Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Thoughts on Winter Fly Fishing


Norfork Dam (Arkansas) On a Chilly Winter's Day

Many fisherman, even those who write about their adventures, are often reluctant to disclose their favorite spot, for fear of creating a stampede of competitors and fishing out the hole.  For me, my Home Waters are the entire White River system in Arkansas and Missouri.  There are plenty of places that, on a given day, might be my favorite spot.  The tip I hesitate to give away is not location, but timing.  I like the winter.  Anytime after the spawn is finished is fair game to me.  So, in a spirit of furthering our sport, I offer my thoughts on winter fishing.


In the Ozarks, winter is seldom persistent, so that even the deep winter of late December and early January may be punctuated by warmer, manageable days, and often, a few days in February are almost spring-like.  Picturesque, snow covered banks, and problems with ice in the guides are not common here, but certainly beautiful on select occasions.  Brisk mornings requiring a jacket are more the rule.  



It goes without saying that fishing pressure is down during the winter months, but that’s not the only advantage.  Moderate days result in lower electricity demand, and along with less rain, can mean greatly diminished generation schedules, providing not just lower flows, but long periods of lower flows that actually allow the trout to adapt to a new river.  In my experience, a 3-4 day period of low flow can produce new fishing conditions, as compared to day to day fluctuations in flow.  As always, take some time to listen and watch and learn how the river - and the trout - are adapting to these conditions.



As with any outdoor activity, if you are uncomfortable, you will not have as much fun.  So it is important to dress properly, and especially when wade fishing, warm and dry need to be at the top of your list.  Good boot socks - I like Browning - will be a good starting point, followed by a layer of insulation beneath your waders of appropriate temperature range.  In winter months, I’ve never been too warm under my waders, but you know your own preferences and can dress accordingly.  Up top, layering is key, I usually start with a fishing shirt, add a sweat shirt, and finish off with a wading jacket of some sort.  Like many of you, I’m trying to break free from decades of a fishing vest, and that usually means a lanyard in warmer weather.  In winter, a wading jacket, featuring lots of pockets, provides an alternative to the traditional vest.


While I believe in a hat - I favor a Tilley - on colder days I generally trade it in for a skull cap.  My favorite is a Columbia model that has “space blanket” material on the inside to reflect heat back onto my head.  Cold head and ears are a bad combination, so make sure you find a good solution to stay warm.  Lots of heat can exit your body through your head, especially if your hair has already left, as is my case.


Glasses are important, and you may want a selection of lenses to help with both bright and cloudy days.  In the unlikely event there is snow on the ground, you may even need mirrored glasses to cope with the glare.  I also strongly prefer sunglasses with “reader inserts” that allow me to see well when working with flies and knots.  Recently I’ve been wearing the shooting glasses from SST with interchangeable lenses.


Finally, consider gloves.  I prefer fingerless gloves, wool or neoprene have both worked well, to keep the bulk of your hands warm and reasonably dry, while allowing your fingertips to help with detail work of handling flies and tying knots.  My favorite trick is to bring along a small towel - golf towels are great because they can generally be clipped on - with which to wipe your hands every time they get wet.  


Fly Selection

At least in the White River system, I find that a handful of flies work consistently well, and I don’t find much reason to experiment.  For winter fishing, I rely on Sow Bugs, Prince Nymphs, and Hare’s Ear Nymphs, drifted.  I will also use Woolly Buggers, especially larger black ones for night fishing.  During the day, medium size Olive Drab works great (again, for me, this is my go-to fly year around) I simply drift them and strip back.  As you move into February, the likelihood that a warm afternoon will produce a hatch increases, so make sure you have a selection of smaller dry flies in the event the opportunity arises.  Blue wing olives (18-22), parachute Adams (16-20) and Elk Hair Caddis (16-18) are all good choices, but don’t hesitate to try something else (or the ever present “this is what I had in my fly box”) as this is how we learn.



Wading lower water levels still requires care.  The unstable rock, occasional deep hole, or extra slippery bottom all call for vigilance.  I’ve begun to consistently use a wading staff (found a nice collapsible one at Bass Pro) and just in general paying more attention to my footing.  While the water temps don’t vary much, air temperature will, and hypothermia is a real issue if you get soaked.  Make sure you have a change of clothes, and a way of getting warm, whether in camp or in your vehicle.  If you fish from a boat, don’t neglect good flotation devices - by that I mean actually wear them - as the threat from swift current is ever present, and the cold adds another element of concern.   Common sense and a little e
xtra care will go a long way to ensuring that your experiences are memorable only in a fishing sense, not a medical attention sense!


