Winter North Vs. South
Winter North Vs. South
- By: Bruce Smithhammer
- , MIles Nolte
- , Greg Keeler
- and Will Rice
- Photography by: Brian Grossenbacher
- , Lucas Carroll
- , Will Rice
- and Louis Cahill
Sink your toes in the sand or in the snow?
Risk sunburn or frostbite?
Cast for half-frozen trout or full-bore saltwater speedsters?
Our crack angling team makes a case for each.
South Andros, Bahamas
Air and water as one
by Bruce Smithhammer
Congo Town, Bahamas—Distance is hard to judge. Torie announces that we’re going to “walk over to those islands.” It might be 500 feet or three miles, I really can’t tell. Regardless, this is what we’re doing. I slip off the side of the skiff into water that is the same temperature as the air. It’s March, and I can’t help but think about my friends back in Idaho and Wyoming, who won’t see sprouts of green grass for another two months.
We spread out, scanning for shadows, for tails, for barely-perceptible disturbances on the surface, which you just start to tune into after days on end of doing this. We walk slowly, with little conversation, every step deliberate and careful. Let your awareness drift from the task at hand and you’ll likely be reminded by the heart-breaking sight of fleeing bonefish, or even worse—simply not seeing any fish at all.
I’m thirsty, but so focused and intent on finding bones that I can’t be bothered to grab a drink. This doesn’t help, as desire and dehydration mix and I see fish where they aren’t, in the kaleidoscopic effect of sun and water diffraction on a pale, shallow bottom. Torie says those cruising shadows off at 10 o’clock are “small ’cudas.” I hadn’t even seen them, and won’t until I stop and stare hard at the place he’s pointing to.
And then, casually and quietly, he says, “Two-thirty, seventy feet out.” Nothing more needs to be said. We freeze. And there they are, six fish, coming straight at us, and my parched mouth begins to feel that familiar metallic tang and my entire focus narrows on the closing distance between me and these bonefish, the direction of the wind and how it might influence my cast, the imaginary line they will soon cross, after which I’ll cast. These details occupy my current world to the complete exclusion of everything that has ever happened in my life. I pull line off the reel . . . .
And then the phone rings and I’m abruptly yanked from being shin deep in the Caribbean to the harsh reality of December in Idaho. I get up from the tying desk to answer. I glance out the window. It’s 12 degrees Fahrenheit and snow rips past horizontally, and I’m not listening to anything being said on the other end; ready to sell it all, save my 8-weight and a duffle bag, just to be back at Andros South Lodge again, throwing for bones instead of warily watching the snow.
Why bother traveling all the way to South Andros? Well, first there’s the obvious—the alternative in the West (November through April) probably means wearing a ridiculous amount of clothing while you strain to see a size 24 midge in a snowstorm. Second, South Andros doesn’t just have bonefishing—the place offers some of the most off-the-hook bonefishing on the planet, with desirable numbers and sizes of fish. I could tell you about the day I honestly lost count of how many bonefish I caught, or several opportunities I had over the course of a week to throw at double-digit bones (which I consistently blew), but you get the idea. Add to this an opportunity for other great fly species, such as barracuda, snapper, shark and the occasional permit, coupled with a vast amount of terrain to explore, and there is plenty to occupy an adventurous angler.
There are several good lodges on South Andros, and quiet, rural island living is the name of the game, far from the bustle of Nassau. If you’re looking for nightlife, you’ll likely have to create it. To do just that, bury your feet in the sand, grab a mouthful of conch fritter and a cold Kalik, and reminisce about that silver ghost that almost spooled you earlier in the day.
Bruce Smithammer is the outfitting manager for Jack Dennis Sports, in Jackson, Wyoming. When not working, he can be found throwing flies at anything that swims, chasing a hell-bent shorthair pointer around the West, flinging arrows at ungulates, and otherwise contemplating the vicissitudes of the sporting life.
