Fly Fishing in Ski Country
The idyllic image of fly fishing for trout tends to be those sunshine-filled summer days with cloudless skies. The fly fisher is decked out in nylon pants and shirts, casting to rising fish from a drift boat on a big western river or wading quite creeks and side channels. These are day are indeed the quintessential image of the sport. But they are fleeting at best. The truth is, if we only fished during such conditions, our days on the water would be limited to less then a hundred a year. For the hardcore angler, that number of days just won’t cut it.
Fly rodders who take the game seriously look for every opportunity to get their lines on the water. Summer is the icing on the cake. Spring and autumn offer prospects for fishing lesser known hatches on un-crowded streams. Winter, however, gives anglers three to four months of something few get to experience – casting to pods of trout, sometimes rising for two or three hours during afternoon, on water with almost no one else around. Solitude amongst snowcapped peaks. This is what the hardcore angler experiences several times each year.
Winter fishing is nothing new. We see the photos on the January page of Trout Unlimited’s annual calendar and in fly fishing magazines during that time of year. Yet it remains an untapped time of the year for all but the hardiest of anglers.
One great aspect of winter fishing in the Rocky Mountain West is that some of the best prospects occur in place that also offer some of the country’s best skiing. Park City, Utah, has exquisite snowpack. It also has the Provo River, which is excellent during the winter months. Colorado’s ski resorts in Aspen are heralded, but fishing on the nearby Frying Pan River can be better that the skiing some days during the winter. The same can be said for fly fishing around other Colorado resorts like Vail and Steamboat Springs. These are not undiscovered winter destinations in the Rocky Mountains. Skiers who visit these resorts and wish to take a break from skiing to fish have been doing so for decades. In fact, sometimes the fishing is a big a part of their visit as the skiing.
A New Winter Fly Fishing Destination
A new destination is now on the map. Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is rated as one of the best ski resorts in North America (Ski Magazine ranked it Number One in 2013). Visitation has steadily increased, even during the recession years of 2009 through 2011. The resort has much to offer. Not only is there fantastic skiing, there is also snowmobile trips, dog sledding, and wildlife expeditions. Increasingly, fly fishing on the Snake River and the nearby South Fork of the Snake in Idaho is becoming one of the opportunities visitors can experience.
Don’t think that winter fly fishing on the Snake River is “undiscovered”. It is slowly growing in popularity. Part of this is due a diverse tourism market. Statistics show that only 50% of the one million winter visitors are actually on the slopes at one time, mean that the other half are doing other activities. Another reason is the use of social media by young anglers who fish the Snake River all year long.
But perhaps the biggest reason for the slow but steady growth in popularity of winter fly fishing on the Snake River and the South Fork of the Snake is its infancy. Prior to the winter of 2003 - 2004, there were seasonal closures on each stream, with the Snake being closed to fishing from November 1st to March 31st, and the upper reaches of the South Fork closed from December 1st to Memorial Day weekend. After the Game and Fish departments of each state made a decision to open these streams up to year around fishing, more anglers have been going out each year to experience what the Snake has to offer during the winter months. The word is getting our slowly, but there is still an abundance of trout, wildlife, stunning landscapes, and solitude on these streams.
Winter Fishing on the Snake River
The Snake River, along with its numerous tributaries in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is a stronghold for native cutthroat trout, primarily the Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat. Wyoming Game and Fish annual electroshock data shows cutthroats make up 99 percent of the total trout population on the Snake. There are approximately 80 miles of river within the valley from Jackson Lake Dam down to Palisades Reservoir. The most productive winter fishing is found in two locations. One is the tailwater reach just below Jackson Lake Dam in Grand Teton National Park. This piece of water can be fished legally downstream of the dam for one quarter mile. Below the one quarter mile mark, the river is closed to foot and boat traffic due to winter range issues for wildlife.
24 miles below Jackson Lake Dam, winter range closures end at Moose Bridge. The reach of river from here downstream to Astoria Bridge in Bridger-Teton National Forest (approximately 37 miles) is considered the most productive water for fishing from December through March. This downstream portion benefits from warmer air temperatures and a plethora of cold springs and warm spring that keeps water temperatures noticeably warmer than what is found further upstream.
December and January are the coldest months of winter. Average high temperatures are 28.2 and 27.5 degrees respectively. However, over the past decade, there has been a warming trend, with highs in the 40s being recorded. In fact, last year saw days in the 50s at the end of the month. February is generally the start of the winter thaw. Highs average around 33 degrees, with days in the 40s and 50s being common. March is generally the start of the big temperature increases as the region moves towards spring. The average high is 41 degree, but temps in the 50s and 60s occur most years. Of course, these are just averages. The weather and temperatures at Jackson Hole’s elevation of 6,200 feet is dominated by peaks and valleys. It is possible to have several days of sub-freezing weather followed by a week or more with sunny skies and temperatures in the 40s to low 50s.
Accessing the lower Snake is quite easy if you are wading. There are a total of nine public sites from Moose Bridge down stream to Sheep Gulch. In addition, Highway 26/89 parallels the river in Bridger-Teton National Forest. Fly fishers can park at any turnout, gear up, and head down to the Snake.
Most of the public access sites include boat launches where watercraft can be launched. These sites are not maintained from December 1st to March 31st, and snow accumulation can limit the use of boats. Nonetheless, the warm air temperatures on the lower reaches of the Snake often leads to significant snowmelt between storms. The best times during the winter to launch watercraft is usually in the first two weeks of December and again from the first week of February and through March. After March 31st, all launches are regularly clear of snow by state and county plow trucks.