So, at the risk of increasing the population on the river, I will encourage you to plan a winter outing this year.  I’m confident you will enjoy learning about your favorite spot at a different time of year.  You might even catch a fish!  Let me know how you fare!


Thursday, April 2, 2020

An Evening Fly Fishing Bennet Spring

Bennett Spring is one of several Missouri trout parks that offer great opportunities to a patient angler, especially during non-peak hours. One May afternoon I was working in the area and had the opportunity to visit Bennett Spring sometime after 5:30 PM. The park officially closes at sundown so my time was limited.  While I was disappointed at not being able to fish into the night,  my favorite time for trout, I was determined to make the most of the time I had.

Preparation is so important.  I get that, I really do.  But on this day, I realized that my felt sole shoes were no longer allowed in Missouri, so I had an excuse to visit the local fly shop.   Luckily, they had some nice new Simms stud soles in my size, as well as a nice Orvis fishing shirt, so that I didn’t have to fish in my button-down dress shirt.   Turns out I also needed a license, and a trout stamp.  And a permit to fish the park.  Only two of those were available at the fly shop, so I also had to make a trip to the commissary in the park to get that permit.  Now it is closer to 6:15 PM, but I am more determined than ever to fish.  Finally having all the gear in hand, and the necessary paperwork, I parked in the spacious lot, noting with pleasure that it was mostly empty, and began rigging my gear.  As I walked toward the water, I noted that the flow coming off the low water dam was forming a nice pool that seemed deeper against the far bank.  There were two anglers down to my right where the stream narrowed, so I waded in closer to the dam, giving them a wide berth, and began to cast, letting the fly drift near the far bank.

As you know by now, I’m going to start with a sow bug or a wooly bugger.  Today i tied on a bead head sow bug, about a 16, and a strike indicator about 2 feet above it.  This is a smaller stream, so the casting was easy and I enjoyed the rhythm of cast, drift, mend, and cast.  I took two small rainbows, one that fought completely underwater, and the other that gave me one nice leap against the pressure of the rod before succumbing.  Neither required the net, and a quick flip of the barbless hook sent them flashing on their way.

 As a warm day gave way to a pleasant evening, I noticed a hatch coming off.  While I drifted the sow bug again, I studied the emergers and thought about fishing a dry.  Certainly didn’t expect this opportunity!  I brought my tackle to hand, looped my rod, and shuffled through my fly box for a dry.  I found a #20 Caddis, and tied it on.  My fellow anglers down stream were regularly catching fish on light tackle, but I wanted the challenge of the dry.  I began casting against the far bank where the pool widened out, a place I had observed numerous trout feeding.  I finally found a spot where I can somewhat realistically drift the fly over an active area under some overhanging brush.  After my first drift, I back cast, and paused for a few minutes to let the water settle, then cast again.  This time, my drift was adequate to fool at least one trout, and the ensuing tie up rewarded me with a nice fish, which I quickly released.  For the next few minutes, I took a fish on one out of three casts, as the feeding frenzy seemed to peak.  Soon enough, I began to lose the light as the sun dropped behind the trees of the far bank and shadows spread.  Even though these were hatchery fish, there was a great satisfaction in bringing them to a dry.  I headed to my car, satisfied and eager for supper.  The experience was complete when I was able to compare notes on Tilley hats with a fellow angler who was also calling it a day. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A Flood of Blessings

This late winter of 2019 the Mid-South is experiencing extensive flooding. In some areas it has been a couple of decades since water was this high.  In other areas, the more recent 2011 flooding is plainly recalled plainly by residents and farmers. Many of you know I’m a weather watcher.  OK, weather geek.  So I might listen to NOAA weather radio a little more than the average person.  There is a litany of flood reports, watches, and warnings these days.  Occasionally you will hear the phrase “unprotected farm land is flooded.”  

It occurs to me that we only associate negative things with flooding, yet the existence of our agricultural economy has the recurring flooding of Ol' Man River and his tributaries to thank.  The deep, alluvial soil that willingly hosts the crop a farmer seeds into it is a result of these cyclical floods.  Don’t get me wrong - I keenly understand the impact on those whose homes, businesses and farms are impacted by floodwater, and on those who are unable to travel or work. But that same flooding is tied to the success of the region.  

