, rivers and spring creeks.

Winter on DePuy's

The Billings native, who now calls Livingston his home, concentrates primarily on spring creeks such as DePuy's in Paradise Valley where the warm water prevents freeze-up. And you can't beat a heated warming shed with wood-burning stove for coffee breaks, and plenty of sheltered shoreline when winter winds scream down over Bozeman Pass.

Not to be ignored is the fact that the rates on spring creeks are lower in winter. DePuy's, for example, charges $35 a day in winter, (Oct 15 - Apr 14) substantially less than the summer rate of $100.00 per angler.

Senter tends to shift his guiding -- and personal recreation -- to the Yellowstone River in summer when the spring creeks become more crowded. In winter, however, the creeks are totally serene and un-congested.

On one recent trip to DePuy's we saw only five other anglers. At this time of the year, Senter likes to rely on the standbys such as egg patterns in orange, pink or yellow; red, green or black midges; San Juan worms and nymphs such as the Woolly Bugger.

He recently created a weighted, cone-head streamer that he calls the Badger. It has proven to be a real fish taker on DePuy's. I watched him get 10 solid hits in less than 10 minutes just below the dam at DePuy's on our last trip there in early March.

Gary Lewis has been enjoying winter fly fishing almost from the time he first took up angling back in the 1950s.

It has such an integral part of his life that he's writing a book called Winter Fly Fishing in the Rockies.

It will be Lewis' second book. His first, Fly Casting for Everyone, was published by Stackpole Books in 1996.

He's began guiding nearly 40 years ago on the Henry's Fork in Idaho and has held a Montana guide license for nearly three decades. Lewis was probably the first in this state to offer guided winter fly-fishing trips.

There has been, he said, a steady growth in the number of people from around the country who are booking winter trips to the Gallatin, the Madison, the spring creeks and elsewhere in Montana where open water can be found. Last winter, Lewis, guided more than 90 days. "This year it's a little slower," Lewis said, "but starting next week I'll be busy straight through March and April."

He estimates that 95 percent of those clients are from out of state. He gets at least 150 calls a year from people who are interested in coming to Montana.

In addition to working on the Henry's Fork, Lewis guided in Wyoming and was part-owner in a fly shop in Laramie. Later, he moved back to Bozeman and spent 13 years as head guide with Lone Mountain Ranch at Big Sky. He has gained an appreciation for winter fly fishing, but also has a healthy respect for it because it is not without its dangers. Fly fishing at any time of the year should be approached with caution. When you're wading on slippery rocks and being buffeted by rapidly moving water, it doesn't take much to send an angler tumbling into the current. Even in the middle of summer you are danger of suffering hypothermia, but in winter it can instantly become a matter of life or death.

"As a guide," Lewis said, "you are forced to be careful with your clients. I always told my guides at Lone Mountain that the No. 1 priority is safety. Practice safety all day long. After that, you fish." Lewis recalls vividly one experience that illustrates his concern with safety, especially in winter.

He was on a guided fishing trip with a client and friend from Memphis, Tenn. They had been fishing on the Madison near the West Fork and were taking a break late in the afternoon, sitting in their Suburban and having a cup of hot cider and eating cookies.

A man drove up, parked nearby, pulled on his waders, rigged his rod and waded out into the river.

"He apparently knew where he was going to fish because he went straight across the river," Lewis said.

As he climbed out of the river and onto the snow- and ice-covered bank on the far side, his feet slipped out from under him and he landed on his head. Lewis and his friend watched for a few seconds and as soon as they saw that the man wasn't moving, they jumped out of their vehicle and waded over to him. He was out cold.

They carried him back across the river and took him to a hospital in Bozeman where doctors determined that he had suffered a concussion. The hospital called the man's wife who came down immediately. While waiting for word on the man's condition, Lewis asked the angler's wife if she had known where he had been fishing or when he was expected home. She said he rarely ever told her where he was going to be fishing and seldom let her know when to expect him. In fact sometimes he would stop off after fishing to have a drink or two with friends and not return home until 1 or 2 in the morning.

If Lewis and his client hadn't been parked along the river and witnessed the incident, the man could have been a fatality. The temperature that night dropped below zero.

"I've had several near escapes, but never as serious as that one."

The incident illustrates a couple of cardinal rules of fishing -- whether it be in winter or in summer: Always let someone know where you're going to be fishing, and tell them what time you're going to return. If circumstances change, call and let someone know.

Another important rule is to dress for the weather. While that may seem obvious, it's sometimes ignored.

"It's the little things that can make the day," Lewis said. Or break it. On one recent guide trip, a woman came out to fish with her boy friend and after a short while she said she had to get out of the water because her feet were freezing. She was wearing cotton socks and, to compound the problem, Lewis learned that she had been wearing them for more than 14 hours. "Her feet apparently got cold during the night at the motel so she put on her socks. She wore the same socks all night and the next day fishing. You never wear the same socks that you wore that morning. Always put on clean dry socks when you're at the river."