- Where: South Andros Island, Bahamas
- Getting There: Fly to Nassau, Bahamas; fly to Congo Town
- Season: October through May
- Prime Time: October to February for large fish; March to June for numbers
- Guide Service: Andros South Lodge; Bair’s Lodge; Mars Bay Lodge (trips as short as three days)
- Gear: 7- or 8-weight mid-flex rod, or a fast-action rod with aggressive front taper (for loading quickly at close range while turning over the large flies that are preferred at South Andros)
- Leader/Tippet: Hand-tied leader made from Rio Hard Alloy mono—turns over big flies; 10- to 15-pound-test tippet
- Flies: Average fly is big but light, made for large fish in shallow water; tie your own size 2 imitations with bead-chain eyes; bring Veverka’s Mantis Shrimp, Peterson’s Spawning Shrimp, Gotchas with rubber legs
When logic isn’t part of the equation
by Miles Nolte
Fort Smith, Montana—Snow flurries push up the brim of my cap while noses sip in the slick below me. An open-flame propane burner is the only reason I’m capable of manipulating 6X tippet, and if the slushy bulk of my movements causes me to knock over that flame, I’ll probably set the driftboat on fire. That might be worth it; the fishing is that good, and at least I’d have a large and consistent heat source to make it through the midday hatch on Montana’s Bighorn River.
This morning, the radio said it was 10 degrees. My gloves got wet when I landed the first fish of the day and have been of little use since. They are now stif cut-outs of hands, frozen to the casting deck.
My hands are bright pink and feel like they’re stuffed with frozen insulation, but I don’t care. In a state whose worth to the nation is often measured in adipose fins and kyped jaws, the Bighorn has the highest number of trout per mile in all of Montana, and they all seem to be rising right now. Come spring there will be upward of 200 boats running this stretch each day, but now the put-in is refreshingly barren.
I try to make it out here every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year it’s the first weekend in December. My friend, outfitter and guide Paul Garrison, is standing in a run upstream of me swinging minimalist streamers with a two-handed 5-weight rod and getting swatted every two casts or so. As soon as I thaw hands enough to tie on another midge emerger, I’ll go back to picking off those rhythmic risers that seem to be risking frostbitten snouts for size 20s. In the spring midge clusters are hard to beat here, but mid-winter I usually do best on single patterns that hang in the surface film.
With the brown-trout spawning season in full orgiastic swing, anything round and orange drifted most anywhere in the river catches plenty of fish. Aside from being morally questionable, fishing a spawn pattern under a bobber in these conditions is simply not as much fun as other viable options. I’ve spent the whole day casting emergers or swinging switch rods, getting trout to act like piscivorous Mike Tysons chomping at my best imitation of Holyfield’s ear. A small and sparse streamer, without much flash or bright colors, is the key for these low, clear water conditions. The fish are aggressive, and some of them chase just about anything. Still, I throw my old standbys—assemblies of saddle hackle in the #4 to #6 range, brown with just a hint of yellow.
There’s nothing wrong with sitting around a well-heated house in December and January watching football and eating potato skins. Logically it makes no sense to be here, on the water, in a storm, when I could be on the couch or flying south to the Caribbean. But, as you likely know, trout have a way of taking logic out of the equation. That’s part of the allure of fishing the Bighorn in winter —there’s a lack of people willing to brave the elements and, if you decide to sacrifice your hands and risk setting your boat aflame, you’ll have a river and all those thousands of trout nearly to yourself. And look at the bright side: If you get bored catching all those browns and rainbows, or you need some exercise to warm up, just strap on some leather boots and gun down some waterfowl, or tromp through a field kicking up roosters.
Miles Nolte grew up in Hawaii, moved to Bozeman, Montana, then took off to Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed to guide and fish for rainbows and salmon at Alaska West Lodge. From those experiences he penned The Alaska Chronicles, a hardcore and honest look at the guiding life.