Since the Mid-South was “discovered by Europeans” there are two major natural forces that have shaped it:  earthquakes and flooding.  More on the 1811-12 earthquakes another time.  The region has a love hate relationship with flooding and flood control.  In the first third of the twentieth century, including 1912, 1913, and 1927 serious floods made it obvious that a growing population could not permanently settle this region without somehow managing flood waters.

A scene from Marked Tree, Arkansas in 1912/13, looking southeast.
 The former Frisco RR line is just to the right of the photo. From the collection of my
grandmother, Nola Ashby Fleming
Thus, in the 1930s, the Corps of Engineers began to build levees, locks, dams, and other flood control structures designed to manage flood waters and protect homes, businesses, and farms from the worst of the flooding.  Note: In this blog in January I posted a review of two excellent books on the subject of the Mississippi River and flood control, which I commend to you now as excellent resources. 

Gradually, most of the flooding was brought under control, but occasionally (such as 1973 and 2011) things still get out of hand.  Flood control structures are often a two edged sword: pumping stations designed to prevent backwater flooding on tributaries also limit the ability of fish to travel up and down those streams.  As a result, many larger fish no longer inhabit the smaller tributaries.   In the time of logging in the region, late 1800s, rafts of logs and the occasional steamboat plied the White River and the St Francis River. While few tributaries are navigable anymore there are still reminders of those days in the form of high-peaked bridges or lock and dam combinations. More exotic structures, such as the siphons near Marked Tree, Arkansas remain in place to assist in controlling flooding, as they alter the waters of the St Francis and the streams that contribute to its flow.    

The next time you see flooded farm land  remember that the river giveth, and the river taketh away.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Taming Old Man River

Several years ago, I read an excellent book on the epic flooding of the Mississippi River system in the first half of the 20th century: Rising Tide by John M. Barry.  This book looks into multiple facets of addressing the problem of flooding, including hydrologic, engineering, sociological, and political issues that swirled around each time another flood devastated the land.  The 1927 flood was incredible in its scope and destruction, of course, and many other books have been written about it.  At the suggest of a friend, I just finished “Deep’n as it Come” by Pete Daniel.  Daniel looks carefully at the 1927 flood from a personal level, as well as from the perspective of the relief effort, and political response.  There are many eyewitness accounts, as well as an excellent selection of photographs that serve to give some framework to the extent of the damage the flooding caused.  Especially if you live in or near the lower Mississippi River valley, both of these books will help you to understand just how important today’s flood control structures are to the life we lead in this area. Both books are available on Amazon or virtually any of your favorite booksellers.  Highly recommended.  

This photo is of Marked Tree, Arkansas (my home town) from the 1927 flood, looking down Frisco Street towards town. The RR tracks are on your right. The white house in the foreground is the "Brigance" house, and the garage further back is Burton's. In  1927, Frisco street was still considered part of the Ozark Trail.  From my Grandmother Nola Fleming's collection.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Right Gear: A Shirt for Your Activities

I’m a sucker for technical shirts.  You know what I mean, the ones made for fishing, with all sorts of pockets and gadgets.  I need that rod loop, those big pockets, and preferably an additional hidden pocket to keep everything secure.

I wear such a shirt every day that I’m not in a client’s office or speaking to a group of bankers.  Long sleeve, or short sleeve, depending on the season.  They are great around the house . . . I always have a project going, and need a pocket for those screws I just took out of the back of that appliance.  A proper shirt will help me with organization . . . I’m always awash in a sea of LSP’s (little slips of paper).  I can put notes to myself in one pocket, receipts from the other, then empty my shirt onto my desk and get organized!  And Dad always needs a place to “hold this” so I try to never disappoint.

Such shirts are perfect for travel, too.  A place for my cell phone, tickets (if I have paper ones,) ear buds, a phone charger, and more LSP’s related to my travel.  I seem to accumulate things.  I also do a lot of “catch up” reading on the plane, so I’m often tearing out articles or entire pages of ideas I want to keep.  Need pockets for those.  

And of course, the intended use . . . in the field.  Especially fishing, when I needs lots of places to keep things.  A fly box, a camera, assorted handy items, even a spare reel, depending on how light I am traveling that particular day.  Full cut arms for casting or wingshooting, and ventilation.

Recently, a new shirt manufacturer popped up in my social media feed, and I decided to try one of their shirts . . . I ordered the sea foam green as that is not a color I currently have.  The shirt came, and I immediately liked it.  The material is light weight, comfortable, and includes sun protection.  There are two large chest pockets, plus a zippered pocket behind the left one.  And a sturdy rod loop.

