Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash Vol. XL: Throwing dry flies in winter, a December largemouth tale, and hope floats

Matt Labash Columnist
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I realize the conventional wisdom is that fish never hit dry flies in cold weather. But is it true? I’d hate to have to wait until springKyle Bash

No, it is not true. But because the prospect of fishing dries in winter (or flies that sit atop the water, causing fish to rise) is such an important question, I am dedicating an entire column to it. This is a column milestone, of sorts, in that it’s the first question for which that has ever happened  (pinch yourself). So apologies are due in advance to all non-fly fishing readers, whom I risk alienating. Though I encourage them to stick around anyway, since studies have shown that 84.7 percent of all life’s questions can be answered by solving fishing riddles. To provide some hardcore specifics, I’m calling in a guest contributor, a very wise man and one of my fishing gurus, Theaux Le Gardeur. Theaux runs the Backwater Angler in Monkton, Maryland, one of the finest fly shops on the East Coast.

Whenever I fish the Gunpowder River, a scenic tailwater that runs just south of the Pennsylvania line, before I even buy junk food or take a squirt (the Gunpowder is a long drive), I wouldn’t think of hitting the river before first going to see Theaux, who holds court from behind the counter at the Backwater, as his Welsh Corgi, Ella, lazes on the floor. A Renaissance Man and a Louisiana boy from Covington, Theaux regales me with good conversation about everything from fishing to politics to music to New Orleans exotica  (his father, Maurice Le Gardeur, recently released an entertaining and beautifully illustrated book, “Carnival in New Orleans, a Fantasy,” which contains everything from Mardi Gras poems to recipes  for Creole File Gumbo). More important, Theaux stocks me up with lots of flies. Not because I need them, necessarily – I don’t even fish half of them. I just like to have them in my vest as a confidence-booster. Fish, like women, smell desperation and do not respond to uncertainty. If you want them to come your way, you have to project self-assuredness. So it’s not always about the fly you fish. Sometimes, it’s about the fly you know you can fish if the fly you’re fishing fails.

Even during lean winter months, when the weather is cold and the fishing is colder, I turn to the Backwater Angler’s website for solace, to watch videos of Theaux’s partner in crime, Jason du Pont (who also ties some of the deadliest shad flies in America) catch fish in all conditions. Warning: if you’re susceptible to fish envy, do not watch this nymphing display.

So after that windy introduction, here’s Theaux on throwing dries in winter:

Because the Gunpowder is a tailwater (dam-controlled), during the winter months, the water temp is often warmer than the air temp. The metabolism of trout is closely tied to temperature-think a snake on a hot rock. When the water is warm enough, metabolism increases and the fish, like a warmed-up snake, start looking for forage.

Most streamside insects’ lifecycles point to a very brief period when they are airborne and visible to anglers. Ready for a gross generalization? Streamside insects tend to be larger in spring and summer and smaller (in all life stages) during the winter. A lot of this has to do with water temp, photoperiod, and available food to insects that belies actual food we are familiar with like algae, leaf litter and other insects.

An angler’s goal is to trick a fish into taking a bit of fur, feathers and yarn for a natural foodstuff. Focusing on presenting the “Dry” or adult phase of insects is what most anglers like to imitate because it is well, fun, and a little on the tough side. Remember that trout eat insects like kids eat popcorn at the movies, so when the water is warm enough, their metabolic engine is on and they’re primed to eat whatever is available.

Trout that have been around awhile are usually larger and don’t typically enjoy taking offerings with a hook. These bigger and “smarter” fish can show selectivity towards smaller offerings that they might not be impaled with. Consider that it’s clearly a better use of their time to eat natural foods than to afford the angler some sport mid-winter.

So, during the winter months, small flies are where it’s at. Which typically means frozen fingers, bad knots and massive eye strain. The patterns we use with success on the Gunpowder in December, January and February are each about the size of the date on a dime. They’re called Mayflies and midges for the most part — if we get lucky we might even see a few winter stoneflies that don’t require as much squinting. They come in a myriad of colors from cream to dun to black and I can assure you that if you make a twenty foot cast with one of these to a rising, (feeding) fish, they are nearly impossible to see on the water’s surface.

