The secret season

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— Every year, you can feel it. There comes a week when you just know that winter's back has been broken and Steamboat Springs' secret fishing season approaches.

It's a period when daily high temperatures nudge 50 degrees, but spring runoff will not begin in earnest for perhaps two weeks to a month. During that phase, the Yampa River remains clear and fishable, although the banks are still butt deep in snow.

Skiing will still be good for many weeks. But local anglers know it's time to hit the river before the coffee-colored water of runoff makes it virtually unfishable for much of April and May, and at least half of June. There are big trout waiting to shake their mid-winter lethargy and eat something. There's little time to waste.

Entering its third year of catch-and-release regulations, and bolstered by an infusion of really big fish planted by private individuals, the Yampa, where it flows through the Steamboat city limits, is enjoying a renaissance. Where once Colorado Division of Wildlife electro-shocking turned up only a handful of trout in downtown Steamboat, there are some brown trout in excess of 20 inches and some brutish rainbows that will break your leader with one savage shake of their heads.

That doesn't mean late winter fishing in Steamboat is a sure thing the behavior of trout remains as much a mystery as ever, and lacking the dependable insect hatches of summer, winter fishing can be even more humbling.

Trout, being cold-blooded creatures, are ruled by water temperature. In winter, when water temperatures dip into the low 40s and upper 30s, the fish move into the deep holes and eddies, where they don't have to expend as much energy resisting the current of the river.

Steve Henderson of Bucking Rainbow Outfitters in Steamboat said anglers who try to find fish in the riffles where they caught fish last summer are looking for trout in all the wrong places.

"You aren't going to catch anything in the riffles," Henderson said. "Look for slower, deeper water."

Henderson's colleague, John Duty, said the biggest mistake novice anglers make in winter fishing is not getting their offering down deep enough in the water. The cold water temperature of winter also means fish aren't willing to move far from their holding positions.

"Your fly should at least be ticking on the bottom," Duty said. In order to get his fly deep enough to reach bottom, Duty often uses a 10-foot leader tippet below a large yarn strike indicator. He also attaches a couple of small split shot to the tippet above the fly.

How do you know if you don't have enough weight on your line?

"If people around you are catching fish, but you're not, it could mean you aren't getting deep enough," Duty said.

Another peculiarity of winter fly-fishing that Duty has noted is that overcast days call for brightly colored fly patterns, and sunny days call for more subdued grays and browns.

"I don't know what to attribute it to," Duty said, but he enjoys more angling success on cloudy days when he uses bright red midge larva, red San Juan worms and egg, or roe clusters. On a sunny day, he does better when he abandons the bright colors for black midges larvae and small dun-colored pheasant tail nymphs.

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