I chose this shirt for a recent float on the White River, along the Beaver Dam tailwater.  The shoulder/sleeve area provides a full range of motion.  The shirt looks great, and feels even better.  I found the pockets easy to get into, yet I felt that my cell phone was secure until I intentionally reached for it.  The zippered pocket is also solid, with a  top down action that keeps things from falling out.

When you are looking for your next field shirt, please give Habit Outdoors a try.  You can find them on the web at www.habitoutdoors.com 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

F. A. Ashby - Pioneering Outdoorsman

Note:  This is transcribed from a (Memphis) Commercial Appeal article from early 1930s.  The clippings I have do not have a year, although the date was August 26.  So based on F.A.'s age I'm going to guess 1931 or 32. I have maintained the language and sub headings as much as possible from the original article.  

F. A. is my paternal Great Grandfather.  In his lineage, which I've been able to trace back to London in the 1500s, are Captain Thomas Ashby (my 8th Great Grandfather) who was a revolutionary war hero, and was given land near Winchester, Virginia for his service (the area is still called Ashby's Gap today.)  One of his sons, Robert Ashby rode with Washington during that war, as well.  Finally, Turner Ashby a great great uncle of F.A. served under Stonewall Jackson in the War of Northern Aggression.  But F.A. was vitally important to the founding of my home town, Marked Tree, Arkansas, and that is what this story is about.  He came to the area in 1888.  Today, my Aunt, who is the widow of my father's brother, is the only one from the Ashby/Fleming family left in Marked Tree.    The clippings I have are too weak in quality for the picture to show up, so I'm including a formal photo I have of F. A. -

River Still Becons Veteran Arkansas Woodsman, Now 76

“F.A. Ashby, who began logging career at the age of 10, never had any trouble because he let ‘em know who was boss”

Written by Esther Bindursky, Special to the Commercial Appeal

Article Begins:

Marked Tree, Ar. Aug 26

The unfathomable lure of the river - and after 65 years of work running logs and around timber camps. F. A. Ashby, 76, veteran woodsman of Marked Tree, finds it still enthralling.  He has just rounded out 35 years for Chapman-Dewey, as river foreman.

“I never had any trouble with ‘timber-jacks’ on the river; I just always let them know first who was boss,” and his blue eyes twinkled.

Ashby began his logging career at the age of 10 around Dewitt, MO; at the age when most lads were still being coddled, Ashby was running to the logging camps with his father, “laying chains” for the loggers.

“It was many a time that Jessie or Frank James would ride up to our home in Carroll County, Missouri.  They lived only a short distance from us.  They would stop for a glass of water, chat a while, and be on their way.  Their reputation wasn’t so bad then.  I remember the last time I saw them and Tom Ford.  I was in the woods and heard some galloping horses.  Pretty soon they came into view.  There were three men on horseback, Jessie and Frank James, and Tom Ford.  They plunged their horses into the Missouri River and swam across, quickly disappearing into the woods.”

His love for river work has led him into many strange tracts of land.  In 1885, he “run” logs to Jefferson City for Sullivan and Hays.  Later he worked for Chapman and Dewey as its foreman in Missouri, running logs down the Missouri River, east of Kansas City, a distance of three hundred miles to Horse Creek, on the edge of Broadway, into St. Louis.  For a while he succumbed to the lure of the huge Washington forests, and trekked out to Seattle to run logs down the Snohomish River, but soon “chucked” it and turned eastward again, arriving in Marked Tree about 1888.

Down in Ashby Grove on the outskirts of Marked Tree, where the Little River with its inveigling crooks and bends flows to the left, and the turbulent St. Francis runs to the right, his home sits with a “stones throw” of the two rivers. (local folks will recognize this area as Pumpkin Bend, alongside and across the highway from the old Federal Compress)

Each year the folks around Marked Tree look forward to Ashby’s picnic.  On little tables piled high with fried fish, delectable corn pones, onions, black coffee and the various garnishments to go well with “such eatin’” his friends revel. Nearly 300 folks attended last summer, when he and Mrs. Ashby celebrated their golden wedding anniversary.  

His reputation as an expert hunter has led many a sportsman to his door for directions to the right place to kill ducks and geese, the right nook to catch the elusive bass and crappie.

In a little pen on the bank of the St. Francis he has a bunch of wild geese that he is raising for decoys.  A cabin motor boat that he built himself is moored to the landing on the St. Francis, was dexterously set adrift and a ride up and down the St. Francis revealed his skill as a pilot.

