The day was indeed warm for early February - the thermometer bumping 50F. It was breezy all day with an occasional real gust, but never so bad that you felt like it was just crazy to be on the water. I got there at 10:30 and fished until 4:30. Six hours of fishing and five of driving. My rule for a successful day trip (which does not always obtain) is that there should be more fishing than driving.
The last two times I've fished the reef I've done well with a green leech pattern followed with a midge dropper. Of course I started with that rig and before long I'd hooked up with a decent rainbow. Somehow hooking and landing that first fish is always a relief, it's a kind of confirmation, and a day seems to flow more seamlessly after that.
The river is very low (500 cfs) and so, with a bit of boldness, I was able to wade our to a spot I've never made it to before. From the far side of the dam I was able to follow a rocky edge out to a spot where I was almost directly downstream from the left edge of the dam. The position was a bit precarious and the flow was a bit stronger and the water a bit deeper out there than I like it in such cold water - but I was able to reach a lot of fish from there. The 11 foot five weight switch rod is just about perfect for this fishing. I can cast it significantly farther than I can a 9' eight weight and certainly far further than I can cast a 9 foot 5 weight. Once the fly is on the water, the long rod provides amazing line control. I cast it single handed style all day. After using an 11 footer, a 9 foot rod feels like a tiny wand. And it does very nicely in the wind - somehow that extra length allows me to really punch a line into the wind. It was Superbowl Sunday and by 2 PM I was the only on the river besides one other fellow who showed up and fished for about twenty minutes before leaving. I spent as much time as I could fishing that spot before I was too cold and needed to warm up in the truck. More than once I'd noticed two larger fish sporadically but actively feeding in shallower water on either side of the main flow.
Although I've seen it many times, there is always something truly astounding about seeing the mottled back of a trout as it slowly emerges from the surface of the water, fin standing high, the fish slowly arcing up and then back down. Not apparently in a hurry at all. The sun was just right to expose a brightly colored flank just before the fish slipped seamlessly back into the water - quietly disappearing as if it had never been there.
Around 1 PM I recharged in the truck in full gear with heater running full blast to warm my icy feet. I downed a surprisingly good bacon and egg burrito from Sloane's. With warm feet and a full stomach I waded back out to my precarious perch on the edge of the main current with the intention of catching those two larger fish. They were still feeding. They were undoubtedly smutting; exclusively feeding on midges. I knew that - but my recent successes with the leech pattern paired with conversation in local fly shops had me wanting to take them with anything but a midge.
The loneliness of manning a fly shop counter mid-winter has these guides anxious for conversation, but in those conversations I have often found them disdainful of (my) small fly tactics. In the coarser shop, the recommendation for the reef in winter is "bacon and eggs" i.e. a San Juan worm with an egg pattern for a dropper. I'd talked to Trent at the reef fly shop briefly the last time I was up and told him about my (surprising to me) success with a green leech pattern, his response was something to the effect that - "Yes, at this time of year they like something chunky to bite on." In general, except perhaps on the San Juan, fly shops are generally loath to recommend small flies - or if they do, they are at the bottom of the recommendation list. Most people don't want to fish a size 24 fly, and even less do they care to tie one on. And besides, most of the guides who man the counters fish from drift boats where a larger fly might actually do better on average. Tiny flies are most successful when paired with a drag free drift and the occasional induced movement done just so - not always easily accomplished from a moving boat. A bigger fly is certainly easier to tie on and a single large fly is far less prone to tangle in the wind. As a guide this is important. At the reef they mostly push an inch long red "rock worm" and perhaps a squirrel strip streamer and an egg. Of course these patterns catch fish, but not a trout selectively feeding on small midges.
Anyway, I tried almost everything before I tied on what I knew those bigger fish were taking. This was cold work - constantly re-rigging in thigh deep faster water. Neither of those fish would be fooled by anything larger - at least not by me. I already knew the green mohair leech was of no interest. Forget a black woolly bugger. I have a beautiful bead head caddis pupae pattern with a pale yellow translucent body. It was of no interest. Valadi's worm was unanimously rejected. A small bright red midge larva did not interest them at all, and neither did a scud pattern tied with CDC legs. I tried swinging a white marabou streamer through the water
near them and got nothing. This last failure surprised me because it has proved so effective in the past - even sometimes on smutting trout.
It was a classic smutting trout situation - they were uninterested in anything but the midges they were keyed on and I knew it the whole time. Those fish below the dam are hit very hard all year and with the water so low they are very exposed. Eventually, feet nearly frozen, I tied on what I knew they wanted. I managed to hook them both on a size 24 foam wing RS2. (To be fair - I just now see this very fly is near the bottom of the list of recommended flies on the Reef fly shop pages.) In the water, that tiny white dot wing on the RS2 is astoundingly visible. The larger of the two was feeding in a shallow spot closer to the middle of the river. It was a long cast and harder to get a good drift out there. I only managed to get him to take my fly once - had him on for a second and that put him down for the rest of my day. I did not see him again. I did managed to the land the other fish after the subtlest take you could ever imagine. That was very satisfying. It was a rainbow that I will generously say was 18" in length.
The RS2 really turned out to be the fly of the day - fished upstream or across, dead drift with a occasional twitch to induce the take. This is a variant of the good old Leisenring lift - or something like it - on a fly fished a long way out under a thing-a-ma-bobber. I did not keep count but I believe I hooked and landed a dozen fish and most of those took the RS2. Interestingly I had a small black bodied silver beadhead midge above the RS2 and it hooked only one fish - an 8" rainbow. All but one of the fish I caught were rainbows and the one brown was snagged in the belly on a drift through a hole that was obviously holding him and others.