February 21, 2010 in Outdoors

Spokane River is year-round attraction for local fly fisher

By The Spokesman-Review

This classic Blue-Wing Olive dry fly pattern is one of Steve Moss’s staples for winter fly fishing on the Spokane River.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Spokane River winter fishing tips

Steve Moss offered these tips, geared especially to winter fly fishing, based on his 15 years of fly fishing experience on the Spokane River.

•When swinging a fly pattern in the current, whether it’s a soft-hackle, streamer or nymph, let it hang straight downstream for up to 30 seconds before starting the retrieve for the next cast.

•Hackle material for soft-hackle and nymph patterns generally should be dark to match the river’s dominant caddis.

•Before and after a hatch, a soft-hackle pattern tied with a bead head can take fish that are feeding deeper.

•Spring runoff changes the river and the way the fish feed from year to year, especially after a major runoff such as last year.

•Dry fly fishing can be productive during winter mid-day hatches, although Moss usually runs an emerger pattern or a Pheasant Tail Nymph behind the dry fly.

•Instead of perfectly matching a hatch of blue-wing olives, try dropping down a hook size, or sometimes going a size larger.

•Soft-hackles tend to be his go-to patterns, although they’re less productive when water temperatures are below about 40 degrees.

•Crawdad and sculpin patterns are productive, but the trout aren’t likely to move more than a few inches to hit them in cold water.

Best stretches

Winter fly-fishing stretches Moss prefers for trouting include:

•Downstream from the Interstate 90 weigh station near the state line.

•Just above and below Sullivan Road Bridge.

•Mirabeau Park area (“Although I think it fishes better during summer”).

•Avista to the Greene Street Bridge.

(“Midges come of on some cloudy days, and I’ll catch trout on a size 22 gold bead-head black-bodied chironomid with gold rib fished about two feet below an indicator or midge parachute. The fish are cruising in the slow water and you just have to leave it out there for them.”)

•Maple Street Bridge to city sewage treatment plant area.

Vehicle parking warning

 Never leave anything of value in your vehicle – or anything at all in sight – when parking along the Spokane River. Vehicle break-ins are common, especially during good weather downstream from Maple Street, along the Centennial Trail and into Riverside State Park.

 Thieves broke into fly fisher Steve Moss’ car three times in a two-year period.

Steve Moss likes to get away from it all when he goes fly fishing. The Spokane angler’s favorite destinations are beyond the distractions of traffic and crowds to shorelines where he’s encountered wild turkeys, ospreys, bald eagles, great blue herons, waterfowl, marmots, beavers, deer, moose – and even a cougar.

“All of that without even leaving town,” he said, sorting through a fly box while knee-deep in the Spokane River. “This is a remarkable stream that runs through our Lilac City.”

Moss has had his share of adventures in his urban fishing paradise. He took a scary moonlight swim when he slipped off a rock while fishing a hatch beyond sundown. He had to sidestep past an inebriated and territorial hobo.

And the cougar sighting wasn’t nearly as intense as the morning he walked out of the shoreline brush to be greeted at point-blank range by three baby skunks looking up at him curiously, “as though they wanted to introduce me to their mom, who was just a few yards away.”

But it’s the fishing that lures Moss virtually year-round to the water just minutes from his doors – rainbows, browns, and, with a bow to the river’s source at Lake Coeur d’Alene, he says he’s also hooked cutthroats, cutt-bows and the occasional chinook.

He’s not shy about sharing what he’s learned in nearly 15 years of fishing in River City.

“I used to generalize about location when I’d talk about fishing the Spokane,” he said, recalling the seminars he conducted while working at a local fly shop. “But later I realized I didn’t have anything to worry about.

“I might see a few more fishermen on the river for short periods after a seminar, but the fickleness of our river thins out the half-hearted.

“This river can be fabulous and it can leave you crying, all in an eight-hour period.”

With affection, he calls it “that damn river” or simply, “TDR.”

The secret to successfully fishing the Spokane River is to fish it often, he said.

“And sometimes I come down and just observe what’s hatching and where fish are feeding,” he said, noting that he’s kept what he calls an “anally comprehensive” journal of his experiences and observations for nearly 15 years.

“Very few anglers study this river in their midst. That’s why it frustrates so many people. The fish are picky eaters; the roily water can be death to dry-line fishing. Dialing in the right fly is a work in progress. You’re never quite done.

“Beyond that, there’s lots of fluctuation in flows, depending on what they’re letting out (of Post Falls Dam) and what’s backing up from the dams down below town. These fish move more than any rainbows I’ve fished.”

Winter is prime time on the river for more reasons than one.

“There’s no competition,” he said, “and most people would be pleasantly surprised at how good the fishing is.”

Moss landed his biggest fish of 2009 on the last day of the year, New Year’s Eve – a 23-inch rainbow downstream from downtown. He said he was swinging a big, green Woolly Bugger with a Type 3 sink-tip on a floating line.

“This winter hasn’t been the best for going to school on the river,” he said. “It’s an anomaly – it’s been too good!”

River flows have been untypically low and steady in this winter of low precipitation.

“When the river gets above 5,500 cfs I stay home and tie flies, but I keep an eye on conditions,” Moss said. “When the river is low enough, there can be good winter fishing up and down the river. I don’t bother much below Hangman Creek unless there’s been five days of no rain from here to Worley.”

A record-dry January left the river regularly flowing around 2,700-2,900 cfs, much lower and clearer than normal.

“It’s been a gift,” he said.

Small fly patterns are his bread and butter. Spokane River trout are fond of the bounty of caddis plus small mayflies and midges. He imitates them with a smorgasbord of dries, nymphs and soft-hackles.

In the past 10 days, he’s found mild to bountiful hatches of blue-wing olive mayflies. “Big ones, size 16,” he said with the enthusiasm of a youngster getting an extra large scoop of ice cream. But size 16 is still so tiny he needs to flip down magnifiers to thread his tippet through the hook eye.

“During winter, there’s no reason to be here before noon to catch a hatch, unless you want to throw streamers to pass the time,” he said. “Temperature gradient is what kicks hatches into gear.

“Daytime temperature isn’t as important as the difference between nighttime temperature and daytime temperature. The bigger the difference, the better the hatch in most cases.”

Moss hiked down to the water wearing chest waders and felt-soled boots to get some purchase on the Spokane River’s notoriously slick rocks.

“I use a 10-foot rod because the brush forces me to do a lot of roll casting,” he said. “I’ve learned that the easy places to cast aren’t necessarily the best places to find fish.”

He favors fine 6X fluorocarbon tippet for much of his fishing with small dries as well as soft-hackles and emergers he fishes just under the surface and the Pheasant Tail Nymphs he often trails below the main offering.

“I used to float the river, but I have a hard time drifting past good water, and there’s lots of it,” he said. “I’d end up frustrated and out on the water until after dark, which I don’t advise.

“I know where the homeless camps are and for the most part they are good people. The only people I don’t like along the river are the poachers. They bother me.”

That brought up one other issue about his beloved home water.

“In all my years of fishing here, I’ve never had my license checked,” Moss said. “That’s upsetting, too. It’s like we don’t care.”

Small adult mayflies seemed to show up out of nowhere and began drifting in the run Moss was fishing. Distracted by a reporter, he missed a strike.

Three other fish rose to the surface in the next 15 minutes. “Trout really take their time in winter, and if you put them down they might not come back up for a long time,” he said before rain moved in and put a damper on the fishing for the day.

“When the runoff starts in March or April, we won’t see good flows again until the end of June or early July,” he said.

“I love this river in summer and fall, too.”

But that’s another story.

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