Stream fishing seems like a summer activity. It goes along with camping, hiking and campfires. But it doesn’t have to be reserved for the year’s warmest months. You can fish open, flowing water in the winter and early spring: you just have to take a second look at Wyoming’s reservoirs.
Below each dam is a flowing river called a tail water. And in the winter when everywhere else is closed up with ice and slush, tail waters run clear and just above freezing.
“It’s a different scene,” said Trent Tatum, co-owner of The Reef Fly Shop and the North Platte Lodge near Alcova. “The landscape is pretty different in the winter, and it’s pretty low key.”
When cold weather hits, only the tops of reservoirs freeze. Water released from the bottom stays a steady 34 to 38 degrees, Tatum said, which generally prevents ice and slush from forming. The tail waters are often full of fish and relatively free of anglers not willing to brave the cold.
Trout living below the dams still feed in the winter. On a sunny day they’ll even hit dry flies.
“The fishing can be incredible,” Tatum said. “Obviously it can be tough, but there are honestly days in the winter time that can rival any other time of the year.”
Not all of Wyoming’s reservoirs create notable tail waters, so here are six of Wyoming’s most popular ones with the flies that experts say are working best.
Lower Shoshone River
Reservoir: Buffalo Bill, near Cody
Assets: The fishing is consistent most days. The river is easy to read and flows through town, said Tim Wade, owner of North Fork Anglers in Cody. Expect dry flies on warm days, nymphs and streamers also work.
Fish: Rainbow, brown, cutthroat and cutbow trout
Before you go: Wading access is good from the bottom of the dam through town. If you float, be careful, it’s a technical river.
Top flies: Try an orange blossom streamer, which mimics a minnow appealing to some of the river’s bigger trout. During the dry-fly hatches the river is known for, try throwing a blue-winged olive pattern such as a parachute Adams.
Reservoir: Fontenelle, south of Big Piney
Assets: Big fish. The Green River below Fontenelle Reservoir isn’t as prolific a fishery as others in the state, but the fish it grows are big, up to 5 and 6 pounds.
Fish: Brown, rainbow and Snake River cutthroat trout
Before you go: In the winter, fish between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the weather is warmest. Prepare for wind.
Top flies: Try using a natural or olive-colored sculpin that resembles one of the bait fish found in the Green River. Also try a San Juan worm.
Big Horn River
Reservoir: Bighorn Lake, east of Cody
Assets: Expect high numbers of fish in this tail water. Hatches are consistent and fishing should be good nearly every day.
Fish: Rainbow and brown trout
Before you go: You’ll need a Montana fishing license. The reservoir is in Wyoming, but the tail water is over the border in Montana below Yellowtail Dam. Try the Afterbay or Three-Mile access points and don’t forget to buy a parking pass.
Top flies: Try using the always-popular brown, olive or black woolly bugger to go for the bigger fish, or sow bug to imitate small bugs floating in the river.
Reservoir: Jackson Lake, below the dam release
Assets: Jackson Lake is natural, but a dam holds back an additional 30 feet of water that creates a short tail-water effect in the Snake River. If you’re in the Jackson area and eager for winter fly fishing, this can be a good bet especially on warm days
Fish: Snake River cutthroat trout
Before you go: Plan to fish on or near the surface of the river on warmer days.
Top flies: In the winter, cutthroat in this section of the Snake respond best to hatches of flies. Try using a mayfly nymph or a stillborn midge emerger.
Reservoir: Boysen Reservoir, near Shoshoni
Assets: The fish are spunky and crowds slim on this tail water.
Fish: Brown and rainbow trout, both big and plentiful.
Before you go: Between Boysen Reservoir and the Wind River Canyon is public land. Once you enter the canyon, unless you are an enrolled member of the Eastern Shoshone or Northern Arapaho tribes, you need a Wind River Indian Reservation fishing license. The cost is $25 per day for residents, $55 per week or $85 per year.
Top flies: Try using a Coffman’s sparkle minnow or pine squirrel leech, both meant to imitate the bait fish and leeches trout are biting.
North Platte River
Reservoir: Gray Reef Reservoir, near Alcova
Assets: The North Platte River offers several tail waters, but the Gray Reef section below Gray Reef Reservoir provides the easiest access and has slightly more moderate temperatures. Fish are abundant.
Fish: Rainbow and brown trout
Before you go: A drift boat works best in the winter when fish pool in deeper waters. Fish bug hatches in the heat of the day.
Top flies: Try a white bow river bugger. The pattern works on trout in many streams, and white is effective on the North Platte right now. A tail water tiny works well imitating nymphs.