Keep in mind that the portion of the Snake River from Moose Bridge downstream to South Park Bridge is a mix of National Park land, Bureau of Land Management parcels, State Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) and private property. WMA’s are generally closed to foot traffic from January 1st to March 31st. Private property lines are clearly marked typically and should be respected.
As with most trout streams during the winter months, chironomids are the primary hatch. This is usually what you will find on the Snake River in December and January. Fishing #16 to #20 midge larva and pupa patterns in tandem with #10 stonefly larva imitations is generally the most effective tactic. While surface action is limited, it can happen when water temperatures warm enough for such activity. It usually occurs when emergences are heavy. Pheasant Tail Emergers, Griffith Gnats, and Parasol Midges will produce on flats and shallow inside turns at the head of riffles.
February is when the tiny winter black and brown stoneflies – Capnias and Nemouras – make their appearance. Larval imitations outpaces the production on adult patterns to the tune of six to one in my experience. I find black or red Copper Johns in sizes ranging from #12 to #16 produce best when winter stones are present. They are effective in riffle and seam tailouts with moderate depth. Anglers should target slower water near banks and current margins with lightly weighted Flashback Pheasant Tails and Prince Nymphs of the same size.
Towards the end of February, the first blue-winged olives of the year begin to emerge. They become more important to the fly fisher in March when air and water temperatures warm significantly. Dry fly fishing can kick into high gear during the afternoon hours in riffles, seams, and bank troughs. The difficulty lies in choosing between chironomid or blue-winged olive adult patterns. I often use a double dry fly rig with one of each and find the pattern that produces best. It typically doesn’t matter. Both imitations are equally effective for the most part.
The Snake River is a high gradient stream. The descent from Moose Bridge to Palisades Reservoir is 16.5 feet on average. While the Snake is its pre-winter flows from December through March, trout habitat is reduced. You will find them podded up in specific holding water types. Riffles and seams are no-brainers. But keep an eye on bank-side troughs and eddies. All of these holding water types can produce. And where you find one trout, you will likely find several.
Winter Fishing on the South Fork
Wyoming’s Snake River and the South Fork of the Snake River in Idaho are essentially the same stream. They are separated by Palisades Reservoir, and Idaho refers to the river on their side of the border as the South Fork to distinguish it from the North Fork of the Snake, which is more popularly known as the Henry’s Fork.
The South Fork is considered the strongest native cutthroat trout tailwater in the country. These are exclusively Yellowstone cutthroats. It also has a healthy population of brown trout and rainbows. The trout abundance on the river is between 1,800 and 5,000 per mile, depending on which reach you are fishing.
While it is a longer drive (an hour minimum) for anglers who are starting from Jackson, Wyoming, the commute can be worth it. As a tailwater, the water temperatures are conducive to good, consistent action on its entire 65 mile length. The South Fork is also more than 1,000 lower in elevation than much of the Snake River in Wyoming. Air temperatures in Swan Valley (just downstream on Palisades Reservoir) are three degrees warmer on average than Jackson Hole. 37 miles downstream at the town of Ririe, temperatures are five degrees warmer on average. Temperatures in March can be well into the 60s on the lower reach. It’s fairly comfortable winter fishing by Rocky Mountain standards.
Fishing access is available at a number of sites along the South Fork. From Palisades Reservoir downstream to Lorenzo Bridge, there are ten public sites, all of which are surrounded by ample amounts of public land. Most of these accesses include boat launches. As on the Snake, they are not maintained. But most years there is not substantial snow build up because of the warmer and drier climate. That makes the South Fork an excellent choice for winter float fishing. Some launches are only three to four miles from each other. This makes float fishing in the afternoon, when activity is at its best, ideal.
Chironomids dominate the scene from December through February. A wide variety of midge larva and pupa imitations in #16 to #20 are effective. Stonefly, caddis, and mayfly larva imitations can also produce. My favorites include Copper Johns in red, olive, or black, Booty’s Day-2 Midge Pupas, Zebra Midges, Hickey’s Auto Nymph, Pat’s Rubber Legs, and Bitch Creek Nymphs. San Juan Worms are a favorite of many local fly fishers. Surface feeding on midge adults is sporadic, but can be in the cards from time to time. Flats are prime waters to target, as are riffles and seams.
By the end of February, blue-winged olive can begin to appear if temperatures are warm enough. These begin to hit their stride in March. It is still a nymphing game, and streamers become more effective, but surface action becomes a real possibility. Adult and emerger imitations – Quigley Cripples, Pheasant Tail Emergers, Booty’s BWO Emerger, and Film Critics – will work on flats, at the head of riffles, in eddies, and along the entire length of seams and confluence points.
The end of March is a time when flows from Palisades Reservoir can be increased. It is rarely anything dramatic, but it is enough to produce a downstream flow of mysis shrimp. When this occurs fishing the upper reach from the Dam down to Spring Creek Bridge with mysis imitations can be the way to go. Favorites include Galloup’s Mysis, GD’s UV Sow Bug, and more attractor-like patterns such as Rainbow Warriors and Lightening Bugs.
The South Fork is a moderate gradient streams and significantly lower than what is found on the Snake River in Wyoming. Where the Snake averages around 16 feet per mile along its 80 mile course, the South Fork averages about half of that. This makes wade fishing rather easy. It also means that trout are relatively less podded up than they are on the Snake. This is not a disadvantage to the angler. There are thousands of trout per mile, and while they can be podded up on primes riffles and seams, there is much more flexibility in terms of where they can hold and feed. Banks and submerged structure can be productive water to target. The same can be said for flats that extend off of shallow banks and at the tailout of riffles.