Blue-Winged is the New Black

Hardcore dry fly junkies know the sure signs of blue-winged weather

By Rob Breeding

It’s winter all over. The East Coast will be shoveling snow for weeks to come. Fortunately, out West, it’s been my kind of winter: a blue-winged olive winter.

Hardcore dry fly junkies know the sure signs of blue-winged weather: canceled ice-fishing and pond hockey tournaments due to spongy, dangerous surfaces.

It’s been mostly warm in the Northern Rockies, though the most recent heat wave has abated and it was just 7 degrees when I walked to work this morning. But a few weeks ago — Super Bowl Sunday to be exact — it was silly warm. So I set out for the perfect pre-game festivities with a fly rod rigged to fish dry flies in hand.

There’s a nice hole on a nearby tailwater that is destination No. 1 when I think the winter blue-winged olive hatch might be on. It’s a big eddy really, where the river recirculates under a steep cliff. It can be a tricky hole to fish as water drops off sharply from the bank, so wading is out. And like any eddy, that water under that cliff swirls in every direction.

When it warms up into the ‘50s as it did before the big game, trout line up in the seam where the main river current slides up against the eddy. The lineup of heads is tantalizingly close, but those fish are like fool’s gold. On first glance you’re convinced that’s the line to fish, but you quickly learn those trout may be out of reach even if they’re rising less than 30 feet from the bank.

The problem is of course the eddy. The trout are holding in slower water of the seam, watching the blue-winged olives float by in the faster water of the main current. Drop your fly where the fish are rising and the your leader falls on the slack water of the eddy. The result: your fly drags as soon as it hits the water.

Fortunately the skating fly occasionally draws a reaction strike from a trout that misinterprets the unnatural action as maybe a dun set to break from the surface film and fly off. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a blue-wing natural behave like this — the bugs almost always dead drift in the current. Like teenage humans, however, trout occasionally make bad choices.

The other option is to mend, but a conventional up or downstream mend won’t do. To get a drag free float at the cliff eddy you need to introduce some serious slack into your line, and this is best accomplished with the wiggle cast.

To wiggle cast you lengthen your line while false casting until you’ve got enough line in the air to reach well beyond your target, then wiggle your rod tip side to side as your line straightens out on the presentation cast. This throws wild S-curves in your line and leader and this will give you just enough slack to get a drag-free drift of a few feet. Sometimes that’s all you need.

The wiggle cast can be a little random. Sometimes I wiggle just enough slack into the line so the fly falls just where I want it. But just as often the wiggles don’t pick up enough of the extra line and my fly lands long, or, my S-curves are too big and the fly doesn’t reach the trout. Even if just one in 10 casts falls where I intend that’s still a chance I wouldn’t have with a conventional cast.

The best way to fish that seam is from the other side, in a boat, but I don’t float much in the winter. The weather is too fickle.

The lure of rising trout in winter is such that I’ve abandoned my plans to streamer fish. In a more normal winter that would be a far more effective technique than dries. I’ve got a new line with 30-foot sinking tip designed to keep streamers deep as you strip them across the current, but I haven’t bothered to load it on a reel.

Blue-winged olives have become the new normal this winter