One of the most critical keys to success out on the water is understanding the fishing situations you are likely to encounter, and tailoring your tools to those applications. While there are certainly opportunities in many fisheries for a "one size fits all" approach, dialing in your quiver to the specific situations you'll be fishing can give you an extra edge out on the water. In the winter time, this often means the difference between catching and not. For this piece, Sage Ambassador Matt McCannel walks through the aspects of technical nymph fishing in the winter months on his home tailwaters, his preferred tools for the task, and why he uses them.
Winter fishing can be downright miserable at times. Freezing fingers and toes, ice on the guides, but for some reason winter is my favorite time to be on the water. Having the right tools this time of year is imperative to a successful day. Aside from many warm layers and a good cup of coffee, having the right rod for a winter application is key. This day started off no different than any other, but I did have the added pressure I put on myself to find and land a big fish. I always love the feeling that I need to perform on another level, it reminds me how my clients feel every day; it’s a very sobering experience.
I often use the analogy that fly rods are like golf clubs. Each club has a different application just like every fly rod has different application. Choosing the right tool for the job will not only make your day more enjoyable, but also bring you more success. I decided on fishing a nine and a half foot 5 weight X. This is the ideal rod for my winter tailwaters and most indicator nymphing applications. The longer rod gives me an extra bit of flex up high, providing more tippet protection when fishing light 6x and tiny flies, in addition to extra reach for mending and line control over variable currents.
The day prior I had spotted a good fish, so I was hell bent on finding that same fish. We approached the run from down river, moving very slow. I jumped up on the ladder to get a bird’s eye view of the run, and sure enough the beast was there, happy as could be. I got into position about fifteen feet away from the fish, but I was looking directly into the sun; I couldn’t see my intended target. My good buddy Robert was going to have to talk me into the fish that he could clearly see being nine feet in the air.
My first shot was long by two feet, Robert told me to shorten the next one up. On my fourth drift the fish eats, and all hell broke loose. Straight away it slid through the rocks without a problem. I put maximum pressure on him, using the full length of the rod blank to protect my light tippet. I quickly ran down river to get below him, but the fish made it to a log on the bank and it was over. My heart sank, but it happens. I tell clients every day; “10 seconds. If you can keep a big fish on for ten seconds you’re good.” You can’t control a big fish in those first few seconds so don’t try, don’t try to stop them because you’ll lose every time.
"You can’t control a big fish in those first few seconds so don’t try, don’t try to stop them because you’ll lose every time."
We spent the next few hours in search of another good fish and by now the air temps had warmed up to the mid 30’s. We found another fish parked at the head of a faster riffle. It was only in a foot and a half of water, so I played it safe and swapped out leaders. The new leader I put on measured out at 18 feet. I needed the length so not to spook the fish, and the 597-4 X has that extra six inches which makes it flex just a little deeper. What this translates to is a rod that I can load with just 4 feet of line and my 18 foot leader outside the rod tip. My first drift was about a foot long and I hit the fish with my tippet. It spun and was gone. That one hurt, not that often will I get a shot on a good Brown in the middle of winter.
We headed back upriver and found a pod of happy fish devouring Midges. The longer rod made easy work of high sticking my leader over the swirling currents to get the drift perfect. I managed to fool one of them pretty quickly and held it in my hands in short order. It wasn’t the big fish I was after, but that was the first fish I’ve got to catch myself in months. It was so much fun just to put a bend in the rod, it’s one of the best feelings in the world. It never gets old.
I talk to a lot of anglers who always ask what the perfect rod is. My response is always the same - tailor your rod to the situations you will most likely encounter. How many nine foot five and six weights do you need? If the majority of your time is spent nymphing under an indicator, use a tool that was made for the task like the 597-4. You won’t’ be disappointed!
We wrapped up the day with a walk back to the truck through the fresh snow, reminiscing on the one that got away. As with them all though, he’ll be there next time, hopefully ready to play ball again.
Technical Winter Nymph
"I often use the analogy that fly rods are like golf clubs. Each club has a different application just like every fly rod has different application. Choosing the right tool for the job will not only make your day more enjoyable, but also bring you more success. For this application, a nine and a half foot 5 weight X is the perfect tool. This is the ideal rod for my winter tailwaters and most indicator nymphing applications. The longer rod gives me an extra bit of flex up high, providing more tippet protection when fishing light 6x and tiny flies, in addition to extra reach for mending and line control over variable currents. Paired with a SPECTRUM LT 5/6 and an easily mending fly line, this is the perfect setup for most indicator nymphing applications."
— Matt McCannel, Sage Ambassador & Head Guide at Rigs Fly Shop
Rod: X 597-4
Reel: SPECTRUM LT 5/6
Line: Elite RIO Gold WF5F, 18' 6x TAPERED LEADER
FISH WITH MATT
Interested in putting some of this gear and these techniques to the test? Head to the link below to book your day on the water with Sage Ambassador Matt McCannel.
AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER
Sage Ambassador & Head Guide for Rigs Fly Shop Matt is the head guide for RIGS Fly Shop in Ridgway, Colorado and guides on the Uncompahgre River tailwater and in the Gunnison Gorge. Matt's fishing and guiding tactics are outside of the norm but have proven to be very affective for his clients. He is passionate about hunting double digit trout on his technical home waters of the Uncompahgre River.
Photographer Nick Swingle is a professional photographer, working alongside his wife Kami with their business TwoFisted Heart Productions based out of Durango, CO. They've built their reputation and business on their passion for fly fishing and the outdoors, and travel around the world with cameras in hand.