February can be a rough time for Inland Northwest fly fishers who don’t have tickets to sunny saltwater destinations.
Far too many weeks have passed with most good trout streams being snowbound, ice-choked or blown out. Anglers with itchy casting arms have had to lower expectations or be more creative.
Snowshoeing for trout is well within the lengths a desperate angler will go.
With the Coeur d’Alene, St. Joe and and Clark Fork rivers a mess in mid-February, my friend David Moershel had scoped out some fly friendly flows in eastern Idaho on the fabled Henry’s Fork, a 127-mile-long tributary to the Snake River.
Reports indicated the flows were fishable and the air temperatures were about to moderate from reel-seizing lows into the high 30s. We were cautioned that deep snow at elevations above 6,000 feet were making access difficult to some stretches of the stream.
That’s what we wanted to hear.
Even a fisherman crazed with desire to hook a fish is careful to have a Plan B when launching out on a winter round trip of 1,000 miles. Along with our fishing gear and snowshoes, we brought cross-country skis – just in case – to take advantage of groomed trails at Harriman State Park or nearby at the Rendezvous trail system at West Yellowstone, Montana.
We also brought a couple of good books.
Snowmobilers were riding the high-piled berms along US 20 as we entered Island Park, Idaho. Henry’s Fork Anglers fly shop was quiet inside. Very quiet. The lone attendant didn’t even bother to turn on all of the lights.
Several pairs of snowshoes were on the floor by the counter. “Yes, we rent them,” he said.
Slightly disappointed that we weren’t the first fly fishers to conceive of snowshoeing for trout, we picked up a few recommended fly patterns and checked into a rental unit conveniently situated in the attic above a saloon. Then we headed to the Henry’s Fork.
The river is one of the most prized trout streams in Idaho. The glassy “Railroad Ranch” fly-fishing-only stretch is known for fogs of spring-summer insect hatches and bring discriminating rainbow lards to the surface.
This stretch through Harriman State Park is closed during winter, leaving us to explore the possibilities in Box Canyon, the mouth of Warm River and the tailwaters from Ashton Dam downstream to Chester.
Fly fishing gear adapts nicely to snowshoeing. Bindings fasten easily to wading boots (felts soles ice more than rubber soles) and our Gore-Tex waders were comfortable for snow hiking and the one short sitting glissade we made.
I recommend walking with an adjustable walking-wading pole, or at the least, a fighting butt on the handle of your rod to use as an ice ax for controlling a glissading descent.
We walked easily over deep snow where another angler had post-holed and labored. At the water, we could remove the snowshoes and wade normally, cozy in snow-proof wading gear over fleece underwear and mid-layers.
Winter fly fishing can be cruel, with icing guides, numb fingers and insect activity comparable to what astronauts found on the moon.
Or it can be full of pleasant surprises – such as the midge hatch that bloomed around noon one day in calm weather and overcast skies.
Moershel hooked six rainbows on Size 18 dries before the bugs disappeared from the water surface. He forgot about his cold fingers. Had his waders sprung a leak, he may not have noticed.
Another angler came down from the other side of the river through the rocks on the steep slope along a packed out path in the snow. He’d been there before. He proved it by giving us a clinic what the Henry’s Fork has to offer.
The angler landed maybe a dozen rainbows on dry flies or trailing emergers as small as Size 20. He was catching trout on the surface before we even dared to switch from nymphing. And he was still catching them on the surface after the adult flies seemed to disappear.
Fishing with 6X tippet, the angler had to raise his rod high on hookup and smoothly play each running fish as though its mouth were made of paper. He quenched his trout-slaying appetite by 3 p.m. and departed. I bowed as he left.
Moershel caught his last fish that afternoon while nymphing a Pat’s Rubberlegs under an indicator – a method that had produced occasional hookups with rainbows and a few browns throughout the day.
It was shortly before 5 p.m. when he released that last rainbow back into one of Idaho’s most productive and popular trout streams. We glanced up and downstream and realized we had it all to ourselves for as far as we could see.
In some ways, it will be hard to watch February give way to the popular fishing seasons.
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