After 40 combined years of angling, local guides Freddy Santen and Chip Swanson hardly feel the Rocky Mountain chill when the fishing is good.
“I just like being out on the rivers,” said Santen, a longtime local and veteran fly-fishing guide of 18 years, before leading a family of four for a winter tour on the Blue River. “I feel good and comfortable in those areas. It’s hard to get in trouble out there, and in this day and age it’s getting harder and harder to get away from people.”
That’s not to say winter angling is the same as casting on a gorgeous autumn morning. Many of the same tenets apply — fly selection is key, waders are a must, technique can make or break your day — but, like everything else in Summit County, winter is a different beast.
On a crisp bluebird morning just before Christmas Day, Santen and Swanson led their group of four beginner anglers on an introductory excursion to the Lake Dillon tailwaters, found in the shadow of Dillon Dam on the mighty Blue River. It’s hardly a hotspot come June and July — the fishing holes just north of Silverthorne are more promising in warm weather — but it has one thing many rivers simply don’t after a stretch of single-digit temperatures: moving water. And with moving water comes hungry fish.
“It comes down to the equation of calories spent versus calories earned,” Swanson said as the group got fitted for waders at Breckenridge Outfitters off of Main Street Breckenridge. “Fish aren’t smart exactly, but they have that natural sense that the food source isn’t big enough to move for it.”
In that way, alpine fish like trout are a bit like humans — rather than tempt exhaustion chasing food, they’ll wait until a tasty meal comes to them. It was the first lesson of the day for the Rawls family from tiny Caughman, Texas, where bass, perch and catfish are the quarry for spin-casting. Presentation is paramount for winter fly-fishing, and that calls for a confident midge pattern on the Dillon Dam tailwaters.
“You don’t want to beat up the water like you sometimes can get away with in summer,” Swanson said as the Rawls geared up and loaded into a car for the trip north to Silverthorne. “The hands-down thing is that in winter, the fish are more spooky. They’re in winter mode, they’re conserving energy, and that’s because of the cold water with limited food.”
ON THE CHILLY BLUE
Like Santen, Swanson has been angling for close to 20 years. This season marks only his second as a guide, but half of the battle is knowing the ins and outs of local fish: what they eat, where they hide, how they move, when they’re active. The two know that timing is crucial, and from December through April fish are more likely to bask in the warm daytime sun — the opposite of early morning and late afternoon angling in summer.
“A lot of people don’t realize we fish every day,” Santen said. “We might not fish all day long, but we’ll be out there.”
When the group pulled up below the dam, the guides gave the Rawls family a crash course on basic fly techniques, including how to present the lures and how to approach the water. They had taken care of the intricacies, like fly selection, before leaving the Breckenridge shop, but they were more than willing to discuss why they chose midges and what kind of knots are best for angling. It’s a world apart from spin-casting, and 14-year-old Noah Rawls was up for the challenge.
“I just wanted to try a new type of fishing,” Noah said as Swanson led him through two feet of snow to the riverbank. “This will be totally new.”
But what about the elements? Veterans like Santen compare winter angling to skiing: dress warm, layer up and aim for bluebird days, when the sun is high and warm, like Mother Nature’s space heater.
“We dress up like we’re going skiing,” Santen said. “We don’t really get in the river much this time of year because it is so low and clear. If I can set up in the sun — keep it facing me — that’s the best.”
It’s also the best for luring spooky fish. As the group spread out along the banks, the guides talked about “hiding” from the fish, and it struck a chord. The water was clear and crisp and cold, almost glasslike, and it was easy to spot slow, lethargic fish resting behind rocks and in pools. That also meant it was easy for the fish to spot slow, bundled-up anglers, and so the guides recommended moving upstream and out of sight as the day waned on.
The group was joined by a handful of fellow anglers enjoying the sun, but winter fly-fishing is often more secluded and serene, Santen said. It’s usually like a pristine powder day at your favorite secret spot — bliss.
“As guides, we do this year-round because fishing is available to us all year,” Santen said. “It’s not nearly as crowded as the summer. You’ll get some days when the weather is nasty, but it’s a little like skiing. Those are the days when you’re alone.”