It's The Middle Of Winter!
(& we are going fly fishing)
A slushy day on Southern Alberta's world famous Bow River.
As the afternoons finally start to get a little longer here in Southern Alberta, the angler's mind finds itself at the river's edge. After two months of darkness, sunlight returns to our white & brown landscape and soon we will have enough daylight to get out for a post-work session. January holds the potential for a prolonged deep freeze but the average daytime temperature for Calgary is a balmy -3 degrees Celsius, so a sunny afternoon or a Chinook arch stretching wide across the horizon means it's time to put down the PS5 controller and break out the fly rod.
Four season anglers on the Bow are treated to a gallery of ever-changing ice sculptures.
Winter fishing isn't for everyone, but it doesn't always have to be a Rinella style carnival of suffering through horrible weather. Calgary is the sunniest major city in Canada by far, and our Chinook winds sweep down from the Rocky Mountains, bringing warm air and a break from those sub-zero temperatures. It's the perfect setting for winter fly fishing, so get out there.
Monitoring stations administered by Alberta Environment & Parks across the province appear to be frozen, leaving us with little data to go on to determine water levels and flows. We've got the water level for the Bow in Calgary, steadily dropping this week even with the warm weather as it has been some time since our last precipitation. A little snow wouldn't hurt.
Hoar frost crisps up a sunny Bow morning.
Most sections of the Bow from downtown on upstream are fully frozen over, but open fishable water abounds farther downstream and the fishing can certainly be good. Ice shelves on the banks are generally more than thick enough to walk on by now but use caution, especially near deep or fast water. A good set of cleats is your best buddy as slips and falls occur all too easily on slick ice. Falling in the river makes for a cold and possibly hypothermic walk back to the truck. Bring a microfiber towel to dry off wet icy hands.
Boat access is tricky but doable, with die hard drifters opting to float from Glenmore to Police. Anglers have taken to the water in numbers this week on account of the agreeable weather, so go early if you're on foot to get first kick at the can in terms of spot choice.
Trout in the Bow River have taken advantage of the above zero daytime temperatures this week to get the lead out and run a few laps. Streamer action has been productive if one can put the fly in front of the fish. Long casts with Spey rods on wide sections of river has been the ticket but nymph anglers have done well by dredging the bottoms of the deep pools. A few sightings of trout sipping midges off the surface gives Dry Or Die Guy a little hope for a proper day of offseason fishing; he sighs, then adjusts his Amadou newsboy cap and gold-rimmed John Lennon glasses. Probably going to wax his moustache later, too.
#6 mini Intruder style fly for the two-hander tied by the author.
On The Bow
- There's a chance of dry fly action, even in the winter. An overcast day with air temperatures 5 degrees Celsius and above will trigger midges to hatch, and the hatch can be significant. You'll see adult midges stacking up in soft water next to ice shelves or behind logs & deflections.
- Keep an eye out for trout snouts as fish will occasionally key into midge adults, emergers, or mating clusters. Try a dry fly cluster imitation like a Griffith's Gnat dropped to a low-riding emerger like a Theo's Melting Pot Midge, connected with 4X or 5X tippet about 10 inches apart.
- If you must resort to nymphing to bring a fish to hand, slow & deep is the key. Give each spot a couple more drifts than you usually would, as winter fish are often lethargic and are less eager to eat.
- Small Zebra Midges, Pheasant Tails, and Brassies are great winter nymphs. As much as we love to hate on the dirty worm, it's a Bow River winter nymphing staple. Try a heavy nymph like a #10 tungsten Prince or jig worm as your point fly, with a #18-20 Zebra Midge on a dropper higher up in the water column.
- Fish nymphs smaller than #20 if you have the patience for handling them with cold fingers, but it's not a necessity as it is on other, more pressured tailwater trout fisheries. Using the fine 6X tippet required to effectively present flies smaller than #22 will result in break-offs on strong Bow River trout, especially rainbows. There is a point of diminishing returns.
- Consider using a drop-shot rig to really get nymphs down there deep, and use the visual feedback from the split-shot ticking along the bottom translated into movement on your bobber as a way to detect subtle cold weather bites.
- If you just won't be caught dead with a bobber hanging off the end of your rod and the trout ain't sippin' midges, then it's streamer season all winter long baby! Although fish are not as aggressive on the take as in the summer, big fish will still move for a streamer in the cold. Don't be afraid to throw the large Galloup flies, but often a double-bugger rig in smaller sizes (ex. #6 and #10) will be more productive.
- Two-handed rods provide the reach and distance to put a fly in front of fish that are sitting in the middle of the river. Often, a trout Spey setup is the best way to fish the Bow in winter.
- If there's lots of slush or ice present in the water, nymphing will be a tough go as the leader, bobber, and flies often get hung up, preventing the flies from getting down to the strike zone. Better grab the 7" per second sink rate tip and throw on a heavy streamer.
- Winter can surprise. Burbot are active at night on the Bow and the very lucky angler might find one of these freshwater cod on their nymph rig. Pike & Bulls also show up occasionally in winter if you know where to look. You never know on the Bow.
Streamside crystals. Crystals are for hippies!
Fleece layer required.
More slushy than a 7-11 Slurpee. Doesn't taste as good.
- There are other moving waters in Alberta that are open to fishing through the winter, it just requires a bit more time in the vehicle to get there.
- On smaller waters, fish are spooky in low and crystal clear conditions. Try a single small nymph under a weightless yarn indicator and utilize stack mends on a long downstream drift towards corners or log jams.
- Try fishing the hardwater. Ice fishing is not legal on the Bow, but there are many good lakes within driving distance. It's the only semi-acceptable form of spin fishing to most fly anglers, and it's fun to sit around snacking while catching fish. A 2/3 weight Abel TR rigged up with fluorocarbon makes a sweet ice reel, just don't drop that bad boy down the hole or you'll be cryin'!
Morning on the hard water.
Theo's Melting Pot Midge, #20
Stillborn Midge, Black #20
Hi-Vis Midge #18-20
Ritt's ARF Midge Adult, #20
Griffith's Gnat, #18-20
Galloup's Silk Kitty, Black or White #2
Peacock Bugger, Black #6-10
DB UV Intruder, Blue/Black #4
Strolis' Mini Ice Pick, White/Silver #6
BH Simi Seal Leech, Olive #8-12
BH Pheasant Tail, #18-20
Zebra Midge, #20
Jig San Juan Worm, Red/Orange #10
BH Brassie, Copper #20
BH Prince Nymph, #10