- Where: Bighorn River, Fort Smith, Montana
- Getting There: Fly to Billings, Montana and drive through Hardin to Fort Smith
- Season: Year-round
- Prime Time: December, January and February
- Guide Service: Bighorn Fly & Tackle; Forrester’s Bighorn River Lodge
- Cost: About $450 a day for two anglers sharing a boat and guide
- Gear: Single-hand and switch rods in the 4- and 5-weight range
- Leader/Tippet: 5X or 6X tippet when fishing midges; 2X when throwing streamers
Caffeine, Adderall and sippers on the bitter Gallatin
by Greg Keeler
When I lived in Natchitoches, Louisiana in the early ’70s, I had no trouble fulfilling my lifelong compulsion to fish near home, and winter was no exception. Because my wife and I lived on a bayou of the Cane River, an oxbow of the Red that stretched through town, all I had to do was put on a jacket, walk to the backyard, untie my johnboat from its moorings, row a few yards out and start fishing. Between the days of winter rain and drizzle, there were always a few clear spells when I could flip a Flea-Fly into the submerged trees behind our house for fat crappie and bluegill, or tie up a long skinny thing with muskrat and lead wrap, row out to the main body of the Cane, and cast for big bass along the docks and lawns that line the river all the way downtown to the wrought-iron balconies where Washington turns into Jefferson Street.
There was a leisurely pace to that type of winter fishing that I miss after spending the past 35 years in Bozeman, Montana. In the summer, it’s still easy for me to fish in town, since Bozeman Creek with its fat little rainbows and brookies is a brief stroll from my house, but winters are another story. If there’s moving water in the creek, it’s often just a little black line zigzagging through ice shelves. In that case, I have to drive (too cold and lazy to walk) a half a mile or so to where the creek joins the East Gallatin River and forms open water down from the Stock Yard Café at the edge of town. Then, sheathed in knee socks, thermals and waders, I’ll slog through the slush till I find some pigs popping in a patch of foam peppered with the bodies of spent midges.
This type of fishing doesn’t take any casting skill. Winter usually makes the pigs that hang out under these patches as numb, lethargic and stupid as I am. That’s why we both gravitate to the foam—they for the midge milkshake and I for, well, them.
They can’t see me through the foam, so I can stumble right up to them, pinch on a lump of brass-head soft-weight above a short tippet, and drop a Copper John on their heads. They’re always delighted to see something a little bigger and more gulpworthy than a midge descending through their foam ceiling, and even after the first trout gets jerked out of there, the others stick around for more, because, hey, it’s foam.
Of course, there are times when I’ve had a little too much coffee or my Adderall kicks in more than expected and I’ll actually don studded tires and head out to any one of the blue-ribbon foam patches within a half an hour of Bozeman. In Livingston, the Yellowstone River usually has a couple of doozies down from the Ninth Street Bridge or Mayor’s Landing, replete with a few pigs hoovering the foam among the ubiquitous choagies (that’s whitefish to the layman). The Gallatin River, just upstream from its confluence with the Missouri near Trident, frequently has a late-winter patch the size of a king-size comforter, and it’s often seasoned with the corpses of midges and early Baetis hatches, and aboil with pigs.
The Madison River below Norris Bridge is usually a little warmer and (relatively) ice-free, owing to the warming effect of the Ennis dam, so the foam fishing is good, but you generally have to float or wade to where it accumulates before the irrigation outlets because so much of the shoreline has been bought up by snarling, territorial newcomers.
Though there’s enough foam on the Missouri River between Toston and Toston Dam to serve up a trillion Tricos to the belugas hiding under it, I seldom make that trip because I’m too lazy for the 60-minute drive from Bozo, even on a caffeine buzz.
I still miss the winters of temperate johnboat fishing on my Natchitoches bayou, but I’m positive that if I moved back down there, I’d equally miss wading the slush of Bozeman and its environs for my foam-patch pigs.
Greg Keeler has published two memoirs, Waltzing With the Captain: Remembering Richard Brautigan and Trash Fish: a Life. He has published seven poetry collections and illustrated Jim Harrison’s chapbook, Livingston Suite.
