Pecos River Winter Flyfishing

Late winter by fly: Silence of the trout bums

Tail end of chilly months offers secret season for seclusion, success

By Lynn Burkhead

SANTA FE, N.M. — In this age of the super information highway, there would seem to be few, if any, flyfishing secrets left to be exposed from the trout-rich streams and rivers west of the Rockies.
Except this one, perhaps: Winter just might be the best time of the year to wade into a trout stream across the West and wet a fly line.

Just don’t expect many serious trout bums to spill the beans on a time of the year when they can fish with nary another angler in sight!

To prove I’m not suffering from hypothermia, let me offer exhibit No. 1 as proof: the beautiful Pecos River, a tumbling trout stream not far from Santa Fe, N.M.

Now the Pecos is hardly a secret to flyanglers in the region, thanks to its wild, buttery brown trout and stocked rainbows.

But according to Gene Pacheco, a guide for the Reel Life Fly Shop in Santa Fe, there is a hush-hush time to prospect for the Pecos’ version of aquatic gold.

“During the summer months, (visiting flyanglers) just hammer that river,” Pacheco said. “But when it starts getting cold around October through February, you’re pretty much alone up there.

“Sometimes the only sound you’ll hear is just the river and the wind.”

Of course, that wind is a frigid draft, meaning that a few adjustments are in order.

First, anglers must fine-tune their fishing wardrobe.

To stay comfortable, Mitch Sasser, a flyfishing guide from The High Desert Angler fly shop in Santa Fe recommends anglers start by wearing either neoprene waders or Gore-Tex waders.

Underneath the waders, add layers with heavy fleece pants and a fleece or wool shirt over polypropylene long underwear.

On top of that, add a breathable and windproof jacket, fleece gloves, an appropriate hat and sunglasses to help make a chilly day on the water a bit more bearable.

After the wardrobe adjustments are made, flyanglers must fiddle with their alarm clocks, since trout tend to keep the proverbial banker’s hours during the winter months.

Because the fish are lethargic and the window of opportunity is brief to catch the trout actively feeding, anglers would do well to eat a leisurely breakfast before heading out to the river for the mid-day and early afternoon hours.

“Things are pretty cold on the Pecos early in the year and there’s no doubt that the best time to fish on the Pecos is the early spring into the summer and on into the early fall months,” Sasser said. “But during the winter, realizing it’s going to be tough fishing conditions, I would prepare to fish in the heat of the day.”

Such as it may be, of course.

But tough, chilly conditions don’t mean impossible conditions, either.
For the angler willing to bundle up and fish during the warmest stretch of a winter day, the reward can be a plump rainbow or spunky brown trout.

Trout
On many Western trout streams, winter means midges. And that means that to coax trout into striking, anglers need to employ flies in size Nos. 20, 22, and 24.

I know that for a fact, landing my biggest trout ever on a fly rod on a frigid late winter afternoon with temperatures in the low 20s and the Colorado landscape dusted with 18 inches of new powder.

With the sun ducking in and out of the thinning clouds, a rainbow approaching 24 inches took my offering, a move that proceeded to warm the both of us up in the next few moments before I slid the trout back into the nearly congealed river.

Want you own Kodak moment like that? Well, there’s another step or two to take.

“A stealthy approach and a nice, clean presentation are necessary,” Sasser said.

“Reduce the number of false casts you make, since the trout are extremely cold and they will not readily go after a fly that hasn’t been presented to them very well.”

What flies do most wintertime trout go after? On many Western trout streams, winter means midges. And that means small flies in size Nos. 20, 22, and 24.

Using such pint-sized flies brings into play some solid advice pertaining to midge fishing that San Juan River guide and commercial fly-tier Matt Pyles gave me a couple of year’s ago. “Bites are sometimes extremely subtle,” Pyles said. “You have to be able to recognize the strike. Any subtle hesitation or flicker or pause, you’ve got to be ready to set the hook.”

Of course, even while fishing, don’t forget to soak in the stark beauty of a lonely winter day that finds creation blanketed by a sparkling blanket of white. “Occasionally look up and enjoy the scenery,” Pyles said. “A lot of times, you get so wrapped up looking at that yarn, you miss some spectacular scenery.”