Your best insurance against cold feet are wool socks and wickable liners. Lewis favors Neoprene bootfoot waders because the built-on boots keep cold water away from your feet -- unlike stockingfoot waders.

Personally, I've found that if you're going to be fishing in spring creeks, with their warmer water, Neoprene may not be necessary although it certainly can't hurt. Breathable waders seem to work well in most situations except for the really adverse.

Lewis also favors Polar Fleece slip-ons under the waders and he always takes along extra gloves, hand-warmers and hand muffs, especially for the benefit of clients.

In spite of it, he said, "I have had a few over the years who have said, 'This is too brutal; take me home.' "

Many of the winter clients are people who have come to Montana on ski trips. "Sometimes it's a family and the father will go fishing with me while the family goes out skiing. But more and more I'm getting the mothers who want to fish while the family skis."

Women, in fact, make up at least a third of the clients.

"This winter I took two young gals out; one was 18 and one was 16. They just wanted to fly fish. I asked them if their dad was coming along and they said no. They just wanted to try it by themselves. And they had a great time."

The ski/fish phenomenon has also been true with Roy Senter.

And he, too, is seeing an interest in winter fly fishing coming from unexpected places.

He was awaiting the arrival of six anglers from the Deep South who were making a return trip to the north country for some unparalleled winter fishing on the spring creek.

Lewis said that the rewards of winter fly fishing depend on the angler's motivation -- regardless of gender or where they come from.

"The first thing I ask them is why they want to fish. 'Do you want to fly fish, or is someone pressuring you to learn, or are you doing it on a dare.?' "If they say it's because their father or husband wanted them to do it, it's probably not going to be a rewarding experience. If you aren't committed to it, if you don't love it, it can be miserable in winter. It's their general attitude that determines what kind of experience they're going to have."

The Gallatin, the Madison and the spring creeks are primary locations in winter and the destination is sometimes determined by distance and time available. The Gallatin is closer to Bozeman and can be done in a half-day trip. "That lets them get back to the ski lodge in time for dinner with the family. The Madison is a full-day. You have to leave an hour earlier and you get back an hour later."

Lewis was born in Big Timber but has lived most of his life in Bozeman. After living and working there for four decades, it's little wonder that the Gallatin is his favorite stream, winter or summer.

The techniques and the patterns have evolved over the years, but Lewis believes it may be more image than substance.

"We used to use only two or three patterns. Woolly Worms, some with hackle, some with egg sacks; Sandy Mites, Mister Mites, Dyna Mites, Mrs. Mites. That's pretty much what we fished with."

He speculates that fish may become accustomed to seeing a pattern. "And they get stung. It forces us to change patterns. I don't know if it's my imagination or not.

"You can spend a day on the river and can talk to 20 different guides and every one has his own 'secret' and they're all talking about using different patterns. Maybe it's more than the pattern. It can be the technique or where on the river they're fishing."

Lewis, like other fly fishermen, packs along a full range of flies but admits, "I have about four patterns that are pretty consistent: the San Juan Worm, a Copper John, a Bead Head Pheasant Tail, and a Flash Back Pheasant Tail. They all work well in skinny water."

In deeper waters, he uses larger-size combinations. "I might drop a Copper John off a larger nymph. I also have a few stone fly patterns that I'll use. And I like Serendipities. They're a good pattern.

"In summer, you want to go prepared for different hatches but the nice thing about winter is that you don't have to rely on that many patterns. He also has several caddis pupa imitations that he relies on, include the Sparkle Caddis Pupa.

"I really like experimenting with patterns. Winter fly fishing is more than catching fish."

Lewis says that you can fish dry flies all winter on the Madison "if you know where to fish. It depends on the weather and the stream conditions. Midges come off all winter. If you get the right kind of day and are in the right place, you can really do well fishing them as dries."

Winter has proven to be as desirable a time to fish as the warmer months and usually offers much more solitude.

There is, for example, a saying that the Bighorn River belongs to "the locals" in winter and to the out-of-staters in summer.

It's also true of other streams and rivers.

One of Lewis's frequent haunts is a stretch of the Gallatin from the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park down to Taylor's Fork. On one recent trip he said he only saw two other fishermen. Two times prior to that, "I didn't see another soul."

But, he added, "I like to fish everywhere. It depends on the water and the time of the year. By changing waters you have to change your techniques and that makes you a better angler."

And if you can become a good -- and safety minded -- angler in winter, you just might be an outstanding angler in the other three seasons.


Roy Senter can be reached in Livingston at 406-222-0904.

Gary Lewis can be reached in Bozeman at (406) 586-9749, or by email at: ~ Dick

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