So why do it? In a small shop setting, each season, we identify many regulars and more than a few harried newcomers practicing the fine art of in-law avoidance. It is but one compelling reason to seek out the relative solitude afforded by fishing when no one in their right mind should. It might not be the best practice, but it’s less offensive than telling your loved ones after the third day of family togetherness that you are headed directly to the bar.

In so doing, we supplant watering holes with fishing holes, give everyone the room they need to baste the bird, and hopefully trick a few fish without playing the tragic character in a Jack London novel: as I remember him, a figure lost in the wilderness or thereabouts, waterlogged, defeated and unable to strike his last match. If you stay at home too long in your extended family’s embrace, you could suffer the same fate in your living room without all of nature’s bounty surrounding you. So we go to the fly shop and strike up a conversation instead. Consider that this activity may well be a good use of your time this holiday season. — As my grandmother says, about life’s unanswerable questions, “only the shadow knows.”

And just in case I have not yet punished the reader with enough fish-talk, I have one story to add to Theaux’s wisdom on fishing dries in winter. A few years ago, I was driving home around dusk. It was late December, and like many fishermen around that time of year, I was suffering the Shack Nasties — a common malady, the fishing equivalent of seasonal affective disorder — that results from spending too much time indoors during the short and frigid days, and not enough time on the water.

I hadn’t been fishing in a good week or so (a long time for me), and so I decided that before going home to family, dog, and hearth, I had to hold a fish in my hand. All I had in my car was my heavy 9 weight rod, which I use for striper fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. And I’d left my vest at home. As I drove to a nearby lake that’s my favorite layup spot for largemouth bass in the summer, I realized I didn’t have any flies. So I scrounged through the car, finding a #16 Adams — a dry fly  — in my cup holder. It must’ve fallen out of my pocket.

The fly was far from ideal, under the circumstances, but it would have to do. I put on my hippers, waded out on a sandbar peninsula, and cast a little dry fly on my big saltwater rod with intermediate sinking line. On the second cast, before the sinking line could pull the Adams under the water’s skin, a 2 lb. largemouth materialized from the depths, and smacked it clean. As I held that bass, I felt like kissing him before retuning him to his winter haunts. So I did. He was a sluggish block of ice. I caught plenty of bigger fish that year, but he might have been the best, because I wasn’t supposed to have him. For anyone who knows fishing knows there are about four things wrong with this tale, according to the conventional wisdom:

1. Fishing dry flies in winter.

2. Fishing a little dry fly on a big 9 weight rod.

3. Fishing a dry fly with a sinking line, thus defeating the whole purpose of dry-fly fishing.

4. Fishing on top for bass in water that is much colder than their optimal feeding temperature, meaning they’re probably all hugging bottom.

And yet somehow, the bass had never read the conventional wisdom manual, and instead, decided to give me a much needed winter reprieve. This is why you religiously adhere to the fishing book at your own peril. Because the book is written by people who think they know. Yet fishing is largely about exploring the unknown. Even though a fish’s brain is much smaller than our own, we can’t really know how it thinks. So it pays to mix things up a bit. Throw the curveball on occasion. Fish like to be surprised, too.

And that is one of the reasons I need to fish. Because surprise is part of the spell it casts. Every day is anything-can-happen-day. And while I caught that bass on the wrong fly on the wrong line at the wrong time of year, I have spent many a winter afternoon doing everything right, while flogging the water fruitlessly, hoping for a fish that  never materialized. Which is okay, too. Because the possibility of catching fish is better than knowing no possibility at all. If you spend enough time on the water, you will meet all kinds of fishermen who are drop-outs and ne’er-do-wells, men bent on cheating time and ducking out of the world. But you will find very few hopeless fishermen. For fishing forces a little optimism into even the most hard-bitten cynic. So cast a few dry flies in winter, and do so without apology.

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” was published this spring by Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.