Saturday, 21 January 2012

More Winter Fishing

Looking down into Freemont Canyon - sightseeing, not fishing this time.
Based on the forecasts for warm temperatures again this weekend I suggested to Jeff we try fishing the North Platte. We fished the Miracle Mile last weekend but, contrary to my optimistic expectations, we didn't do so great. I caught a couple of small rainbows and fell in the river twice; not a great day.
Looking northwest on the drive out. Pathfinder reservoir is visible behind the hill in the foreground.
Through the week, the weather report for Saturday kept getting worse and worse with rain and snow and significant wind predicted; I'd all but given up when Jeff convinced me we should try it anyway. He's an atmospheric scientist and I trust his judgement about weather. Temperatures turned out to warm with a high of 45F and, other than a couple of brief squalls that blew through, we did not get the precipitation that was forecast.  On the drive up there were signs on the interstate warning of 60+ MPH winds.  We reasoned that they would not be that bad 100 or 150 miles away in Alcova.  Wrong. With the absurdly high wind it was impossible to fish in the normal spots which are virtually out on the open prairie so we headed up right under the dam. We normally fish the Grey Reef section, the the dam there it is a small structure and did not offer much in the way of protection from the wind.   In contrast, the Seminole, Pathfinder and Alcova  dams are all big enough to served as something of a wind block. We moved up to the base of one of the big dams and fished the bottom-release water which was flowing at about 500 cfs.

Medicine Bow river in late afternoon on the drive out.
Early on I hooked and landed two rainbows on size 22 midges; I was fishing a standard two fly/splitshot/thingamabobber rig.  They were beautifully colored fish a bit more than a foot long.  From where I was fishing I could see a warm water outlet between the bottom release outlet and the huge spillway 200 yards to the north.  There was a pipe about a foot in diameter that was spewing what was obviously warm water - there was steam coming off it.  And then I noticed that below the warm water outlet there were schools of baitfish (trout fry?) charging around, jumping and making quite a commotion.  They may have been feeding on midges.  But then, occasionally you'd see the wake of what must have been a large trout charging the shallows. When that happened there would be  some real panic among the schooling baitfish.
This situation had me thinking of winter fishing on the gravel bar that juts out into Cayuga lake at the outlet of the Milliken power station.  The outlet of cooling water from the power station generates a major flow of warm water.  Over the years a gravel bar has formed from the flow and, the last time I tried it fifteen or twenty years ago, you could somewhat precariously wade out onto it.  I'd guess the flow runs just at least 250 cfs if not more, but that's from old memories.  The edges of the bar were unstable with the gravel seemingly loosely suspended in the water.  A fall here in the winter would very likely be fatal.  In any case, the baitfish would school up where the warm water and the cold lake water mixed and the baitfish would bring in the big fish.  Cayuga lake supports healthy populations of landlocked salmon and lake trout. Milliken station was a place to catch a big fish on the fly.  You'd tie on a streamer and just let it drift out with the flow.  I had some good days there and was once spooled by what must have been a very large lake trout. That memory had me searching my fly boxes for a baitfish imitation.

This marabou streamer was the fly to have.

I don't fish streamers much but I found two white marabou leech/streamer patterns in my box - I showed them to Jeff and told him they'd be perfect.  The problem was how to get over to the fish - they were across a wide channel and completely unreachable from where we were.  Jeff said he thought we could wade halfway across the river to a rocky island from the far side and then work upstream from there.  I didn't believe it was going to be possible.  I was ready to try fishing somewhere else.  But we tried his plan and it worked perfectly.  In fact the wading was not bad at all.

My largest fish of the day - a twenty inch rainbow.

Once we were in position we started catching fish, one after the other.  We'd cast those white streamers upstream or across the flow and let it drift down.  The takes were violent. I almost lost my streamer on the first fish, it just plain gobbled the fly. I was relieved when I managed to retrieve my fly without damaging it (or the fish.) Most of the hits came on the hang after the swing or even after a strip or two before the next cast.  I lost count but figure I hooked 12 and landed about 8 fish - including one of 20". That one destroyed my fly.  Jeff figured he landed about 6 and hooked more.  Fishing is most satisfying when a puzzle has been solved.  This was satisfying fishing.

Jeff pointing out a good run in Freemont Canyon.
During the days drive we passed through Freemont Canyon taking dirt roads all the way down from Alvova to Medicine Bow. This route parallels the river which runs north through Seminole, Pathfinder and Alcova reservoirs.   I haven't been into Freemont Canyon for more than twenty-five years. Back then we were scouting climbing routes and I was not thinking about fishing.  I have never fished the canyon but plan to fix that gross oversight soon.

Bridge over the Medicine Bow river.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Winter fishing on the North Platte

We haven't really had much of a winter yet and when temperatures reached the mid-50's during the first week of January I couldn't help but think about fishing.  I kept my eye on the weekend forecast for Alcova where the high temperature for Sunday was predicted to be 48°F.  As the week progressed the forecast high dropped lower and lower, I decided to go anyway.  I fished from about 11:30 until 2:30.   By the thermometer in the truck, which I read every hour or so as I thawed my frozen feet, the high for the day was 36°F, a couple of degrees below the Saturday forecast for Sunday.

With the flow out of the dam at just 500 cfs fishing was quite different from 5000 cfs in August when I was last there.   At these temperatures the guides on the rod ice up and the wading is brutal.  At these temperatures the fish are just plain sluggish too.  There is a short period during the day when they seem to be mildly interested in feeding.   Just before 1:00 the fish turned on for about a hour and I managed to hook a half a dozen fish and landed five of them. They were all rainbows between twelve and fourteen inches. A fish this size used to be considered small for the reef but any more they seem typical.  I did have one good fish on for a minute.  Once the fish realized it was hooked, it surged off shaking its head. Just as I managed to get the line onto the reel I had nothing but a steady pull, no life at the end of the line, just constant tension.  I broke off and walked back to the truck to rerig while warming my feet. 

When fishing nymphs or midges I always tend to throw a standard two fly rig with enough tin shot to get the flies down (how many depends on the flow) and anymore I just use a thingamabobber as an indicator.  I tried serving up various patterns including leeches (green and black), scuds, a crane fly, a crayfish, a red midge larvae and of course the old standby glass beadhead midge pupae in size 20.  I only hooked up on the midge pupae so eventually I just fished two of those.  I was using black and grey/tan.  When I was packing to leave, another fisherman who had been working the far side of the river from me came by and asked me what I was hooking up on.  I showed him my rig and he was genuinely surprised (as non-midge fishermen usually are) that such tiny flies actually worked.  He was fishing a three fly rig which included a leech, a scud, and a rock worm pattern. He did not hook up.

Tying midges patterns is dead simple.  There are about 600 beautifully illustrated midge patterns in the Takahashi and Hubka book Modern Midges: Tying & Fishing the World's Most Effective Patterns.  Ed Engle's book Tying Small Flies is excellent. You can see some tying instructions for the the midge pattern I use most (just vary the colors) in a previous post on the Mercury Midge.  I like the TMC 2488H hook these days, it's very strong.
If the weather is similarly warm next weekend I think I'll head up to the N. Platte again. I might try the Miracle Mile for a change, I haven't fished there in years and I've heard about guys swinging flies for big browns.  I really need to fix the pesky pinholes in my waders before venturing out again.