Past houseboats and fishermen shacks he sped, callout out a cheery greeting to everyone “Hi! Mr. Ashby! How’s the olde river, is she falling? Fish biting pretty good this morning, you better try your luck!” shouted friends along the river.

"A feller gets to know a lot of people after so many years of this kind of work.  I’ve come in contact with all kinds of them, from the lowest greaser, to the highest type timber man, but they’re all alike nearly in one respect, treat ‘em square and nine times out of out ten they’ll play square.”

"The tightest spot I ever got into was on Right Hand Chute one day.  I heard about a feller stealing our timber up there.  I got in my boat and went up there, but found out I had left my gun and didn’t’ even have a pocket knife with me.  I crept up to where I heard the chopping and laid in wait.”  

"Pretty soon I spoke up: you’re on the wrong side of the line, bud, in your chopping, but Chapman-Dewey appreciates the work you’ve done for them; you’ve done quite a nice little job.  Now, if you’ll just drop that ax and be on your way, we’ll call it a day”

He marched away with his hands up.

Friday, April 27, 2018

A Little Light Reading to Prepare you for the Season

By and large, southern fly fishers are tailwater fishers.  In a region with few spring fed streams, and virtually no glacier or snow melt, it takes a dam to create water conditions that help trout to thrive.  Hydroelectric power has been a boon to many areas, providing abundant and inexpensive power, while producing cold, clear, oxygenated water with many food sources.  Hard to believe they weren’t built solely for the benefit of we trout bums.

I wanted to share two books with you that will increase your pleasure of fishing tailwaters in general, and southern tailwaters in particular.   The first is “Ozark Trout Tales” by Steve Wright.  I’ve read this one over and over, having originally stumbled on an autographed copy at Dale Fulton’s Blue Ribbon Fly Shop near Mountain Home, Arkansas.  Wright’s book, written in a flowing, easy to read style, sets the stage by providing a history of fishing on the White River System,  and discussing the impact of the dams built for hydroelectric power.  Starting with Beaver (one of my favorite tailwaters) and continuing downstream through Table Rock, Bull Shoals, North Fork, and finally the Little Red, the author takes us on a survey of key spots for trout fishing in the Ozarks.

More than a book for your favorite reading chair, Wright has given us a stream side companion, a book that will spend as much time in your vehicle as on your coffee table.  Each destination is treated with care, including river access details, local history, and attractions.  While purists (guilty) may recoil at the idea of fishing with worms or live sculpin, these are included, as are key fly patterns for each area.  This book is a treasure for the beginner and seasoned Ozark angler, alike.

Wright’s eye for unique individuals in the region adds a special flavor to the book with insights into fishing methods, the character of the river, and the impact on the region of these “man-made” trout streams.  An example is Charlie Vincent, a transplant from the high plains of western Kansas, who has perfected the art of luring big trout with nightcrawler in the White River near Branson, Missouri.

 If you think you know everything about trout fishing in the Ozarks, this book will gently prove you wrong, while encouraging you to revisit favorite spots and try new ones.  While the book is, sadly, out of print, an online search revealed several sources of used copies in good condition.

A newer book, “50 Best Tailwaters to Fly Fish” seeks to provide national coverage of tailwater fishing opportunities, and (you’ve been warned) may create serious wanderlust, mapping, and planning activities for the more adventuresome.  Seriously, the book is a virtual national compendium of tail water fishing opportunities, and provides great detail for each fishery it covers, from fishing methods to guides to lodging and food.  Generally written by locals, and curated by Terry and Wendy Gunn, this book takes a bit of a chance with such a wide range of streams, and pulls it off well.

Fittingly, a section on our beloved south is included, with specific coverage of Ozark streams including the North Fork, White, and Little Red.  On those streams in particular I was able to vouch for the integrity of the included material.  I also noted that the section on Tennessee’s Caney Fork River was well done, including information about access to the river from the Interstate 40 westbound rest area near Lebanon.  

“50 Best” is a great way to become acquainted with great fishing opportunities across our great land, and is an excellent resource for both travelers who look for local fishing opportunities, and those seeking to plan an expedition solely for fishing one or more of these great locations.  I’ve already dog-eared page 7, on the San Juan River in New Mexico.  Stay tuned. 

I hope you will find time to enjoy one or both of these books on a rainy or snowy day, and then take them afield with you.  Tight Lines!