Shell: The Tao of winter fly fishing |

Shell: The Tao of winter fly fishing

Hank Shell
Breaking Trail
A brown that took the author's fly on the Colorado River.
Hank Shell / Sky-Hi News |

I was standing in a parking lot just off of U.S. Highway 40 below Parshall on an early February morning. My frozen fingers were struggling to make a union between a diaphanous piece of tippet and a fly so small I could have mistaken it for a freckle on my palm. I was starting to question what exactly I was doing there. Well suffering, for one, I thought.

Hopefully fishing at some point, too.

It crossed my mind how often the former activity comes on the heels of the latter. The Buddha called earthly suffering dukkha. He said life was full of it. I once saw a bumper sticker that proclaimed, “Fly Fishing is Life.” Meld those two propositions with a bit of Aristotelian logic, and we can deduce that fly fishing is full of dukkha as well.

In no season is this more evident than winter.

On top of stalwart setbacks like knotted leaders and snagged lures, we must heap ice-choked guides, biting cold and picky fish. But, I thought to myself as I stood in that parking lot, fly fishermen are a hardy bunch, and they tend to face these obstacles with a sort of ascetic resignation – the beige bodhisattvas of the river.

The cold has a strange effect on the mind.

A weather report had pegged the day’s high just around 14 degrees, but it wasn’t quite 9 a.m., and the parking lot felt colder. Notwithstanding my frozen hands, I marched toward the river with a newfound, goofy sense of stoicism. As I would discover that day, and on a few subsequent days, winter fly-fishing in the High Rockies is a bit of a challenge. After spending a frigid day on the river with nothing to show for it, I set out to understand the fundamental nature of winter fly fishing – to get at the Tao of the thing.


I have trouble imagining the quotidian dilemmas that sway the minds of fish, but Hollywood has taught me that the key to stalking any quarry is to get inside its mind. Jon Ewert is an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. As Ewert explains it, a trout’s metabolism responds to gelid winter temperatures much like my fingers do – by slowing down. In the winter, every decision a trout makes is predicated on a strategy of energy conservation. It affects where, when and how much fish feed. Trout tend to feed less over the winter.

“They typically only feed at the warmest part of the day when the sun is the highest,” Ewert said. “That will get their activity going a little bit.”

Jeff Ehlert owns the Winter Park Flyfisher, a fly shop and guide service on U.S. Highway 40 between Winter Park and Fraser. A Montana native and lifetime fisherman, Ehlert has been guiding in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Montana since 1991. Ehlert estimates that feeding window to be between 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Trout also spend their winters in deep, slow-moving water.

“Because their metabolism has slowed down, they move to these deep, slow pools to conserve energy, and they’re highly concentrated in those pools,” Ewert said. “For the most part, you have to fish deep, because they’re laying right on the bottom, and they won’t move very far.”

Using some split shot can help you get your flies deep enough.


The winter cold affects every level of the food chain, from the shivering fisherman, to the sluggish trout, to the tiny aquatic invertebrates the fisherman is fecklessly trying to imitate.

“You have to fish really small prey items, mostly just midges, which are the smallest insects in the stream,” Ewert said. “They tend to be one of the only food items that are available to (trout) in the winter.”

The term midge encompasses a wide array of tiny insects including mosquitoes, black flies and the aptly named “no-see-ums.” Ehlert’s preferred set up is a larger fly like a size 10 or 12 Pat’s Rubber Legs with a smaller midge pattern suspended below it. The most common sizes for winter midge patterns around Grand County are 18 and 20, Ehlert said.

On the occasion that you’re present for a hatch, you’ll see small flies coming off of the water. During a hatch, trout may congregate at the tail-out of deep pools as they take midge pupae rising to the surface. The shallower section means fish don’t need to move as much in the water column to feed, thus conserving energy.

“When they really start feeding and the hatch is going, you really want to slide down to those tail-outs where the water gets shallow just before the next riffle,” Ehlert said.

If you spot a fishing rolling at a tail-out, casting a pulsating emerger ahead of the fish and letting it swing down stream can be an effective strategy, Ehlert said.

Streamers can also be fished at a dead drift with an occasional twitch.


Knowing where to find open water is another crucial piece of the puzzle. Fishing in winter is often restricted to tailwater or stretches of river directly below dams. The water flowing from dams tends to stay at a pretty consistent temperature year-round and resists freezing. Tailwater sections in Grand County include Muddy Creek below Wolford Reservoir and Willow Creek below Willow Creek Reservoir. Most of the Colorado River below Shadow Mountain Dam is closed from Nov. 15 to March 15 for nesting eagles, though a small section is open for fishing. The Williams Fork below Williams Fork Reservoir, accessible through the Kemp Breeze State Wildlife Area on County Road 3, is a popular tailwater fishery in the winter. The Parshall Hole, perhaps the county’s most popular winter fishing area, is a section of the Colorado River just below its confluence with the Williams Fork. Warmer water from the Williams Fork keeps a large section of the Colorado River below Parshall open through the winter.

It’s here that my journey began.

A week or so later, I was standing knee deep in the Colorado River a few hundred yards downstream of that parking lot when a brown trout graciously accepted a size 18 stripper midge I’d ushered through his feeding lane. It was my first fish of the winter, and suddenly I was struck by the idea that fly fishing has a dharma about it. At some point, the practice invariably rewards investment, whether it’s with a big fish or a revelation.

In no season is this more evident than winter.

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