For most of us, thinking back to our first catches will conjure memories of panfish or a similarly gullible warm-water resident. I'm no different, and I can vividly recall my first bluegill. Quickly though, a hierarchy was established between my beloved gills and largemouths. The smaller ones were great, but if you wanted cred the bigmouths were the way to go. And that’s what I did for the next decade or so. It was a lot of fun, and I'll never lose appreciation for what I learned about fishing heavy structure, especially docks.
On hot, sunny days, high-quality fish could usually be found lurking in the darkness. Year in and out, this is how it went. From the spring opener until some point in October, you could find me picking apart shallow cover. However, for all the fun it was, time was limited. As many as 6 months of the year it was either inhospitable or illegal to do what I loved. Then, one year in December, the light bulb turned on: People catch trout year round. Looking back, it was an important epiphany.
I took what I knew, researched as much as I could, and found myself in a fly shop for the first time. I made my way to the flies and did my best to relate. The first tray was full of streamers. Streamers can look like fuzzy soft plastics. I knew soft plastics. With a few pieces of advice from the sales associates, I was on my way.
Luckily, there was a pretty solid warm spell in mid January and I made the most of it. I wouldn’t say I was casting, but I was able to get my fly in the water. Looking around, the water looked familiar. I didn’t have a ton of experience with moving water, but the still water behind rocks, logs, and eddies was familiar enough that I could make it work. I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow I managed to connect and land my first brown on the fly. This was key, because if I could catch one by fluke, I could catch more on purpose.
As winter turned to spring, and spring to summer, I didn’t so much improve as simply revert to what I knew best. We’ve all seen images from out West with anglers throwing dries in front of 50-foot casts. The few times I had previously targeted trout, this is what I did ... and it sucked. The more I’m on the water, the more I realize this isn’t how it has to be. I believe these misconceptions keep a lot of people from realizing how fun and rewarding fly fishing can be.
To quickly summarize my most important realizations about fly fishing:
Of course, there are differences among species, and I can’t claim you’ll be an excellent fly fisherman right out the gate, but with time you’ll start to see the little changes that will help bring fish to the net.
WARM UP TO WINTER TROUT FISHING
Here in the Wisconsin Driftless, the inland catch-and release-season opens in early January. Generally it’s pretty cold. The advantage is all the grasses and low-lying brush die off. Even before the first snow, there’s unprecedented access. It’s remarkably common to walk miles along secluded streams and hear nothing human-related for hours at a time. Until mid May, when you can practically see the grass growing, waders are often completely optional—especially when you fish on land easements or state-owned property.
Always map out your trip ahead of time. This helps to prevent finding a surprise tributary halfway to where you wanted to go, and keep a backup plan available just in case. More often than not, places you think wouldn’t fish well are at their best when you least expect it. During the last 5 years or so we've witnessed unprecedented and lasting warm snaps. Winter fishing doesn’t mean being unbearably uncomfortable, and when the sun is shining like it’s being focused through a magnifying glass, it’s not unusual to leave an extra layer in the vehicle.
There are plenty of indoor activities during the cold months, but really ... what’s better than a tight line?
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