- Where: Bozeman, Montana
- Getting There: A half an hour or so in any direction
- Fishing Season: Year-round on most rivers
- Peak Fishing: February through early March
- Guides: Don’t really need one (besides, many of them start shuddering when you mention foam patches)
- Gear: A 5-weight rod will do—unless you want to hoist trout straight up out of the foam to avoid disturbing the others, in which case, I’d recommend an eight-foot piece of rebar
- Flies: Anything between size 12 and 18 that you can sink through foam. Go-to patterns include Brassies, Copper Johns, Princes, Pheasant Tails, Avatars, Hare’s Ears and Tellicos.
Sand, Surf and Sierra mackerel
Fish when it’s flat, surf when it’s blown
by Will Rice
SAYULITA, MEXICO—The inshore fishery that lies between Sayulita and Punta Mita, Mexico is rich and diverse. Large schools of bonito, pompano, jack crevalle, sierra mackerel, roosterfish, mahi-mahi and sailfish swim the inshore waters at different times of the year. Fortunately, most of the area’s commercial fishermen and traditional gear anglers head straight for blue water, which is located 20 to 30 miles offshore, to find their fish; fly fishers looking for some elbow room and a winter respite find schools of these big fish closer to shore and they often watch their backing disappear into the drink. But more on that later.
Sayulita is a sleepy surf town and tourist destination in the Mexican state of Nayarit, which is located just 50 miles north of Puerto Vallarta. Surrounded by a rugged and mountainous jungle, the village’s primary economy once was fishing—this rapidly gave way to tourism over the past decade and now Sayulita is recognized for many things. A great surf break that caters to beginners as well as advanced wave riders? Yes. A laid-back beach town with great food and off-the-beaten-path rustic vibe? Absolutely. Whale, turtle and dolphin watching? Check. Fly-fishing? Not really.
And here’s why: Make no mistake, the same large break that makes Sayulita so popular with the surf crowd often makes fly-fishing a challenge. The coastline that runs north and south is rocky and jagged, and provides very few easy, do-it-yourself fishing opportunities on foot. If the water is calm, anglers find a few sheltered coves where they may cast at schools of jacks feeding on bait close to shore. But I wouldn’t dedicate a trip to this pursuit. Instead, your best bet in Sayulita is to hire a captain on the beach and head out on the water in a panga.
Even this, however, is not a guarantee because the Pacific Ocean is unpredictable and giant swells, plus their accompanying waves and chop, make finding fish on the surface extremely difficult. But here’s the beauty—those are the days you spend on the beach or a surfboard, or sampling the local fare, taking those photos that will drive your winter-bound friends mad.
Other days, however, the conditions are favorable and there’s no better place to be than on the water. Right now I’m recalling a time when my fly landed outside a pod of fish and I stripped quickly. Immediately, a fish peeled from the pack, a green jack I was told, a fish the locals call chile verde. It bumped my fly twice but wouldn’t eat. Besides, it was small. I started to pull my fly away, and just then a large fish crushed it from an opposite direction and in a second my line was clearing off the bow. I didn’t have a chance. A big loop tightened around my right elbow—not good. I straightened my arm and the fly line popped from my elbow and quickly wrapped around my wrist. I heard the guide laugh, and he said something in Spanish I didn’t understand. I’d seen this movie before and it didn’t end well. But, somehow, I managed to pull the fly line away from my skin and, fortunately, the line and the fish were quickly back on the spool.
“We call dem toro jacks. Big bull jacks,” the guide said. I braced my feet against the panga’s bow and let the fish take line. It was all I could do, unless I wanted to surf.
Will Rice is a freelance writer from Denver, Colorado.
- Where: Sayulita, Mexico
- Getting There: 35-minute car ride north of Puerto Vallarta
- Season: Year-round
- Prime Time: February through May for mahi-mahi and other inshore fishes
- Guide Service: Paul “Pablo” Southworth [email protected];
- Cost: $200 USD a day for five hours of fishing, including guide, boat and fuel
- Gear: 8- or 9-weight rod for bonito/pompano/jacks/sierra; 10- or 11-weight for large mahi-mahi and roosterfish
- Leader/Tippet: 50-pound butt section with 20- to 40-pound tippet
- Flies: Standard baitfish imitations, including size 2 green-and-white Clouser Minnows; also surface poppers